Most of the couples that I counsel complain that they argue about the same things over and over again. One or both people feel misunderstood and unappreciated by their intimate partner.
For instance, Karen, 37, and married seven years to Tom, 38, wishes her husband would be more involved in the lives of their two kids, ages six and eight and not leave so many tasks and decisions up to her.
Karen put it like this: “When I got married, I expected that we’d quarrel a bit but we argue a lot because Tom never wants to be the bad guy so can’t say “no” to our kids and won’t set limits. Then he gets mad at me when I remind them to do chores or go to bed on time. It’s a vicious cycle of bickering and neither one of us enjoys time alone together, so we’re drifting further and further apart.”
We’ve all been there: the day-to-day routine with our partner falls into a pattern of conflict, and fighting seems inevitable. When the central relationship in our lives feels fraught and a fight looms around every corner, our emotional health and our other, non-romantic relationships suffer.
In a recent article for his website, Kyle Benson draws on relationship experts and authors like Dr. John Gottman and Dan Wile, formulating a sensible approach to conflict resolution that’s both pragmatic and possible. Indeed, one of the most challenging aspects of the dynamic that exists between partners is the negative, cyclical patterns that reinforce themselves, creating a feeling that avoiding a fight is impossible.
Benson writes about Dr. Gottman’s observation that “nearly 1/3 of all conflicts can be resolved with the right approach,” unpacking the realities that many couples face in the process of improving their communication skills in the hopes of diffusing conflict. While many marriage therapists recommend that you “put yourself in your partner’s shoes,” Dr. Gottman has learned that it’s often difficult to tap into empathy during the escalation of a fight.
Instead, he counsels couples to “soften their start-up.” Or as Benson puts it, “how a conversation starts influences how it will end.” The takeaway here is that your approach to conflict at the outset can limit the magnitude of a fight and minimize its impact. Being aware of your feelings and how anger or frustration is manifested in your word and tone of voice is crucial to nipping a big fight in the bud.
Benson goes on to outline four additional strategies to help avoid fighting in your relationship. Each of the steps builds on the initial approach of “softening the start-up” and is aimed at de-escalating what often feels like the inevitable.
For instance, if Karen wants support from Tom to help their son pick up his toys it would be more effective to ask him, “Are you available to help Joey get started on putting his legos away?” rather than saying, “You are so focused on watching baseball that you ignore your son and his room is a always a mess.”
Dr. Gottman’s book The Seven Principles That Make Marriage Work serves as a guide for Benson’s own advice, and he adds to helpful insight that Dr. Gottman’s strategies “may feel unnatural at first but provide you the vocabulary to naturally repair conflict before it harms your marriage.”
In the end, the goal is a healthy and harmonious relationship in which we can communicate with openness and honesty. In the process, we can overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of conflict feeling inevitable, fostering compassion with a conscious approach to conflicts as they develop.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.