When we’re caught up in conflict, there can seem like there’s no way out. Tempers flare, reactivity erupts and fights can drag on for hours, if not days or weeks.
I want to share with you some tools or strategies that I’ve learned about couples in my work with them to help resolve conflict and fight fair. Although these are starter tips, you can use them to begin to identify dysfunctional patterns in your marriage or relationship, and begin to turn them around over time. You can use them in conjunction with your marriage counseling or couples counseling.
Here are some quick tools and strategies to help you listen better and fight fair:
1. Maintain eye contact: your partner will experience you to be tuned in and to be present, something that is essential if you’re trying to connect with them and work through an issue together.
2. Non-verbal body language speaks volumes: your body language, or non-verbals, may be communicating what you truly feel, even if your words aren’t. The body doesn’t lie! you might want to consider the role of non-verbal communication when you’re trying to relate to or work through an issue with your spouse. Your body language may be communicating withdrawal, disgust, anger, indifference or the like, so it’s important to stay aware of that subtle mode of communicating.
3. Try to reach for the underlying emotion to communicate: When you can speak from your emotions, you’re lowering the chance of conflict-incitement from a root level. Speaking from emotions cuts through a lot of conflict and pain, when you’re identifying and taking ownership for your own emotions using “I” statements. When you focus on yourself, you’re not focused on your partner, thus keeping you from falling into attack, blame or criticism that will most certainly fan the flames of the conflict, and keep it going. Use “I” statements, get in touch with your emotions, communicate them and risk the vulnerability to your spouse (difficult for many men to do, I know).
4. Don’t criticize or attack your spouse: if you do, you’ll active their negative responses towards you, which will exacerbate the “negative cycle” or pattern of reactive responses you both are co-creating with your behavior and words. Don’t criticize, attack, get sarcastic
5. Communicate frustration or anger directly: don’t funnel it into game-playing like being sarcastic, being passive-aggressive (staying mad, not communicating directly, but acting it out in other ways that are more hurtful), attacking, or mobilizing your anger in any other way that would be deemed harmful to productive progress and connection with your partner. It’s okay to communicate anger and frustration directly; it won’t make you an angry person if you do it the right way.
6. Reach behind the anger and frustration to your primary emotions: emotions like hurt, pain, vulnerability, sadness, fear or loneliness are emotions that can transform a conflict or disconnection quite rapidly towards the positive, so recognize that the identification of and use of these primary emotions can really work wonders to get you and your spouse back to the place where you’re connected and happier.
7. Have conflict at the right place and at the right time: bringing something up that’s a problem for you at the wrong place and the wrong time is assuring you more difficulty in trying to get what you want. Most of the time, conflicts happen in conjunction with the problematic event, which doesn’t help you work through it. People are reactive, and they’re bound to fall into their negative patterns.
If you need to bring something up, you could try waiting to find the right place and time, and ask your spouse for some airtime at a chosen time and date that works for the both of you. That way, you’ll have planned it out and know what you’re saying so that you can communicate it directly to your spouse. Ideally, though, you’ll have developed your self-awareness to process the conflict right there and then, but it’s hard for a lot of people to do this because we are subject to our reactive responses.
8. Develop your self-awareness: This is probably the greatest tool you can develop and use in conflict situations. Developing better self-awareness allows you to have a deeper clarity and understanding about the inner workings of your experience: your thoughts, emotions, reactive responses – all of it. It allows you to relax the need to blame others, including your spouse, and identify the reactions within your experience so that you can take ownership for them and communicate them in a non-toxic, productive way.
Mindfulness helps with this development, such as meditation, therapy, yoga, or the like. When it comes down to it, we’re responsible for our experience, whether we like it or not and whether we want to blame others or not. Developing your self-awareness is a tool that can provide a lifetime’s worth of payoff, from better relationships with others to a better relationship with yourself.
9. Don’t drink! Alcohol abuse just fuels conflict, either when you’re attempting to work through an issue right there, or whether the longer-term conflict is about your drinking. You’re adding fuel to the fire if your drinking is a problem, either in the situational times or generally speaking. You and your spouse/partner aren’t able to get to the main issues if your alcohol abuse is blocking your ability to deal with the issues, and creating new ones.
10. Listen well: Listening – deep listening and being present to your spouse – is a huge step towards successful resolution of your conflict situation. Being present communicates to them that you care, that what they have to say is important and valuable, and that you’re there with them to help them process their pain. If you’re feeling attacked or criticized, you could say, “You know, I want to be there for you, but when I feel attacked or criticized, I shut down, making me unavailable to hear you and your feelings.”
11.Watch the ways you avoid conflict: There are tons of ways to avoid conflict, like withdrawing, not talking about it, finding something else to do, acquiescing or apologizing for the sake of apology. You have to know your unique style of voiding conflict if you fall into this, so that you can work on it and know when you’re falling into it. Conflicts that go avoided and unaddressed may look over, but I can assure you, they’re not. Unresolved conflicts can build up over time, and often end in worse conflicts down the road. Repressed anger and hostility may drive a spouse or partner to do things that they normally wouldn’t against their partner, which may result in situations or problems that make everything worse. So, try to watch your tendency to avoid conflict, learn better ways to work through conflict, and try to settle them before they become much worse.
12. Be kind: treat your spouse they way you would want to be treated. Women also don’t get motivated the same way men do – with pushing or prodding. Women need to be heard, validated, and supported, and if you’re not bringing that to your spouse, you’re missing out on potential conflict-stopping resources. Be kind, treat your spouse with care, and try to work through conflict situations in the least harmful way possible. It’s difficult, I know, to work through conflict when emotions are heated, or when there’s a trove of past hurts and transgressions you both haven’t worked through, but it’s important to maintain kindness and respect for your partner throughout. It will make you a better man (or woman) for it.
Try working on one or more of these tools over time. You won’t be able to do them all at once, and self-awareness and emotion recognition take a lot of time to develop, and may need professional help to get you going. Best of luck, and my hope is that you’ll be able to create a stronger, happier marriage or relationship with your spouse or partner.