Most couples think that they know how to fight

We Can Work It Out – Most couples think that they know how to fight. After all, they do it often enough! Many people, however, don’t know there are important ground rules to a fair fight. Arguments with your spouse are inevitable. Learning how to fight fair can help you learn from your mistakes and make conflict resolution more productive.

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Set Aside Time

Now that the two of you know how to identify conflicts, you need to learn how to resolve them. The first and very important step is making sure you have each other’s undivided attention. In Chapter 5, “Two-Way Communication,” we mentioned set- ting aside time to resolve differences. Having a regular time to discuss differences is crucial to a good working relationship for two basic reasons. The first reason is that each person knows that he or she will always have a chance to vent frustrations be- fore they build up.

➤ Ground rules for resolving conflicts
➤ Setting aside time to fight
➤ How to express yourself correctly

➤ The importance of staying on track
➤ How to acknowledge your partner’s point of view

A scheduled discussion time prevents problems from festering and growing out of control. If both people know that Monday evenings from 8 to 8:30 are always discus- sion times, they will never worry that their concerns won’t be heard. The other advantage to a regular discussion time is that it creates some distance from the problem. By talking about a problem away from the heat of the moment, both peo- ple can be more objective.

Discussing a problem right when it’s happening guarantees a more heated argument. When either per- son is very emotional about an issue, that emotion can interfere with the resolution. Waiting to discuss a problem will ensure that both people are as calm and objective as possible.

How much time should you set aside for discussion? Thirty minutes a week works well for many couples. The maximum amount of time we advise is one hour. If you cannot resolve an issue in one hour, you proba- bly need to “sleep on it” to gain perspective. It’s im- portant to pick a convenient time for both of you. Times like right before you have to dash off for work or after your usual bedtime are not going to give you the calm, uninterrupted time you need to settle your differences.

It might seem like a waste of time to do this every week. Actually, it’s a timesaver, because you don’t need to spend time fighting throughout the week. By hav- ing a scheduled time for conflict resolution, disagree- ments will take up a very small part of your week.

Most couples don’t plan how they will resolve conflicts because they cling to the notion that in a successful relationship there aren’t any conflicts. Nothing could be further from the truth! It’s precisely because successful couples take the time to resolve their conflicts that they are successful.

Turning Conflict into Resolution

We talked about the importance of identifying conflicts the first step toward resolving differences with your partner. Once you realize what is bothering you, you can use the bother barometer to figure out how much something is bothering you. You and your spouse might not need to discuss things that rank low on your scale. By using this method, you will also know what issues you absolutely must talk about during your weekly meeting.

Harry and Sue spent a lot of their time together bickering and never seemed able to resolve any- thing. Harry would track mud into the house, and Sue would become angry. She would ask him to take off his shoes and leave them on the porch, and he would say, “Don’t bother me now, I’m busy.” Sue would attempt to bring up the topic, but Harry never wanted to talk about it. She was becoming more and more frustrated. Lately, she would yell at him for that and other things. She felt like he never listened, but she didn’t know any other way to get her point across.

On the other hand, Sue would leave magazines all over the house. Harry could not always find the one he wanted to read. He wanted Sue to keep all the magazines in one place, so he would know where they were. Every time he brought it up with Sue, she was busy and didn’t want to talk about it.

Harry and Sue both had a habit that annoyed the other person. It wouldn’t take much effort for Harry to take off his shoes when they were muddy and for Sue to keep their magazines in the family room.

They could resolve these issues if they would take the time to discuss them. However, because they waited until the heat of the moment, the intensity of their emotions prevented a productive discus- sion. What would otherwise have been a minor problem built up and became a constant source of frustration for both of them.

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Have a Clear Goal in Mind

Before you talk with your partner, think about how the problem might be resolved. In the above example with Harry and Sue, the goal is straightforward. But, something might be bothering you and it’s not clear what would help. If this is the case, stop! Think it through. Take the time to develop some specific ideas on how to make things right. It will be easier for your spouse to change if he or she knows exactly what would help you. A good discussion has a clear end point; if you don’t know what that is, why would your partner?

The following steps will provide clarity and help you focus on what you want your partner to do:

  1. Write down what is bothering you.
  2. Use the bother barometer to determine how much it bothers you.
  3. Try to examine why it bothers you.
  4. Come up with three different things your spouse could do to help.
  5. During your next discussion time with your spouse, tell your spouse what is bothering you and what he or she could do to help.

Think of Solutions

Melissa and Sam were generally very accommodating toward one another. When something bothered the other person, they bent over backward to do something about it. But recently, they had a problem. Melissa was concerned that Sam was spending far too much time at work and coming home past dinnertime every night. Sam was working on a special project, which would last a few more months, and he needed to put in extra hours at the office to get it done. Melissa felt lonely and neg- lected all week. When she brought it up with Sam, he became defensive. He did miss the time he spent with Melissa, but when he asked her what he could do, she only said, “You need to come home earlier.” He responded, “That’s impossible. I have too much work to do.” That seemed like the end of the discussion, and Melissa continued to feel frustrated. Sam was usually willing to accommodate her, but this time he could not realistically meet her request.

Finally, instead of brooding over it, she started to think about other solutions. She came up with a good idea. She asked Sam if he could shift his schedule. Instead of coming home at 9 P.M. every night, she asked if he could come home at 11 P.M. one night and 7 P.M. the next night.

Sam thought about this and agreed. He felt much better, because he believed the so- lution accommodated his needs as well. Sam then came up with the idea that on the nights he worked until 11 P.M., Melissa would bring take-out dinner to his office so they would at least have a short chance to talk. If he was going to be working so late, he needed to take a dinner break. By opening the door to a reasonable solution, Melissa shifted Sam out of his defensive mode.

They generally abided by this new schedule for the next six months, until Sam completed his project. Both of them were happier because they had more time together. Sam felt less stressed by his extra workload because he knew he was seeing Melissa for dinner almost every evening. Many problems have reasonable solutions, but they need to be thought of first!

Say “I,” Not “You”

Too many arguments break down into yelling, screaming accusation sessions:

“You did this.”
“You did that.”
“You made me feel awful.”

These are fighting words and are very likely to put your partner on the defensive. Sentences starting with “you” are by definition accusatory. They also don’t inform your spouse how you are feeling. But sentences starting with the word “I” have the opposite effect:

“I feel this way …”
“I was hurt when …” “I get frustrated by …”

These phrases help your partner sympathize with how you feel and are the first step to resolving conflicts. It’s easy for your partner to be on your side when you say how you feel. It’s much harder for your partner when he or she feels defensive. By following this simple rule, you can make your arguments productive by helping the other person understand how you are feeling.

After seeing us for several months about their difficulties handling conflicts, Harry and Sue, at our guidance, started having weekly discussion ses- sions. These would sometimes turn into fighting sessions. The most recent discussion involved Sue’s habit of leaving the car’s gas tank near empty. Even though it was a relatively small issue, they never seemed to be able to resolve it. Harry would say, “You drive me crazy when you let the gas run out in the car. You’re so inconsiderate. You can’t be thinking of anyone but yourself when you do that.” Sue really felt attacked. Harry’s words did not make her feel like fixing the problem; they just made her mad. So, both of them were angry, and Sue continued to let the gas run too low in the car.

But think how differently Sue would feel if Harry had brought up his complaint using the “I” rule. “I was frustrated yesterday because the gas was very low in the car. I was late to my meeting because I needed to fill up the car with gas. I would really appreci- ate it if you would put gas in the car when it gets down to a quarter tank. That would help me out a lot.” Sue probably wouldn’t feel defensive. She would see his point of view and might feel motivated to keep a reasonable amount of gas in the car.

Reality Check

These questions will help you think about your conflicts with your spouse. You might find that conflicts would be more productive if you followed the “I,” not “you,” rule.

  1. How often do you fight with your partner? Every day? Several times a week?
  2. Do you feel your fights are resolved fairly? Or are your arguments often unresolved?
  3. Do you tend to accuse your partner of something by starting sentences with “you”? Can you remember specific incidents in the last three weeks when you used the word “you” in a fight?
  4. How could you have rephrased your sentences to include the word “I”? Do you think the issue would have been resolved differently?

When you think about it, you probably realize that rephrasing discussions using the word “I” instead of “you” would help resolve conflict. During your next discussion, see how it changes the tone of the whole conversation for the better!

Be a Good Echo

We talked about making sure you were heard. This is particularly important when you are trying to resolve your differences. Never as- sume you have been heard. Everyone is different. While you might need to be told only once to make sure to close the refrigerator door, most people need to be told something several times before it “clicks” in. Be patient and try not to have anger in your voice if your spouse needs reminding. Also, just because you said something once to your spouse doesn’t mean that he or she understands what you meant or what you need. Having your spouse repeat what you said is a way of showing you that he or she heard what you said. If your spouse doesn’t repeat it accurately, then you have a chance to say it differently.

Melissa and Sam usually understood each other’s concerns. But sometimes even they would miscommunicate. They would make an incorrect assumption about what the other person was saying. For instance, Sam didn’t like it when Melissa was on the telephone for long periods of time when he was home, especially during mealtime. He wanted her to limit her conversations to about 10 minutes, and if the phone rang during dinner, he wanted her to tell the person she would call them back after din- ner. So Sam said, “I don’t like it when you’re on the phone all night. I like to spend time with you in the evenings.” Sam worded his request by following the “I” rule.

Melissa immediately assumed that Sam did not want her to answer the phone in the evenings. The phone rang several times each night, and Melissa usually answered it. She worked out of their home and used the telephone to conduct much of her busi- ness. Melissa assumed that Sam’s request was unreasonable. So she said, “You mean that you want me never to answer the phone during dinner? What if an important client is calling and doesn’t leave a message? And you mean that I shouldn’t conduct any business in the evenings? That would be impossible for me!”

“No, no, no. That isn’t what I meant.” Sam told Melissa that what he meant was that she always answer the phone, but tell the caller she would call him or her back after dinner. And, he asked that she limit her calls to 10 minutes, unless it was something urgent. This seemed reasonable to Melissa. By repeating what she thought Sam meant, Sam was able to clarify what he really wanted from her. If she had just said, “I can’t do that,” this issue would still be unresolved.

Stay on Target

It’s tempting in an argument to collect every grievance you have ever had against your spouse and throw it in his or her face. This is obviously counterproductive. If you are talking about dirty socks, talk only about dirty socks. That is an issue you can tackle and resolve. If dirty socks turns into wet towels, cold dinners, and too many long days at the office, you will defeat your purpose. You will not have resolved the issue about dirty socks, and you will have succeeded only in making your spouse angry and alienated.

Marriage Q & A’s

Q: When I bring up all the things that are bothering me, we never seem to be able to resove anything. What can I do?

A: It’s very important to discuss and resolve one issue at a time. When you try to resolve many different things at a time, it can be overwhelming and it makes it impossible to find workable solutions. If you make sure to set aside time every week, or possibly twice a week, to discuss conflicts, you will have the time you need to work through one issue at a time.

Sue and Harry were handling their conflicts better. They had set aside time to discuss differences, and they were better at using the word “I” to communicate their needs.

But sometimes they would lose focus during an argu- ment. Sue wanted Harry to clean the kitchen table after he was done eating, and asked him to do so. But just as he was about to agree, she began listing several other “dirty kitchen” issues that were bothering her. When she was on her fifth request, Harry lost patience and walked away. She had lost focus and had lost her husband’s attention by bombarding him with too much at once.

Sue learned her lesson, and the next week she only brought up the kitchen table. This illustrates another benefit of the weekly discussion sessions. A planned time gives you another chance to work through a problem. Harry agreed, and Sue saved her other grievances for another time.

One-Liners to Avoid

Statements like these stop a fight dead in its tracks. Nothing gets resolved when you say the following:

“You’re impossible.” “I’m leaving you.” “We’ll never get along.”

The person speaking them, in essence, is saying that this process is futile and a waste of time. It’s impossible for the other person to respond to such a statement, and he or she will either walk away or come right back with a similar statement. It’s very easy to fall into this trap. Sometimes the situation really does seem impossible. But try to stop yourself next time from delivering these “show-stopping” one-liners. Remember that these types of state- ments will only push your spouse away and you’ll be that much further from your goal of having a close, intimate marriage.

Be Honest with Your Limits

Most of us would like to make our spouses happy. If our spouse has a reasonable request of us, we try to be accommodating. But an issue might arise that is not so easily solved. The request our spouse makes might exceed our limits. For instance, in the earlier example with Melissa and Sam, Sam did not agree to come home at 7 P.M. every night. He knew that he could not complete his project without working extra hours. As much as he wanted to accommo- date Melissa, he could not agree to her request.

Imagine what would have happened if he had told her that he would try to come home at 7 P.M. At about six o’clock every single night, Sam would become frantic. He would look at the amount of work he had left to do and realize there was no way he would be home on time. He would do as much as he could and then call Melissa at 6:45 and tell her that he would be late. Melissa would be angry because she had pre- pared dinner and was looking forward to seeing him. Sam would be in a no-win situa- tion. If he came home on time, he would be resentful that he couldn’t fulfill his responsibilities at work. If he stayed late, he would upset Melissa.

But Sam had been honest with himself about his needs, and he and Melissa came up with a good solution. It’s always better to be honest with your spouse about your own limits from the start. Saying you’ll do something and then not following through is usually worse than admitting you can’t do it in the first place. When you are both clear about your limits, you can develop a solution using all of the necessary information.

Don’t Forget You Are Both on the Same Side

It’s important to remember that you and your spouse are on the same side during every argument. You both have the same goal during every fight to resolve your differences so that both of you are satisfied.

Your goal is not to “win” the argument, but to help develop a workable solution. You care about your spouse and want him or her to be happy. You don’t want your spouse to be miserable and upset about an issue you haven’t been able to resolve together. Try not to lose sight of that when you are frustrated.

Resolving to Resolve

If you are determined to resolve your differences with your spouse, then you are halfway there! Conflict resolution takes a commitment of time and energy from both you and your spouse. But that time and energy is well spent. When you work together on resolving your differences, you are strengthening your relationship.

There are times you will need to compromise to reach a solution. You might need to do something you don’t really want to do in order to accommodate your spouse. And at other times, your spouse will need to do something he or she doen’t really want to do in order to be accommodating of your needs. Remember to look at the larger goals getting along and resolving your differences. That can make compromising easier.

The Least You Need to Know

  • ➤  Set aside time for conflict resolution, and be clear about your goals.
  • ➤  Avoid using the accusatory “you” in arguments. Try to use the word “I” to describe your feelings.
  • ➤  It’s useful to repeat back what your spouse tells you.
  • ➤  Keep your discussions focused.
  • ➤  Don’t commit to things you can’t do. Figure out a compromise solution that you both can live with.