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 fight 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 that conflict is natural. Married couples who have a passion for their relationship are bound to get into arguments from time to time. It is 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.
2. Focus on listening and not being heard. During arguments couples often spend more energy on trying to voice their feelings instead of validating the feelings of their mates. When couples take this approach they end up in heated conversations filled with criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and ultimately withdrawal. Begin practicing to pay attention to what your spouse is saying, especially the feelings they are communicating, instead of attempting to formulate your next response.
3. Stay on topic. During arguments it is very easy for one or both individuals to shift gears and move from one topic 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 on with any verbal ammunition they can mustard up.
4. Be responsive and not reactive. It is not unusual in the heat of the moment for individuals to say whatever comes to mind, which is being reactive. This can be destructive behavior for any marriage. Couples who have mastered the art of managing conflict understand the need to be responsive, while means taking a moment to comprehend what their mate has said and asking for clarification before replying. This can go a long way in keeping conflicts from escalating.
5. 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 that 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.
6. Seeking additional insight. There are times during relationships when everything seems out of control. It is during these times that 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.