May 2007: Issue #005
Welcome to Marriage Matters, an ezine devoted to helping individuals and couples prepare for, enhance or revitalize their marriage.
In this Issue:
Tips for Resolving Conflict
Marriage Fitness with Mort Fertel:
How Do You Know if Your Marriage Will Survive?
Making Requests Instead of Demands
Also in this Issue:
Forward to A Friend
Tips for Resolving Conflict
by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.
There are many ways of viewing conflict in relationships. For some, the thought of conflict evokes anxiety and apprehension. Those who feel this way about conflict often avoid confrontations and problems, preferring to keep the peace rather than stir up contention. In other marriages, couples see conflict as a normal part of life and relationships, but one that has to be managed carefully. For other couples, conflict becomes chronic and out-of-control.
Fortunately, it is not how much conflict there is in our relationships that really matters, but rather how conflicts are resolved or dealt with that is important.
I think most people would agree that resolving conflict is challenging, especially when under stress or when you already feel distant from each other in your marriage. But there are skills that couples can learn to help them work through conflict in constructive ways.
This article is about nine principles that I use in my work with couples to help spouses turn conflict resolution into a positive experience and an opportunity for connection and greater understanding. They are presented here in no particular order, in brief form.
Marriage, unfortunately, does not come with an instruction manual for communicating well under difficult circumstances. It takes a great deal of patience, perseverance and practice, even for people who have had models of healthy relationships in their lives. It is even more challenging for people who have not had such models.
- Principle One: Start with Yourself. The best place to begin resolving a conflict is by accepting full responsibility for your own role in the problem. Instead of analyzing your spouse’s faults, recognize how your own behavior perpetuates the problem and is part of a larger cycle between you and your spouse. How you react to your spouse's behavior is not determined by your spouse's behavior. How you react is up to you. You are the only person responsible for your reactions, attitudes, assumptions, and perceptions. Resolve to change the only thing you can change: your part in the cycle.
- Principle Two: Remember to stop. That is, stop reacting on your first impulse. Stop escalating the argument. Stop perpetuating the negative cycle.
You might recall times when letting your emotions control the situation interfered with resolving conflict peacefully. One way to deal with this is to agree with each other ahead of time to take a time-out if needed so that you can calm down, be more reflective, think things through more clearly and decide what to do to break out of the cycle.
If you need to take a break, let the other person know that you just need time to think things over, that you want to resolve things, and that you will come back to resolve the dispute.
While you are gone, try not to focus on thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. Instead, try to calm down and ask yourself: What is the real issue for me? What am I feeling underneath the anger? What do I need? How can I look at this from my spouse's point of view? What does my spouse need? What was my partner feeling? How am I contributing to the problem? What can I do to make it right? How can I express myself more clearly? Then go back and talk about it calmly with an open mind and a softer heart.
- Principle Three: Assume Goodwill. Remember the distinction between the intent of your spouse's behavior and the effect of that behavior. Even though the impact is negative for you, it doesn’t mean that your spouse’s intent was negative. Try to look for positive intentions underneath your spouse’s behavior.
We are all capable of intentionally saying or doing mean-spirited things to hurt the ones we love, especially in the heat of battle when one or both spouses are feeling flooded and overwhelmed.
But when people are just going about their lives, the initial reasons for conflict are rarely rooted in negative intentions. Most people are usually motivated by positive intentions even if the outcome may be negative for others around them.
Remember to see the goodness in your spouse, rather than vilifying him or her. Try to make a conscious decision to assume that he or she has goodwill toward you, or at least did not intend any ill will.
It is much more likely that your spouse is motivated by positive intentions or goals than by the desire to make life miserable for you or to annoy you on purpose.
This is not to excuse anyone for doing things that are harmful to their relationship. This is about tempering our thoughts and feelings ahead of time so that we are more likely to approach the issue with our spouse in a positive way rather than a negative way.
- Principle Four: Open Space. You might be convinced that your perspective is the correct one. You may feel frustrated that your spouse disagrees with you. Or maybe your spouse has feelings that are hard for you to understand.
In these trying situations you may be sending the message, intentionally or unintentionally, "Things would be so much better if only you would admit that you are wrong and I am right."
It's okay to feel that you are RIGHT. But try to open your mind to see how your spouse is ALSO RIGHT. Open space for your spouse's ideas, needs and feelings to be valid or legitimate.
According to Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana1, this is the essence of love: creating room for someone else's needs and feelings to co-exist alongside your own without insisting that they are wrong and have to change.
Often couples become stuck in gridlock because they value being right more than being a couple, or more than being respectful. This is not easy at times, but search for ways to accept and make room for your spouse's feelings and perspectives. As one client once told me, “It's a lonely world being right.”
A related idea is not to reject everything your spouse says because of the manner it is presented or because you don’t agree with some PART of what your partner said. Don’t confuse the packaging with the message. Focus on the underlying message. If you aren’t sure what the underlying message is, ask. Clarify things before making assumptions or jumping to conclusions.
- Principle Five: Really Listen. Most problems can be solved by truly listening to the other person and WANTING to understand their feelings, thoughts, needs, desires and intentions rather than making assumptions or interpretations about the other person’s “true” motives or intentions.
Many of us think we are listening, when really we are listening to ourselves. That is, we're thinking about what to say next or how to counter the other person's arguments.
As difficult as this sounds, work at setting aside your own story or perspective for a while. You can come back to it. Practice non-defensive listening. Listen to what your spouse is saying not just what you are hearing. Listen for underlying feelings and needs.
Resist the impulse to evaluate or analyze the “truth factor” in what your spouse is saying. Emotions like hurt, sadness or loneliness are neither right nor wrong. They just are. You don’t have to defend yourself against them or stamp them out or change them. Just understanding them is an important first step in its own right. Sometimes understanding is all that is really needed.
- Principle Six: Speak from the Heart. When you raise an issue or a complaint, try to do so in an attitude of friendship and caring. Speak in a direct, clear way about your own needs and perceptions, not about what is wrong with your partner.
If you go in with guns blazing then you’ll likely come out with a few holes. Instead of attacking or blaming your partner, just stick to the facts of the situation and how they impacted you. Attack the problem not the person.
There is a respectful way and a disrespectful way to discuss any issue. Resolve to speak respectfully so that your partner can hear you without feeling the need to be defensive.
Don’t go on and on. Keep it short. Give your partner space to acknowledge what you are saying. Make clear requests instead of demands or accusations.
- Principle Seven: Reveal Soft Emotions. Use words that describe the soft emotions you feel, such as hurt, underneath the hard emotions you feel, such as anger. It may seem safer and easier to get angry than it does to reveal how lonely you are or how hurt you feel, but venting anger usually breeds more anger in turn. It also dupes your partner into not realizing you feel hurt or lonely. Your spouse may come to see you as an angry, hostile powder keg to be avoided instead of a real person with underlying needs for understanding, support, inclusion, honesty, and so forth.
Revealing the underlying issues beneath the anger often diffuses conflict and bitterness and invites softness in turn from your spouse. Remember the words of Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.” It helps if you can discipline yourself to stand apart from the situation so that you can reflect on what is happening and how you really feel instead of being reactive.
- Principle Eight: Acknowledge Effort. Small changes can lead to larger changes, especially if you see them, notice them and focus on them. Pay attention to small changes you see in the relationship or evidence of effort on the part of your partner. Acknowledge these changes. Seeing change creates hope. Hope invites motivation. Motivation leads to more change.
- Principle Nine: Always Show an Increase of Love. This means that when you raise an issue that concerns you, it is essential that you express words of reassurance, appreciation, or affirmation for your spouse in the same breath and that you end on a note that emphasizes your respect and love for him or her. It is much easier to accept influence from someone when you feel that that person cares about you and sees the good in you.
Remember to do the little things every day that demonstrate your commitment to and appreciation for your spouse, particularly if you have had a disagreement. It is much easier to give each other the benefit of the doubt, assume goodwill, and disregard the negative things that happen in the relationship when the evidences of commitment, appreciation and love outweigh the negative.
Nevertheless, learning to handle conflict well and staying connected, even in the face of conflict, is possible for any couple who will commit themselves to learning and using principles such as these, however long it takes, on a regular basis.
If you would like more information about any of these ideas, click here to contact me with questions or comments.
1 Maturana, H.R., & Varela, F.J. (1998). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. (Revised ed.). Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Marriage Fitness with Mort Fertel
HOW TO KNOW IF YOUR MARRIAGE WILL SURVIVE
Do you know whether or not your marriage will make it? I can tell you with near certainty.
Hi. I’m Mort Fertel, author of Marriage Fitness.
If you had to pick ONE THING that best predicts whether or not your marriage will succeed, what would you pick?
You might say “conflict.” If you fight a lot, then that’s not a good sign, right? WRONG.
Would you believe that it’s the opposite?! That’s right; research shows that the number one predictor of divorce is the habitual AVOIDANCE of conflict. In other words, a couple who does NOT fight is at the greatest risk for divorce.
A couple came to me for private phone sessions and I asked them what was going on in their relationship.
“We never talk,” Kathy said.
“Why not,” I asked.
“Because we realized that that’s when we fight,” she responded.
Isn’t it ironic? We try to avoid conflict with our spouse for the benefit of our relationship. But there’s nothing MORE damaging to your marriage than NOT fighting.
Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is! Hate is close to love. To hate someone, you have to CARE about them.
Did you ever feel hate for your mailman? How about the clerk at the supermarket? You never hated them because you don’t care about them. That’s the opposite of love.
But the closer you are to someone the more likely it is that you step on each other’s toes. Hate is actually a sign of hope. It means you care. It means you’re close. Apathy, on the other hand, is cause for great concern.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advising you to go pick a fight with your spouse. You can’t fight so that you’ll have a good marriage. I didn’t say fighting is healthy. I said people in healthy marriages fight. In other words, the fact that you fight is a sign that deep down you really love each other, that your relationship has potential. But if you want to be happily married, you have to learn to fight WELL.
Successful couples know how to discuss their differences. This is not something that comes naturally to anyone; it’s a learned skill. And once you learn it, all the energy that goes into your fights propels your relationship forward.
EVERY successful couple has areas of disagreement. No two people are perfectly compatible. “Irreconcilable differences” are like a bad knee or a chronic back—they’re part of every good marriage.
The key to succeeding in marriage is not finding the right person; it’s learning to fight well with the person you found. You’ll have “irreconcilable differences” with anyone you pick. The question is whether or not you can learn to discuss them.
If you’d like to learn how to discuss them as well as other marriage renewal tips, then subscribe to my FREE breakthrough report "7 Secrets to a Stronger Marriage" and get a FREE marriage assessment too. To subscribe, CLICK HERE. It’s FREE.
Author of Marriage Fitness
This section of Marriage Matters offers easy-to-do and practical exercises each month to help couples strengthen their relationship. Just like repetition and strength training at the gym builds your body and your muscles, conscious repetition of positive behaviors and actions over time will build and strengthen your marriage.
This Month: Making Requests Instead of Demands
Making requests is a very helpful relationship skill for handling conflict. It demonstrates respect for your spouse and respect for yourself. It allows your spouse to make choices without feeling controlled. It clarifies what you really need or want instead of assuming that your spouse knows what you need.
The opposite of making requests is making demands on each other. Demandingness typically erodes love over time, pushes your partner away from you, invites resistance and defensiveness and leaves your partner feeling that you are trying to control him or her.
It can be a good idea to negotiate several options when making a request. This way you are not attached to a specific response from your spouse; rather there may be several different ways that your need could be met.
For example, "I would love it if we could have one night a week set aside for us to go on a date with each other, or if we turned the T.V. off at night and just talked for a little while. I would even enjoy it if we could meet for lunch during the week sometime. I just want us to spend more time together."
It also helps, when making a request, to create a context for the request. That is, make it clear what your underlying needs are related to your request. Creating a context is important because it helps your spouse see why your request is important to you. Understanding typically increases motivation.
Here are some examples of demands and accusations. See if there is a way you could turn these into requests. The first one is already done.
EXAMPLE 1. You don't care at all about how much work I have to do around here to keep things running. You just leave things lying around and never think about them again.
Reframed as Request:
I am feeling very overwhelmed with the amount of work that has to be done to keep up with the housework and my job and the needs of our kids. I am exhausted by the time I fall into bed at night. I get very discouraged when I finish cleaning a room, and then turn around and find stuff lying around again. I would really appreciate it if we could sit down and figure out a way to work together more to keep the house tidy.
EXAMPLE 2. You better be home by 6PM tonight!
EXAMPLE 3. You never listen to me.
EXAMPLE 4. Don't ever do that again. The next time you are going to contradict me in front of the kids do it in private or don't do it at all!
EXAMPLE 5. You put your own family above me every time. Your mother says jump and you say, "how high?" From now on, I'm not going to put up with it. You need to make a choice about who is more important to you: me or your parents.
This month, when you bring up an issue focus on making requests instead of demands and pay attention to any changes you notice in the tone of your communication with each other as a result.
Save the Marriage by Dr. Lee Baucom.
For over 15 years Dr. Lee Baucom has been offering his unique brand of marriage help through his book, Save the Marriage. This is a very useful book that you can download to your computer in ten minutes and begin to use the information to help transform your relationship starting today.
For more information simply click on the image to the left.
Forward to a Friend
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Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych
200C Haddon Road SW
Calgary, AB T2V 2Y6
Tel: (403) 255-8577
Fax: (403) 255-8570
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