How many times do you and your partner go round and round arguing about the same things?
If you keep having the same tireless conversations that seem to go no where-- conversations that begin the same way and result in a lack of resolution, frustration and even hopelessness, you are not alone.
There is a way forward.
After working with couples providing relationship counseling for nearly twenty years, I've identified a comprehensive list of steps to Conflict Resolution that I believe will be transformational for many.
Let's start here...
1. Make a list of all the issues about which you have disagreements, including the issues that you refrain from talking about out of fear that talking might lead to arguing.
Your treatment will be complete when you have found mutually agreeable solutions to all of these issues, and also have learned the skills to resolve new issues as they arise with similarly win-win solutions.
If the list seems interminable because you fight about everything from time of day to where to live, odds are the problem is less that you are facing some challenging differences, and more that your manner of talking with each other needs a major upgrade.
2. Fix your focus solidly on yourself. Attempts to get your partner to change invite defensiveness. No one likes being told they're doing things wrong or, far worse, that they are a bad person. Better by far for both of you each to use your energies and intelligence to figure out what YOU could do differently.
Here's a question that can get you started. What would enable you to stay loving and good-humored even if the frustrating pieces in your spouse’s repertoire never get an upgrade? That's how to become “self-centered” in the best sense. If both of you are seeking to do your own upgrades, the marriage will blossom.
3. Eliminate all negativity from your interactions. The point is that negative muck that you give each other is totally unhelpful. It only taints a positive relationship. That means no more criticism, complaints, blame, accusations, anger, sarcasm, mean digs, snide remarks.
No more escalation either. Stay in the calm zone. Exit early and often if either of you is beginning to get heated. Learn to calm yourself, and then re-engage cooperatively.
Research psychologist John Gottman has found that marriages generally survive if the ratio of good to bad interactions is 5 to 1. Do you want to barely survive? Or do you want to save the marriage in a way that will make it thrive? If thriving is your goal, aim for 100,000,000:1. That means, don’t sling mud at all.
4. Learn how to express your concerns. A simple way to do that in sensitive conversations is to stick with the following four sentence-starter options. Using this format helps to diffuse conflict both in sessions with a therapist and at home as well:
I feel (followed by a one-word feeling such as anxious, sad, etc) …
My concern is ………..
I would like to … [note, NEVER use "I would like you to …."]
How would you feel about that? or, What's your thoughts on that?
5. Learn how to make decisions co-operatively. I call collaborative decision making the “win-win waltz.”
The goal of win-win is a plan of action that pleases you both. No more aiming to “get your way.” Instead, when you have differences, express your underlying concerns, listen to your partner’s concerns, and create a solution responsive to all the concerns of both of you.
Practice this skill on all the issues you listed in step 1. You may be amazed at how even on the issues that seemed so intractable you really can find solutions that will work for both of you.
6. Eliminate the three A’s that ruin marriages. Affairs, Addictions, and excessive Anger are deal-breakers. They are out-of-bounds in a healthy marriage. Game over.
If you are indulging in one of these self-defeating and relationship-destroying habits, get help and get it out of your life.
If your spouse has these problems, saving this kind of marriage could be a mistaken goal. Better to end a marriage than to tolerate these bad habits. However, the ideal is for the two of you both to commit to building a new kind of marriage, a marriage where there are zero affairs, addictions or excessive anger and instead lots of love and trust.
So, end the old marriage. Build a new one with the same partner.
7. Radically increase positive energy toward your partner.
Smile more. Touch more. Hug more. More “eye kisses.” More sex. More shared time and shared projects. More appreciation. More dwelling on what you like about your partner.
Respond more often with agreement in response to things your partner says that in the past you might have answered with “But…”. Listening is loving, especially when you are listening to take in information, not to show what's wrong with what your partner says or to show that you know more.
Help out more. Give more praise and more gratitude. Do more fun activities together. Laugh and joke more, do new things and go new places together.
The best things in life really are free. And the more positives you give, the more you’ll get.
Heitler writes above about Gottman's 5:1 ratio. Increasing the positives is every bit as important as decreasing negatives to hit a 100,000,000:1 ratio.
8. Look back at your parents’ marriage: identify strengths and weaknesses. Decide what you want to do differently.
When people marry they bring along a recording in their head of how their parents treated each other, and also how they were treated by their parents. These relationships are where folks learn patterns of interacting for intimate relationships. Decide consciously what to keep from your folks and what to do differently.
I believe if we actually put these practices into place we will experience more peace, satisfaction, and hope in the next season of our relationships. If you have questions about any of the tools above or if you would like to schedule a session for marital work via Skype or in my Amman based office, I’d love to hear from you!
**Susan Heitler, Phd, the backbone behind these steps, is a graduate of Harvard with a clinical psychology doctorate from NYU. She has authored the books From Conflict to Resolution and the Power of Two.