The common perception among married or co-habitating couples is that fighting is a sign the relationship is in trouble and may lead to separation. It is common for couples to focus on how much they are fighting and what the consequences could be.
When handled properly, arguments and disputes can be healthy if it leads to stronger development of your relationship when it clarifies the needs, wishes, and terms of your relationship.
Dr. John Gottman, a renowned therapist who dedicated his career to studying marital stability, discovered that conflict is not the cause of unhappy marriages, but rather, how the couple manages the conflict. He identified four destructive communication styles that predict the end of a marriage/relationship.
1. Criticism – is an attack to the other’s character which reinforces and targets their shortcomings. People often criticize when their complaints are being ignored.
2. Contempt – is a deliberate way of emotionally, verbally, or psychologically abusing the other person. Contempt takes the form of insults, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, and body language.
3. Defensiveness – is a natural reaction to being criticized, mocked, and belittled.
4. Stonewalling – is a method of conflict avoidance by tuning out, turning away, disconnecting, becoming busy with things outside the relationship, or engaging in obsessive behavior.
What To Do:
Before you address an issue with your spouse or mate, prepare yourself for the discussion.
Reflect and identify aspects of the relationship or your mate's behavior that upsets or bothers you.
Identify and establish the purpose of the conversation, and goals to accomplish, by discussing your complaint with your spouse. Keep in mind that in order for the conversation to be productive, the purpose should be to find a common solution to the problems where both you and your spouse are happy with the resolution. If your intent is to hurt, accuse, blame, and win, you might want to reconsider the purpose of the discussion and postpone it for a later time.
Be Calm. Although being calm is the last thing you want to do when you are upset, controlling your emotions will help you clearly identify and express what bothers you without exaggerating your point of view and making your partner become defensive before the conversation even starts.
Start with a Request for Help. People are more likely to cooperate and be empathetic when their help is being requested versus demanding them in an accusatory or authoritative tone to do something they might not like.
e.g. “I need your help.” Vs “Why do you always do ….?” OR “How many times do you want me to tell you I don’t like….”
Name the feeling associated with the action/behavior that bothers you. It helps to identify and name the feeling associated with the behavior that bothers you.
e.g. “It hurts me when….”
“I am angry when….”
“I feel disrespected when….”
“I feel frustrated when….”
Be specific in naming the action/behavior that bothers you.
e.g., “It hurts me when you don’t call to let me know you will be late for dinner.”
Name one issue at a time. Decide on a specific behavior or issue that you want to address so you and your partner can discuss it until you can resolve that specific issue. Do not overwhelm and confuse your partner with a cluster of issues all ot one time.
Define the desired behavior. One of the assumptions most people in a relationship make is that the other person should know what we need. Unfortunately, your spouse or significant other is not able to read your mind and they need your help to know exactly what you need and want from them. This eliminates false assumptions and guessing games which in a marital conflict ads to the emotional distress.
e.g., “It hurts me when you don’t call to let me know you will be late for dinner. Can you please call me and let me know that you are not able to make it?”
Ask the other person’s opinion on the action/behavior. When we ask the other person’s opinion or input, we elicit their collaboration and help. This allows our mate to reflect on the consequences of their behavior, and consider an option to address the complaint. Be considerate of your spouse’s point of view, and listen to their perspective. There is never just one single point of view on an issue. Be willing to reflect on their perspective even if it is different than yours.