Disagreements between husbands and wives happen no matter how much they love each other, and this isn’t necessarily bad. Conflict is normal in daily life, even for happily married couples. It happens when two very different people grow closer to each other and notice that they have different priorities, beliefs, habits and values.
As the English humorist, novelist and playwright A P Herbert once said, “The concept of two people living together for 25 years without a serious dispute suggests a lack of spirit only to be admired in sheep.”
But when your differences threaten your closeness, you have a choice. You can fight about them bitterly and hurt each other, or you can talk about them in constructive ways, learn more about what’s important to each other and find creative solutions that you both enjoy. The following are some such solutions for couples (and others) in conflict.
It’s not mine or yours—it’s ours!
Share your problem. When you describe it as “our” problem, you’re both more likely to work on it together.
Focus on one conflict at a time. Bringing up negative past experiences only distracts you from discussing what is important now. So, make life simpler for yourselves by sticking to the topic.
Listen to each other
When arguing, we don’t listen to each other properly. We’re too busy thinking about what we’re going to say next or we’re too angry and upset to hear what the other person has to say.
Good listening can prevent arguments from escalating out of control. Try listening to your partner as they make one point at a time. Then repeat back what your partner said, simply and warmly, to verify that you heard correctly: “So you’re saying . . .; did I get that right?”
Let your partner clarify anything that you didn’t quite catch.
Swap roles so that you each have a chance to speak and be heard properly. Repeat this process, one point at a time, till you’ve heard and understood what you both have to say about the issue. This may feel strange at first, but it will also feel good to know that you’ve been heard.
Never say never—always
The phrases “You never . . .” and “You always . . .” are virtually guaranteed to make a conflict worse because your partner will always disagree with you!
Rather, try saying something such as, “Help me to understand why you find it difficult to do such and such.” Your partner is much more likely to respond positively and it’s really useful to hear their side of the story.
There are plenty of land mines in conflict territory! Here are three dangers to watch out for:
- Blame: Avoid blaming each other for the problem. It pushes your partner further into hurt, shame and distress and makes it harder to work things out.
- Walking away: If you need some space to think, don’t just walk out without saying when you’ll come back. This can leave your partner feeling frightened or angry. Say you need some time to think about things properly and agree on a good time to talk later.
- Scorn: Avoid attacking each other’s character. Rude and disrespectful words hurt and wound deeply and stay in our memories for a long time. Imagine you’re disagreeing with your boss instead of your partner, and you’ll probably find yourself saying things in a different way.
Write it down
Each of you take a large sheet of paper and divide it into nine numbered rectangles. Label them like this:
- I am glad we’re discussing this because . . .
- This concern is important to me because . . .
- When I was a child, my family managed these concerns by . . .
- The emotions I feel when I think about this concern are . . .
- The concern we agree to explore is . . . (Fill in this space first.)
- My past experiences with this kind of concern are . . .
- From my perspective, this concern is affecting our relationship by . . .
- Some ideas about how we can work together to solve our problem are . . .
- Something else it would be helpful for you to know is . . .
Write in as many spaces as possible, swap papers and read each other’s answers. Write any questions on sticky notes and add them to the page for your partner to answer.
This helps you to get your important points across clearly and simply without having to argue and fight about them.
What’s the “big question”?
Sue Johnson, a leading couple’s therapist who’s been studying couples for more than 25 years, suggests that behind each couple’s major conflict there are likely to be three “big questions”:
1. Do you love me?
Do you care deeply about me and what I am experiencing right now? If your partner needs to know that you care, try listening to their feelings and showing that you understand them. Find out what would help your partner to feel really loved and then do it. Be thoughtful, kind, and considerate and express how much you love your partner and why he or she is so special to you. Do something amazing to show your love.
2. Are you there when I need help or when I’m in distress or struggling?
If your partner needs extra support, notice when they might be struggling and go out of your way to offer your help.
3. Will you ever leave me or abandon me?
If your partner is worried that you might walk out on the relationship, however irrational that may seem, reassure them of your love and commitment. Your partner needs to know that whatever happens, you’ll stay by their side.
Ultimately no one really ever wins an argument. The winner loses the trust and respect of the loser. The loser loses hope. And sometimes the relationship is lost forever.
By working toward a mutually beneficial solution, you’re more likely to feel respected, understood and positive about each other. You may have to be flexible and you may not get exactly what you hoped for. But it’s better than destroying your relationship.
Once you’ve found a possible solution, try it for a week. See if it helps and adjust it, or try something else if it doesn’t work.
Kiss it better quickly
It is important to apologise after a big argument. You can say you’re sorry. You can write a note or text message, give flowers or small gifts, hug and comfort each other or show you’re trying to do better. Whatever you do, it’s very important to “kiss and make up” as soon as possible and reassure your partner that you still love them.
Questions before you argue
- Why is this issue bothering me so much?
- Am I tired, hungry or full of strong feelings, and would it be better to sleep, eat or go for a walk and calm down before we start to talk?
- What values and personal beliefs do I have that are being challenged?
- How important is this issue? Will it matter in a year’s time? Is this battle worth the damage it might do to our relationship?
- If I were in my partner’s shoes, what would I be most concerned about?
- If I changed my behaviour in some way, what positive difference might it make to the situation?
- How can I explain my concerns in a positive and caring way so that my partner feels happy to help me?
Try these strategies the next time an argument threatens your relationship. They’ll help you both to come out on the winning side!
Karen Holford is a family therapist with a background in occupational therapy and developmental psychology. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished here with permission.