I love it when people have an “aha!” experience. You know the moment when the light comes on, and they realize for the first time something that changes their life? Several years ago I had the opportunity to see that aha moment in a couple as we talked about conflict resolution. Actually, it wasn’t so much us talking as it was them arguing with one another. I allowed them to “go at one another” for about twenty minutes. At the conclusion of the argument (or when then they had both run out of breath) they looked at me embarrassedly and said, “Sorry Dr. Tate. We didn’t mean to argue like that in front of you.” I smirked a little and retorted, “Well, at least it was entertaining.”
Now it was my turn to talk. So, I began to break down what I had seen and heard in their fight. And, I began to teach them four simple principles to guide their conflict. At the conclusion of my explanation, they each sat there thinking through what I had said. BING! The light came on. They finally began to understand what conflict resolution is all about. Here are the four guiding principles I shared with them that night. I’ve shared them hundreds of times since then. Sometimes the light comes on for couples and sometimes it doesn’t. Hopefully it will for you and your spouse.
Principle #1: Avoid Avoidance. Some couples fight a lot early in their marriage, but then get tired of the fighting. That’s when they learn a really unhealthy relationship trait – avoidance. They learn to avoid conflict, avoid conflict producing topics, and eventually they learn to avoid one another all together. There is an unavoidable fact I learned early in my counseling career – the absence of conflict does not equate to a healthy marriage. Avoidance of conflict does little to strengthen the marriage. It usually produces more anxiety, more hostility, and more long term issues. No matter what the cost, do not avoid conflict. When conflict is resolved it adds life and energy to a marriage. When conflict is avoided it robs life and energy from the marriage and eventually becomes a silent cancer to marital health.
Principle #2: Fight With and Not Against. One of the most common conflict mistakes in marriage is the tendency for couples to fight against one another. The war of words becomes a battle to win an argument instead of a battle to solve a problem. Instead of two people on the same team trying to win a solution together, each spouse is trying desperately to win his or her side of the battle against the other spouse. No matter what the issue is, no matter how right you think you are in an argument, the goal is to always find a solution where both you and your spouse can win the war. Focus less on winning the blame game and more on finding a common solution for the problem.
Principle #3: Own Your Attitude and Actions. This principle is so hard because it flies in the face of our human nature. We defend, deflect, and distort our own attitude and actions in order to avoid taking personal responsibility for our part in the conflict. We find it so easy to tell our spouse all the faults, mistakes and shortcomings they have, without ever admitting our own. We judge their actions, intentions, motivations, and thoughts. We’ll expect them to give us every benefit of the doubt, expect them to be the pillar of patience, and hold them to a standard of excellence in the relationship that we could never live up to. But, we’ll often not extend the same courtesies to them. Always ensure that your attitudes and actions during conflict are humble, generous, patient, kind, and compassionate. That’s what you’d want from your spouse.
Principle #4: Work Hard and Smart. I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve talked to who try the same insane conflict resolution techniques over and over and over and over again. STOP THE INSANITY! Find out from your spouse what you’re doing that’s contributing to the conflict. Then, work hard to change those things that keep the conflict going. Then, ask your spouse how you can best help them understand your feelings. Do your best to talk in a way that he or she is going to be able to receive what you’re saying. Otherwise, you may be working hard, but not smart.
Every couple has conflict. The war of words is going to happen for most couples daily. The question is – Are you fighting the war together against a common enemy? Or, are you fighting against the one person who could be your biggest ally? Fight together for the solution that you both so desperately want – and need!