Navigating Relationship Discord: Three Strategies to Try
I belong to a select group of persons who married their high school sweetheart. That means that my spouse has seen me at my youngest and fittest to my oldest and saggiest. I’m 15 years older than I was when we first met, and my husband has weathered many storms by my side. Together, we navigated the ebb and flow of college life and all of its temptations. Then, we took on the working world as young professionals together, both of us coming home late at night exhausted from staring at a screen all day, with barely enough energy to throw a ball with our new pup. We thought we were tired then, but it was nothing compared to the sleep-deprived years of when our two children were newborns.
Our kids are now two and four and that pup is a totally blind, yet still sprightly, 16-year-old. Some days, the stars align and everyone gets along and we’re reminded of why we fell in love and said those vows so long ago. Yet, if I’m being honest, not every day is a holiday and there are many times when our nerves are shot and fried and we fall into bed without so much as a goodnight kiss. When conflict does arise, we’ve figured out a few ways to navigate it. These aren’t foolproof solutions and they won’t work for everyone, but they’re worth giving a try when your back’s against the wall.
1. Take a Time-Out
One of our biggest arguments happened a few years ago when I came home from a business trip to find the house in disarray. I was jet-lagged and emotionally and physically drained, and I just snapped at the sight of our dirty laundry piled high in the living room and our children’s toys scattered about in the kitchen. I could see the look of hurt on his face as I rattled off the list of things he’d done wrong while I was away.
I noticed immediately that my emotions were heightened and I needed to take a step back from the situation before I made it any worse. I didn’t want to drive in my crazed state, but we have a winding creek a few acres behind our house. I went for a walk back there and sat by the bubbling stream. I let my thoughts wander and I eventually felt my anger subside. I sat there for at least an hour, not talking to anyone, playing any music, or doing anything at all except watching the water ripple across the rocks. When I came back inside, dinner was ready and my family was waiting, and I was a more focused and softer wife and mother.
Psychologists reveal that recognizing the triggers of an argument before they start can help prevent it from spirling. To this end, a time-out for adults is often needed, to allow each party to collect his or her thoughts and step away from the heat of the moment.
This is one we learned the hard way after college got particularly tough. I think it’s important to note here that compromise isn’t always each party in the relationship giving 50%. More often than not, it’s one party giving 100% on one thing, then turning around and giving 0% on another. It means that sometimes we go out for sushi even though I don’t like it because it’s his hands-down favorite. Then, there are times we cue up a chick flick on television late at night because I need the mental relief that a good, light-hearted laugh provides.
Sometimes, there is no “middle ground” to be found and one party has to relent to the best interest of the other. Of course, this is over trivial things like movies and restaurants and doesn't mean relenting your moral ground or sense of safety. If disagreements are more serious than simply not seeing eye-to-eye on trivial matters, it may signal an unhealthy compromise. A few questions to ask when determining if your compromise is healthy or not include:
- Is it mutual agreement or is one party at a disproportionate advantage?
- Is there a specific, problem-solving goal in mind, or am I simply compromising to save the relationship?
- Is it rooted in resentment?
- Is it helping us become our best selves, or only adding to the authority of one party?
Use these questions to help ensure that you're working together to resolve conflict through healthy compromise and that one party isn't left carrying the brunt of the burden.
Remember, there’s no such thing as a perfect union, but if you and your loved one are perfect for another, it’s a union worth fighting for.
3. Timed Conversations
I have a tendency to interrupt. It’s an innate habit that I do without thinking. As soon as I have something to say, I just blurt it out, even if my spouse is in the middle of talking. As such, it can leave him feeling like I’m not listening to him and to be honest if I’m lost in my own thoughts trying to formulate an argument, I’m probably not. Studies reveal there are a few reasons why people interrupt, and it isn't always for attention. Sometimes, we speak out of turn because we are unaware of what the other party is doing and perceive that it's our turn to take the microphone. When there's silence coming from my partner, it might mean that he is simply formulating his thoughts to make sure he articulates them clearly. As such, it's helpful to set some communication boundaries at the onset of an argument.
We’ve found that it helps to let each person have five minutes to speak freely without interruption. While that’s happening, the other party needs to listen intently. Then, the roles are reversed. Sometimes we need more than five minutes and other times, about one minute is enough. Still, establishing those time limits gives a sense of boundaries to our argument and ensures that no one feels passed over or unimportant.
Fighting Fair: Navigating Disagreements the Healthy Way
The tips above are high-level, simple tactics to use when a surface-level rift occurs. I mentioned them because, for the most part, these are the kind of trivial spats that my spouse and I get into. For example, I get upset when he loads the dishwasher wrong or forgets to feed the dog. He gets irritated when I’m on my phone during a family dinner. Yet, there are often deeper, more serious issues at hand when couples argue. If this is the case for you and your significant other, your resolution approach may require the assistance of a counselor or legal expert. Introducing a third party to the conflict might feel a little alien at first, but if it can salvage your strained relationship or at least help you work toward a resolution, it’s a great first step.
Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.— Ronald Reagan