... and the best way to respond and repair the relationship in each situation.
Some people dream of a relationship without arguments, but this isn’t necessarily healthy: it could be a sign of codependency or of one partner always complying with the other. In fact, conflict and disagreements prove that the relationship has vitality. Work, children, in-laws, and money are all topics that can spark heated debate. But disagreements are also opportunities to get to know and love each other more deeply. Whatever the source of conflict, it’s important to know how to navigate these disagreements while keeping the relationship intact.
More important than the actual cause of the argument, which can be great or small, is the impact a conflict has on the partners. To help you decide upon a course of action, think of your situation in terms of an avalanche warning: low risk, risk in certain areas, risk in multiple areas, high risk, and very high risk — to the relationship. To avoid being swept away by the avalanche, here are strategies for each level of risk to help you navigate the conflict while strengthening your relationship:
Low risk: Make amends right away
If a minor blunder or faux-pas results in hurt feelings, a kiss and a sincere apology can often suffice to make amends. Avoid brushing it off by teasing or joking. Simply say, “I’m sorry.” There are few phrases as effective as that one!
Risk in certain areas: Take preventative measures
Some partners avoid conflict altogether. Others have a tendency to hash everything out in the heat of the moment and risk hurting each other with angry words. Whether you find yourself on either extreme or somewhere in the middle, a weekly meeting can help facilitate constructive communication.
Knowing that every Friday night, for example, they will revisit things that came up during the week can give spouses security. Such meetings can be used to discuss the upcoming week, to make plans for the weekend, and to deal with conflict or residual bitterness from the past. It’s not necessarily easy — scheduling this regular weekly meeting can require sacrifice — but it can pay off. It’s an effort that permits you to cool off every week, work out misunderstandings, forgive each other … Once you form a better habit of communication, you can be more flexible with meeting times.
Risk in multiple areas: Use the tools of nonviolent communication
Just as we avoid touching a motor until it cools, so as not to get burned, we should also avoid addressing conflict when emotions are hot. Stop and set a time to revisit the situation. Before dealing with the conflict as a couple, take time alone to listen to your own feelings, accepting them all: anger, disgust, rejection, frustration, sadness, lack of understanding, disappointment, astonishment … Also take stock of any unmet needs for rest, support, sharing, understanding, etc.
Wait until you are both feeling calm and receptive before re-engaging in discussion. If your partner stays quiet, ask open questions to draw him or her into the conversation. Remember that it’s up to you to take responsibility for your needs. Sometimes the simple step of naming them can create positive change.
Share your own feelings and experience and ask your partner for his or her perspective. Avoid accusatory “you” statements. Instead use phrases such as “I find that … I feel … From my perspective …” This approach invites dialogue and genuine exchange.
Once both partners feel heard and understood, move to action. Taking into account your respective needs, what decisions need to be made to resolve this conflict? How can you prevent a similar conflict in the future?
High risk: Take a step back
If you are facing a major disagreement, first determine whether it is a conflict of values or a conflict of needs. Conflicts of values are particular to the people involved. They relate to you and your personal history and often require that one or both partners let go of some criteria. Examples of this kind of conflict: “My husband refuses to wear a vest at cousin Clara’s wedding.” “My wife refuses to let our daughter have pierced ears,” or, “She lets our daughter wear makeup at 13.” There is often drama involved in these types of conflicts, particularly if they touch on strongly held values.
To acknowledge that our points of view differ is a big step that requires objectivity and open-mindedness. One or both need to make concessions; make sure that it’s not always the same partner who concedes, and that both are making efforts to adapt. If possible, try to transform a compromise into an act of love. Making sacrifices for each other can actually strengthen the marriage bond, if it is done willingly and with love; as human beings, the more we sacrifice to invest in something — including a relationship — the more we identify with it and feel committed to its success.
Very high risk: Act immediately
If you are profoundly depressed, discouraged, and hurt, and you feel that talking leads you nowhere, seek professional help. Marriage counselors or couples therapists can provide tools and advice to help you out of a difficult situation. It’s a good idea to seek help before the situation becomes unbearable.
Repeated insults and/or physical violence are not simply disagreement or an argument: they are incidents of abuse. If you experience that situation, file a complaint or call emergency services in order to get immediate help. Support is available to help you make the right decisions for yourself and for the safety of your children.
This article was originally published in the French edition of Aleteia and has been translated and adapted here for English-speaking readers.