Q. Every time I try to discuss something with my husband, we don’t see eye to eye. Right away, it becomes an argument and we both get so upset at each other. It just seems like we can’t communicate properly resulting in both of us getting angry so quickly. I would rather not go to therapy and prefer to work this out on my own with him. Is there anything you could recommend that we try before we consider marriage therapy?
A. Conflict in marriage is typical and normal, but at times it can become damaging to the relationship if the partners don’t work towards resolution. This builds resentment, which makes it much easier to lose our cool as we enter the discussion not only with the current issue but with all the past unresolved issues as well. I will give you some suggestions of things you can try on your own and hopefully they will work for you. If not, it might indicate that you need a third party to intervene and I would suggest counseling.
One of the most basic communication skills is active listening. It involves having one person start as a speaker and the other as the listener. The speaker expresses himself and the listener’s job is to listen and then reflect back what they heard. For example, when the speaker has finished, the listener would say, “What I heard you say is that you’re upset that I don’t spend enough time at home. Is that right?” The speaker then would then respond with either a yes or no. If the answer is “no,” he will be asked to clarify. Once the listener gets it right, he will ask if is there anything more. If there isn’t, they would switch roles.
The basic concept is that marriage requires that each of us, while holding onto our own thoughts and views, create space for the other’s views and opinions to exist. There is no need for us to convince our partners of our views and it’s totally ok to disagree. But when you are able to listen and understand the other’s perspective, the gap between the views that seemed so large tends to shrink. This happens for two reasons. One is that we tend to misunderstand what the other person is saying when we’re in an argument. We have difficulty taking in another view when we feel threatened and are likely to “dig our heels in the sand” until we feel we are being heard. The second is that once we create room for understanding and connection with the other, the significance of the disagreement falls aside and the need for connection and safety kicks in. When things are going well with couples, minor stressors remain exactly that and are usually easily resolved. But when there is an overall lack of connection, minor stressors become more significant and it seems that almost everything can become a fight.
Another suggestion I would like to offer is trying to paradoxically argue the other person’s point of view. This can really help you understand the other’s view and perhaps, more importantly, lighten the mood. Humor can be helpful when used to defuse arguments, but we need to be careful that it’s done in a way that doesn’t come across as belittling. Humor also removes the feeling of being threatened, and when we experience threat it becomes harder to see things clearly and in perspective.
One more suggestion is to set up rules when both of you are calm for how you want to handle disagreement. This includes how you’d like the conversation to go, addressing what happens if you can’t reach an agreement, and ensuring that no lines are crossed which can cause hurt to the other like name-calling or ignoring.
We all want peace in our relationships and when it’s not there it’s very distressing to both parties. Sometimes, we need extra reminders and although creating space for other opinions can be challenging, it’s also quite rewarding.