Well here we are, Sarah and Matt, ready to share some more tips and tricks on how to build a fun and healthy marriage. So naturally we are going to start with arguing. Fun, right?
Okay, so arguing isn’t a fun topic. However, it is a pivotal part of maintaining a healthy marriage. No matter how compatible you and your spouse are, you will have disagreements. It is impossible to have a committed relationship without conflict; the key is how you handle it. You can handle conflict in a way that is constructive or destructive to your relationship.
We got engaged while we were seniors in college and got married soon after graduation. Our story of how we began learning how to manage the conflict in our marriage begins in a class. My (Sarah’s) Interpersonal Communication Class to be precise.
I was working on completing my sociology minor, and in this class, my professor gave a rather interesting assignment. We were working on a section on conflict resolution, and what both constructive and destructive resolution was. He assigned us the project of finding someone we conflicted with, resolve that conflict, and write a paper about the process. I was at a little bit of a loss because I couldn’t think of a conflict to try to resolve; and I really didn’t want to go looking for one either.
My roommate found it hilarious, the idea that I had to actively come up with a conflict to sort out. I remember her sitting on her bunk, chuckling away as she was typing on her laptop until she finally said, “The good news for you is that you and Matt are bound to get into an argument sometime.”
That idea stuck with me, because I knew that it was true. Matt and I had disagreed before, and we both knew that we were going to argue even after we were married. What if I wrote a paper about resolving the conflict of how to go about resolving conflict? So, I got a hold of Matt and talked to him about it.
My (Matt’s) memories are a little hazy about this, but I do remember thinking that it was a clever idea. We arranged a time to get coffee and sit down together to hash out how we would handle conflict in our marriage. We wrote down rules, and dos and don’ts. In the end we had created a complete plan for how to handle conflict that we both agreed on. Sarah got an A on the paper too.
It’s funny to think that a school assignment would be so helpful in the future. The plan for arguing has had a few changes over the years. We aren’t as naïve as we were when we first wrote it, but it has served us well in how we approach disagreements.
Come for the War?
As we said before, conflict resolution can be either constructive or destructive. Constructive conflict focuses on open and clear communication with the goal of reaching an understanding. Destructive conflict escalates quickly through digging in and refusing to try and understand the other person. It gets you nowhere fast.
For example: A husband gets home from an exhausting day at work and wants to spend some time alone to unwind and then go to bed early. His wife is feeling starved for attention because she spent the entire day taking care of the kids, and just wants to spend a little time with her husband. Neither of them has expectations that are particularly unreasonable to them, but they are certainly at odds with each other. Here are two ways that this little conflict could be handled:
“You NEVER want to spend any time with me anymore! How can you complain about being so tired? I’m tired too! I spent all day taking care of the kids and you can’t even take five minutes to talk to me?”
“I understand that you’re tired, but I’m feeling a little neglected right now. I had a rough day with the kids and I could really use a little encouragement and some time with you. Is there a way that we can make this work out?”
I bet we don’t have to explain which of these statements is more destructive than the other. The first statement will immediately put the husband on the defensive, and rightly so. It’s a blatant attack.
The second response is diplomatic and tries to find a compromise. It shows that she wants to understand how her husband is feeling, but also wants him to see how she is feeling. They can come to an agreement of how to give him the time he needs to rest, while also giving her a chance to get a little bit of quality time.
A couple that makes a habit of arguing constructively, while not necessarily having fewer arguments, will come out of them feeling closer and more satisfied with each other. Keeping the lines of communication open, and not jumping on the attack or the defensive, also means that they are more likely to keep their relationship stable for the rest of the family as well. Children raised in this climate will feel more secure about their parent’s relationship, will view them as more of a team, and will learn constructive arguing techniques themselves.
Destructive conflict, however, can drive a deep wedge in a relationship. Especially if it’s a constant. If destructive arguing is a frequent part of a relationship it will lead to more arguing, dissatisfaction, anger, and permanent damage. Ultimately, communication may stop entirely, and that is a major sign that a relationship is heading towards divorce. Children that live in a family that resolves conflict in this way will feel immensely insecure about their parent’s relationship and will develop these habits in trying to resolve conflict themselves.
Stay for the Peace
If you’re going through a patch where you are struggling with managing conflict in your relationship, then perhaps it’s time to sit down and do what we did when we were engaged. Set aside a time to make or reassess your rules for how to handle conflict in your relationship. We’ve taken time to reassess these rules over the years and make certain we’re still following them.
Spend a little time trying to figure out what areas of your life are increasing your stress, and may be contributing to more likely arguments. This may or may not include things in your personal relationship, but also issues like work, kids, or lack of sleep. Determining external issues which may be contributing factors to friction, and then coming up with ways to help each other, can help strengthen your cooperation.
Here are a few tried and true (by us) suggestions of rules you may want to include in developing your conflict resolution habits:
- Talk about your feelings. (Matt says, “This means YOU gentlemen!”) Instead of using attacking words against your spouse, explaining how an issue is making you feel really helps contribute to conversation and resolution. You may be surprised by just how often your spouse had no intention of making you feel the way you feel; it may come as a complete surprise.
- Don’t hide from disagreements and let them fester. This is a hard one for both of us, especially Sarah. She grew up in a family where she would often feel like it wasn’t okay to express her negative feelings, and it can lead to her falling into the trap of becoming avoidant and anxious. Learning how to talk about problems and listen to each other, before things escalate, is pivotal to healthy marriage maintenance.
- Accept that many of the problems you will have will be linked to challenges in each other’s personalities or upbringing. They won’t disappear any time soon, or necessarily ever. We can promise you that you will almost always come back to the exact same root problems, occasionally in a new package. Both of you are flawed and will continue to have those flaws rear up consistently.
There are so many other things that can be said about going into building healthy habits for resolving conflict. The most important thing that we can say is plan on how to manage conflict, set rules and guidelines, and try to follow them. Forgive each other when you don’t but work to get yourselves back on track. Conflict is both unavoidable and necessary, so don’t be afraid of it, plan for it. You’ll be glad you did.
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