Feel like your fights always end up out of hand? If so, you’re not alone. Managing conflict is an art and I want you to become a master at it! Fighting is not a bad thing. In fact, I really worry about couples that tell me they never fight. If you never fight, it means there’s nothing you really feel passionately about or that there’s such a power imbalance in your relationship that you see no point in arguing for your perspective. These are both not great. So let’s learn how to disagree effectively and come to a compromise you can both be happy with. Review the 7 stages of conflict escalation below and see what you can do to avoid making a fight worse.
All conflict starts with disagreement: you see it one way, your spouse sees it differently. It is normal and even healthy to have disagreements. Disagreements mean that you each are thoughtful, bright people who care enough about a situation to be thinking about it. The disagreement is not the problem, how we handle the disagreement is the problem.
We tend to begin disagreements by thinking that our interpretation of the situation is correct. We also think that our solution is the best, our ideas are correct, and that our way is right. Try to be more flexible and understanding. Your spouse likely feels their viewpoint is valid too. Until you slow down and listen to your spouse’s ideas, you will not be able to influence them.
When we’re beginning a disagreement, we forget (or completely miss) that there are points of agreement in our conversation. So before going on to outline why you don’t agree with your spouse’s thinking, slow down and point out what you DO agree with. Talk about what makes sense to you and how you can understand your spouse’s perspective. You can only solve a problem if you understand what the other person really wants and thinks is important.
2. Personification (blaming).
A conflict starts to escalate when we start blaming and personalizing. We think it’s all the other person’s fault, we blame them and begin to think they are “bad” for thinking the way they do. When you start doing this, you’re emotionally disconnecting from your spouse, you’re judging them, and you’re discounting their feelings. Even if you say nothing, your spouse will likely be able to read your body language and eye contact and be able to tell that you think they are the problem.
Instead of doing this, try to stay engaged and compassionate. Resist the temptation to blame your spouse for the problem or think that their ideas are “crazy.” Rarely is this the case. Everyone has a reason for what they think and why; you just need to be patient enough to discover it. Talk about the problem and especially the raw data (the facts) associated with the problem. Walk your spouse through what you see as the facts and how you interpret them. Ask your spouse to do the same. You will likely find that you each see things differently for valid reasons.
As you discuss, highlight points of agreement, infuse some positivity and empathy where you can. For example, as you’re listening to your spouse, say, “Aha, that makes sense, you thought ______ because of what happened last week. “ Nothing diffuses aggression like compassion and understanding.
3. Problem Expansion
If we fail at seeing the other person’s perspective and start blaming them for the conflict, we typically escalate one step further and start expanding the problem. We make the problem bigger by bringing up anything and everything from previous disagreements. For example, you’ll be talking about what the cable bill isn’t paid and you’ll start saying things like, “Oh, I should have just expected the bills to be late, you missed two due dates last month and we all know that it’s a miracle for you to show up anywhere on time….” This is problem expansion: you take one incident and expand it by bringing in other pieces of “evidence” to support your case.
Please don’t do this. It’s impossible for your spouse to defend themselves when mountains of complaints are hurled at them. I’ll often say to my clients: “Do you want to make the problem bigger or make it better?” Hopefully your answer is that you want it to be better! If so, resist the temptation of trying to prove your case. Remember there is no prize for being right in this situation; the prize is coming to a mutually agreeable outcome, not decimating your spouse.
Instead of expanding the problem, narrow it down. Focus just on the issue you’re trying to resolve right now and if your partner is getting off track, them him “Ok, I understand that’s a concern too, but let’s just stay focused on _______________.” During the conversation, acknowledge the conflict and keep reassuring your spouse that conflict isn’t bad; it’s how two smart people work towards a compromise. Look for points where you can praise your spouse and say, “Yes, that makes sense, I like that you care about that.”
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