During a couples counseling session, Jenny, 42, and Sam, 43, sit on the couch in my office and discuss their disputes about their two young children, chores, and finances.
Sam says, “it seems like I can never do enough to please Jenny. She wants me to do more chores, make more money, and buy her a bigger house. Meanwhile, she took five years off from teaching to have our kids and our income was cut in half. I am glad she’s been able to raise Henry and Katie, but I simply can’t meet all of her demands.”
Jenny responds, “Sam is a good dad but we argue about chores because he seems to think that since I’m home, it’s my job to do all of the housework. It would mean a lot to me if he cleaned up the dinner dishes or vacuumed once a week.”
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 reenforce 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.
For instance, Sam might try to imagine how long Jenny’s day is being home with two young children and Jenny could try to empathize with Sam’s financial pressure.
Dr. Gottman counsels couples to “soften their start-up.” Or as Benson puts it, “how a conversation starts influences how it will end.” When Jenny asks Sam to do dishes, for example, she might say, “I makes me feel frustrated when I cook and do dishes, I did tired by 7pm and it would make a world of difference to me if you could either cook or do dishes.” This approach will be more effective than saying something like, “You never help out around the house.”
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.
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.