Many of us think of conflicts as a bad thing. I would be concerned when couples tell me they do not have conflicts. I would wonder, “Are they living separate lives?”, “Are they communicating?”, “Are they avoiding conflicts in their relationship?” etc. The truth is, when two persons live together, conflicts are inevitable, and they are not always bad. When a couple is able to resolve conflicts successfully, they discover new things about each other and grow in their relationship. So, how can couples resolve disputes successfully and lovingly?
Firstly, recognise that both of you are on the same team.
“Marriage is a team sport; you either win together or lose together.” In a team sport, it’s impossible for one member to win and another member of the same team to lose. Sadly, married couples sometimes take on a “win-lose” mentality when in conflict. The fact is, if both husband and wife see themselves as being on the same team, they either both win, or they both lose. When you work alongside your spouse as teammates to resolve the conflict, not only do both of you win; your relationship wins as well!
Being on the same team also means that there isn’t a “me versus you” mentality. There’s only a “us” mentality. That is, you tell each other that “I am for you”. Hence, your goal is to help each other deal with the problem on hand, be it with household chores, finances, in-laws, etc. If the issue is with the in-laws, your spouse and you should stand on the same side and work out a solution together. If the issue is financial differences, work as a team to devise a plan.
Second, be kind to one another.
Before you discuss an issue with your spouse, pause and think about how you can do so without being harsh. If you are feeling angry, wait till you are calm before bringing up the issue. Treating each other with kindness would mean the absence of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling. These are “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, which Dr John Gottman highlights as one of the predictors of divorce (Gottman and Silver 2015, 32). When these four horsemen are in your conflict discussions, they only result in negative vibes and destructive communication.
Being kind also means showing empathy to each other. In your conflict discussions, LISTEN to what your spouse is saying and how they feel so that you can respond with empathy and not be on the defence. Express your empathy by saying something like, “Thanks for sharing how you feel. I now know how hurt you felt by my actions of inconsideration.” End it with an apology and a hug. Hugs always work.
Third, recognise your need for a time-out.
During conflicts, emotions can get high, and you may end up saying or doing things you regret. It is also difficult to have a productive conversation when you are feeling emotional and your mind is not thinking clearly. When that happens, you need to recognise your need for a time-out. A time-out allows you time to cool down and gather your thoughts before resuming the conversation in a calm and collected manner. Only then can you listen to your spouse’s point of view and work together to resolve the issue.
Remember, you should be calling a time-out for yourself and not telling your spouse that he/she needs one. Also, suggest a time to resume the conversation. You can say something like, “I think I’m too angry to continue this conversation; I need to take a time-out to calm down and gather my thoughts. Can we resume one hour later?” In that one hour, do something to help you relax and calm down. You could take deep breaths, take a walk, listen to soothing music, etc. When you’re calmer, try to identify what contributed to the heated argument and how you can resume the conversation more productively.
Fourth, be ready to compromise.
It is normal for husbands and wives to have different views on the same issues, different solutions to the same problem, different preferences, etc. The only way to resolve these differences would be to compromise. Insisting on your way would only result in a “win-lose” situation. I like what Dr Gottman says about compromising. “Compromise is not just about one person changing. It’s about negotiating and finding ways to accommodate each other.” (Gottman and Silver 2015, 184). To do so, you need to be open to your spouse’s preferences, opinions, and ideas, find common ground, and arrive at a solution both can feel good about. Remember, in a conflict, the mentality should not be “me versus you” but “us”. When you and your spouse take on this mentality, everybody wins!