One of the first questions I ask couples when they come into my office is “what is their counseling objective”. It is not unusual for them to say "we want to stop fighting." Now, that is a wonderful objective. However it is completely unrealistic. Healthy married couples are going to argue occasionally – there is no getting around that fact.
What their objective should be is how to manage conflict when it arises. That means keeping arguments under control and preventing them from igniting into infernos. The following are some basic guidelines that can assist couples in helping to manage conflict in their marriage.
1. Understand conflict is natural. Married couples who have a passion for their relationship are bound to get into arguments from time to time. It’s the couples who say they never fight that I really worry about. That indicates there is little one-on-one engagement and/or passion in the relationship. If you find yourself in a conversation with your spouse that is starting to get heated “slow everything down” so you can make a more accurate assessment of what is occurring. Ask your spouse questions instead of making statements so you can develop clarity and help them see you are trying to be understanding.
2. Shift your focus from being heard to listening. During arguments couples place more emphasis on what they are going to say next than paying attention to what their spouse is saying. When this occurs, you miss out on understanding the emotions behind the comments your partner is expressing. Practicing to pay close attention to what your spouse is saying and holding off on formulating your counter response. Listen not only to the words but the emotions behind the words. When you believe you understand what your spouse is feeling, validate his/her emotions. What we are aiming for is having conversations that are not focused on “stuff” but instead “feelings”.
3. Stay on topic. During arguments it is very easy for one or both individuals to shift gears and move from one subject to another in an effort to try and win points. Before you know it, the real reason for the argument is a distance memory, while the couple wanders off attacking each other with any verbal ammunition they can mustard up. Individuals usually shift topics when they believe they are losing their original argument. However, in a marriage in which two people are more centered on the desires of the other’s heart they should not be fixated on winning. Instead they should be aiming to “resolve” conflict and stay connect.
4. Be responsive and not reactive. It is not unusual in the heat of the moment for individuals to say whatever comes to mind. This is a reactive behavior. When we are reactive we usually don’t have all of the information we need to communicate effectively with our spouse. We are basically shooting from the hip and in most cases our aim will be off. Couples who have mastered the art of managing conflict understand the need to be responsive, which means taking a moment to comprehend what their mate has said and asking for clarification before replying. This is one of the most effective measures you can take to keep conflicts from escalating.
5. Cut out defensive dialogue, which sounds like this:
“I thought you were going to clean the garage today?”
“Why don’t you worry about cleaning the kitchen and leave the garage to me.”
“Because if I don’t say anything you won’t do anything.”
“You’re talking to me about not doing anything? You are one of the laziness people I have ever known.”
“I’m lazy? Are you kidding? When was the last time you did anything around here?”
This is an argument that will continue to go in circles until one or both parties gets emotionally exhausted and walks away. Defensiveness consists of insults and counter-attacks. Individuals are trying to take the focus off of them and put it on their spouses. It is nothing more than attacking and it’s ugly.
You defeat defensiveness by focusing on what your spouse is trying to say and not allowing yourself to get offended by what you hear. This requires you “slow everything down” so you can be sure you’re accurately hearing what is being said versus jumping to conclusions. Overtime, defensiveness destroys relationships. You need to weed it out of your marriage immediately.
6. Learn to accept influence. During arguments it is not uncommon for people to shut down and become harden to the other’s opinion. By accepting influence we allow ourselves to be open and understanding to what our spouse is communicating. Studies have demonstrated this approach is more difficult for men than women. But couples who do accept influence see an improvement in the teamwork aspect of their relationship. What does it look like? Basically it is being open minded to what your spouse is trying to communicate.
7. Seek additional insight. There are times during relationships when everything seems out of control. During these times it may be beneficial to seek the help of an outside source to help sort through the issues. Don’t be fearful of seeking input from a trained professional such as a pastor or counselor.
Finally, it is important to realize that in marriages where there is a great deal of conflict the issue is not poor communication. The real problem is the marriage is lacking emotional connection. Each individual is frustrated and feels the other is not available to them. They feel alone and abandon.