(Or How To Navigate Conflict with your Honey in Five (Not So) Easy Steps)
One of the most common complaints couples have about their relationship is that their fights don’t go anywhere good.
- “We have the same fight ninety times and we still can’t resolve the problem.”
- “We can’t seem to argue without it getting out of control.”
- “She fights dirty – once the insults start flying, I just shut down/lose it/have to leave.”
- “He always thinks he’s right. It seems I’m not supposed to have an opinion.”
- “Whenever we fight, we seem to get stuck in the past or we bring in the kitchen sink. The fight is never about the thing itself – it always ends up being about my family, or my parenting, or the messed up thing I did four years ago.”
So, in the interest of helping my readers work on fighting “well” – by which I mean fighting fairly and fighting productively – I thought I’d summarize some of the best tips I know for helping couples resolve their conflicts with some sort of success. I define success as 1) ending the fight with more understanding of your partner than you started with; 2) ending the fight with at least some forgiveness in your heart; 3) ending the flight with at least some sense of responsibility for your part in the fight, and 4) ending the fight with enough generosity to move forward and once again feel close – or even closer – to your partner.
These tips are not solely my own ideas. I am borrowing from my experience, but also from many couples’ therapists, researchers of couples’ dynamics, and experts on conflict resolution (including John and Julie Gottman, Cliff Notarius, Harville Hendrix, Roger Fisher, Sharon Ellison, and others).
Pick the right time to fight.
Having a fight on the spur of the moment is always a bad idea. If you are about to jump into a fight, try to pause. Tell your partner you do NOT want to fight, so you’d like to cool off first, and set a time (in 10 minutes, or two hours, or the next day) when you will come have the “fight” with a cool, clear head.
If you are steaming, instead of taking the first verbal swing, set a time with your partner to talk/fight when you BOTH are actually going to be available – e.g. NOT when someone is heading to work or just walking back in the door, NOT when the children are present, and NOT at 1AM when your partner is trying to sleep.
I have couples who tell me that this tip ALONE helped them improve their communication by a large margin.
TIP # 2
Take Turns Speaking.
(This is surprisingly difficult. If you can do it, you are halfway there.)
- Speak in brief chunks- NO monologues, please. Use a timer if you have to. Three minutes is a long time to talk and a longer time to listen, during a conflict. If you have trouble with this tip, use an object to indicate who has the “floor”. I use a piece of floor tile with my clients because I think it’s sort of funny to say, “You do not have the floor yet.” Or “Please give her the floor.”
- No interrupting. If someone starts a long monologue, the most you are allowed to do is gently raise your pinky to indicate you are having trouble listening and the other person needs to wrap up.
- Remember when you are forced to give up the floor that you will have another turn soon! Your partner isn’t allowed to monologue either.
Know what topic you are fighting about, and stick to that topic. Keep the topic as narrow and specific as you can.
Many couples lose track of what they are fighting about five minutes into the fight. If you are going to have conflict with your partner, it might as well bear fruit, right? So frame the issue when you start the fight. And frame it clearly and specifically.
“I need to talk about your always being a slob. It’s driving me crazy!” is not a helpful frame. “I need to talk about how to keep the kitchen clean because when I come home and it’s clean I’m in such a better mood,” is easier to discuss. “I’m ticked off at your whole entire selfish family,” is not going to go anywhere good. “I’m hurt that your parents didn’t send our kids Christmas presents,” might lead to a conversation your spouse can manage…If you don’t then bring up how the in-laws handled the cruise in 2010, or your sister-in-law’s drinking. Stick to the topic. Try to reach resolution on just that topic – and experience a little success.
When you are talking and conveying your views, speak slowly, gently, and thoughtfully. Breathe.
Going slower than usual will help you remain civil and thoughtful. Conflict raises peoples’ blood pressure, increases pulse rate, and makes the heart pound. This physical arousal, in turn, fuels anger and impedes clear thinking. If you slow down, and breathe deeply, your fighting will sound more reasonable and you will be less likely to develop a headache afterwards.
When you are talking, avoid using the words “always”, “never”, “bonehead” and “brat”.
Try to speak in language you might use with a co-worker you are irritated with. Avoid exaggerating. Your partner is much more likely to agree with you, or accept responsibility, if you are saying something about a small sin, vs. a heinous crime.
Just like you have heard probably a thousand times, use “I Statements”.
“I Statements” help people avoid getting into accusations and counter-accusations. But you have to be in the true spirit of the “I statement” or they just sound sarcastic and dumb. “I think you’re a jerk because I never get what I need because you are completely dense.” Nope. “I’m sick of the fact that you never want to have sex.” Not so much.
Use the “I” to describe your feeling, in a gentle way, about a specific problem. “I lost patience with you last night because you kept watching TV when I went to bed – and I was looking forward to some time with you after the kids went to sleep.” That’s getting there.
When you are listening to your spouse, stop composing your response in your head. Just listen to understand.
Fights often go nowhere because no one is really listening. When your partner is speaking, just listen and try to understand what your partner is saying. It is totally fine if you disagree – it’s not your turn yet to talk so just relax and listen. If you need clarification, ask a question. (No snarky, rhetorical questions allowed.) Whatever you do, do NOT focus your brain on all the things your partner is saying that tick you off. Just listen. And try to understand what your partner experienced, and what they are actually saying. Don’t just focus on the impact of their words. Try to figure out their intent.
Before you respond to your partner’s points or complaints or accusations, sum up what you heard, to be sure you “get it”.
One of the core problems for lousy fighters is that each person is responding to what he/she thinks the other person just said, but they actually are responding to a misinterpretation, or a misunderstood meaning. That is because they did not follow TIP #7! Listeners are not allowed to reply with their own viewpoint until they sum up accurately, and their partner says, “Yeah, you got it.” If you don’t know if you “got it,” ask. “Do I have it? Am I understanding you correctly?”
Try very hard to put yourself in your spouse’s shoes. If you succeed, even a little bit, let them know you can see it from their viewpoint.
This is extremely difficult when people are hurt or angry. But it will get you HUGE rewards if your relationship is relatively solid. (It may NOT help if your relationship is very much on the rocks. But it can’t hurt so it’s worth a try.) After your partner has shared their view, and you have made sure you understand what they mean, and they feel you have “gotten it”, if you are able to tell your partner that you realize how they must have felt, or see how things must have looked, or understand why they had that impression, your partner will probably feel better about you immediately. If you see that you played some part in the conflict, and can own/admit that piece, even better.
This tip is probably the most powerful tool you can have in your tool kit. The more you use it, the more likely your fights will resolve successfully. If you use this often, even when your partner does NOT, things may get better. If your partner feels understood and validated, he or she is more likely to be forgiving, and generous toward you. At least, that’s the way this is supposed to work.
If the fight starts going south, call a Time Out. Stop fighting.
If the fight reaches successful resolution, express appreciation of your partner.
If you or your partner is unable to follow TIPS 1 – 9, try not to keep at it. Just stop. Either ask your partner if you can try to talk again the next day, OR consider making an appointment with a couples’ therapist to get some help.
If you find some success in following these tips, be sure to let your partner know you are thankful. Rewarding someone will increase the odds that they will repeat the rewarded behavior – a little lesson from BF Skinner. So don’t skimp on the gratitude. And don’t forget to pat yourself on the back, as well. If you were able to shift your fighting even a little bit, you did a good thing.