We’ve all been there: embroiled in an argument with our partner, caught up in emotion, and perhaps most crucially, unsure of how something seemingly small escalated. The touchy topic of who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” in a conflict between partners often misses the point and prevents them from moving beyond the spat in a constructive way that provides tools helpful in avoiding future quarrels.
For instance, Alyssa, 45, and Rick, 46, are caught up in an ongoing cycle of bickering about small matters that often escalates quickly into a full-blown argument. Recently, Alyssa noticed Rick’s credit card statement on his desk and saw a $125.00 charge at his favorite Trek Bike shop.
Without stopping to gather information, Alyssa accused Rick of being extravagant and he counter attacked with blaming her for their financial problems because she reduced her hours at work to spend time with their two children. After calming down later that evening, she discovered that the bike shop charge was for their kids.
Stop Trying to Prove a Point and Make Repair Attempts
What Alyssa and Rick need is a way to stop blaming each other and to eliminate their pattern of trying to prove a point. The first step toward changing this dysfunctional pattern of relating is awareness. They can benefit by developing a team approach to conflict resolution – realizing that working together is more important than being right.
When each partner asserts his or her position and differences are addressed, a resolution is possible, and a partnership is formed. What matters is preserving love and attachment and getting back on track after a dispute.
In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman describes repair attempts as the secret weapon that emotionally intelligent couples’ employ that allows their marriage to flourish rather than flounder. A repair attempt is any statement or action – verbal, physical, or otherwise – intended to diffuse negativity and keep a conflict from escalating.
In over 40 years of research in his classic “Love Lab” studies, Dr. John Gottman discovered that the number one solution to marital problems is to get good at repair skills. He explains that repair attempts allow a couple to get back on track after a fight and are an important way to avoid resentment.
In the beginning of their relationship, Alyssa and Rick were so elated to have discovered each other that they focused more on their similarities than differences. After a while, emotional baggage from past relationships was causing them to overreact to triggers (such as spending money) and they started becoming more critical and defensive with each other. They lost sight of the loving feelings that brought them together in the first place.
Alyssa put it like this: “We tend to get irrational and dig our heels in when we fight – making things worse. Rick would say, “You’re always right Alyssa, you know you’re always right.” Alyssa paused and continued, “This would infuriate me even more. So now I say “I don’t want to always be right, I want you to understand where I’m coming from. And if that means we can’t talk about this right now, I’m going to go in the other room and read until we cool off. When I come back, we can talk.”
Rick explains: “Usually one of us will say “I love you and I want to get though whatever we don’t understand. Can we be friends? That’s what gets us through our fights, we are best friends.”
Every relationship has its inevitable difficulties, and conflict goes with the territory. Sometimes couples avoid conflict because it signified the end of a former relationship, or led to bitter disputes that never got resolved. Avoiding conflict backfires in intimate relationships. Bottling up negative thoughts and feelings doesn’t give your partner a chance to change their behavior. However, one of the secrets of a good marriage is learning to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between petty issues and truly important ones.
For example, Rick learned that arguing over dishes left in the sink was hardly worth the battle. Rather than keeping score, he and Alyssa sat down with their kids Thomas and Caitlin and discussed a schedule for chores and family responsibilities. Everyone contributed to the discussion and Caitlin developed a chart since she enjoys graphic art. Rick and Alyssa were surprised that their children bought into the plan as long as they could take Friday off and have pizza delivery with their friends – without their parents hovering or demanding clean up right away!
Deal with Hidden Issues
Keep in mind that when trivial issues are blown out of proportion, you should suspect “Hidden Issues.” For instance, the argument about money between Alyssa and Rick earlier isn’t really about the bike shop purchase as it’s about power and control in the family. Further, when people don’t feel recognized for what they have to contribute and safe enough to express negative feelings, they might blow up a trivial issue such as leaving dishes in the sink.
In Fighting for Your Marriage, D. Howard J. Markman Ph.D. explains that “Hidden Issues” are a sign that couples are keeping score, don’t feel recognized, and aren’t working as teammates. He explains that “Hidden Issues” reflect the unexpressed expectations, needs, and feelings that, if not attended to, can cause great damage to your marriage. Markman believes that most couples deal with issues only in the context of events. In other words, the only time an issue gets attention is when they are fighting about it. In a healthy relationship, partners draw out untapped possibilities in one another rather than focusing on each other’s flaws.
Patterns that Can Erode the Quality of Your Relationship
Happily married couples battle against negative patterns of relating rather than battle against each other, according to Howard Markman Ph.D. In fact, he advises couples to be watchful of the four patterns that can erode the quality of a relationship: escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal and avoidance.
- Trying to prove a point or upping the ante. For instance, if you walk away or ask for a little space when you feel that your buttons are being pushed, this can diffuse an argument. When escalation is short-circuited, according to Markman, it’s usually because one partner backs off or says something to de-escalate the argument – breaking the negative cycle.
- Invalidation is a pattern where one partner puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other partner either subtly or directly. The best way to avoid invalidating your partner is to show respect for him or her and acknowledge their different perspective. For instance, when Alyssa discovered the bike shop charge, she could say, “I realize you must have an explanation for the charge, can we talk about it?”
- Negative interpretations occur when a partner consistently believes that their partner’s motives are more negative than is actually the case. For example, if Rick is angry at Alyssa for being too lenient with their kids about chores, he might say, “You are such a pushover, they take advantage of you.” He may fail to realize that she just asked them to set the table.
- Withdrawal or avoidance involves one or both partner’s unwillingness to stay with an important discussion, either by shutting down during an argument, or being unwilling to engage in a discussion (avoidance). When this occurs, it can cause ongoing resentment.
In a recent HuffPo article, writer Brittany Wong tackles the universal problems of preventing blow ups with what she calls “conflict resolution gold” gleaned from the experience of one couple who tweeted about their own strategies and insights. The tweet went viral, and was as simple as it was practical — Alexander James posted “Some years back, my wife and I got into the habit of asking each other ‘do you want comfort or solutions’ when the other was having a bad time. That one sentence can save us from an argument 9/10 times.”
In breaking down the couple’s creative solution, Wong write that “the clever marital hack didn’t materialize overnight.” As expected, “prior to realizing that they could just explicitly ask what the other needed, they’d often rush to offer each other advice in stressful times.” It appears that this couple were caught in a vicious cycle of treading and re-treading the same points with anger and defensiveness.
As with so many issues that arise in a relationship, it’s clear that communication is the key to understanding, anticipating, and diffusing conflict. While it’s certainly easier said than done, the “hack” so many couples seek is at their fingertips. If spouses commit consistently to maintaining an open, honest, and judgment-free dialogue, a great many of the pitfalls that divide partners can be nipped in the bud. Indeed, all roads in a healthy marriage lead back to honest and open communication. This kind of back and forth forms the bedrock of long-lasting love.
Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.