Dear Neil: Could you recommend a way my husband and I can fight (or even talk and disagree) more effectively? Our disagreements are getting very heated and personal, and sometimes attacking, and they’re threatening our marriage.
Heated in Sydney, Australia
Dear Heated: We all know that when couples are screaming at each other, or when one partner is lecturing while the other sits in stony silence, or when conversations are laced with criticisms, blame and finger-pointing, the couple is not communicating effectively. Such styles of conflict resolution do not bring them any closer to resolving the issues that are separating them.
Probably most couples do not have the skills to discuss highly charged topics—and frequently less emotional ones as well—in ways that allow them to listen with respect and respond with empathy. Negotiating calmly, rationally and fairly without using bully tactics is harder to do than most of us acknowledge.
Here are some conflict resolution ideas of how you can disagree with each other without injuring love:
- Assume that a win-win solution is possible. Therefore, take the time and effort to communicate your needs and feelings, and hear each other with empathy and compassion.
- Practice hearing and repeating what your partner communicates to you—before launching into your reactions. One person states their position on a subject, problem or dilemma that the two of you are facing. The other partner paraphrases the essence of the message, and then asks if he/she paraphrased it accurately. If your mate is not satisfied that your heard or interpreted the message correctly, then he/she restates the message, and you paraphrase it again, until your partner is satisfied that he/she is understood. Once that occurs, it’s your turn to respond, and he or she has to paraphrase the essence of your message.
If you slow down the communication in this way, it will help both of you feel closer and more connected, and prevent you from getting into old chronic patterns of attack and counter-attack, blame and defend, punish and withdraw.
- Practice saying “I’m sorry I did that; I’ll try to do better next time”—and meaning it—instead of lapsing into defensive explanations of your behavior. Acknowledge the part that you did play in upsetting your partner, whether you meant to or not.
- Minimize blame by using “I-messages” whenever possible. In general this means talking about your own feelings instead of focusing on your partner’s behavior—or guessing at his or her negative motivations. For example, if you’re bothered by your spouse’s habit of leaving the room without saying good-bye to you, try saying “When you leave the room without saying good-bye, I feel hurt (ignored, rejected, invisible.)” Don’t say “I feel that you’re an insensitive schmuck for leaving the room without saying good-bye to me!” The second remark is not an ” I-message,” though it uses the word “I.” It’s a blaming judgment that will only be met with defensiveness and counter-attack.
- When your partner opens up to you and shares sensitive facts or feelings, receive that sharing as a gift, and make a commitment not to use this information against your partner in future discussions, or as ammunition in future fights.
These ideas came from the book Money Harmony by Olivia Mellan.