Often the big problem with anger in marriage is not that anger sometimes appears, but how the couple handles it when it does. One of the weakest links in most relationships is how conflict is addressed and resolved.
Conflict problems come in two sizes: conflict avoidance and conflict escalation. Either can be the cause of the other.
Avoiding conflict allows issues to build to a boiling point, which upgrades them to atomic-level explosions when they come to a head. Conflict escalation, on the other hand, can be such a traumatic experience that it leads couples to avoid facing their issues altogether. The resulting cold war creates an atmosphere of tension that reduces intimacy and builds walls. The solution is not to avoid important differences, but to set ground rules for effective communication when conflict arises.
It’s a simple, three-step process.
STEP 1: LISTEN
The first rule in effective conflict resolution is to listen carefully to everything your mate is saying—both on the surface and beneath it. Failure to listen is one of the most common causes of miscommunication. As one man told his friend, “My wife says I don’t listen to her. At least, I think that’s what she said.”
To see whether you really listen to your mate, do this two-point check on yourself the next time the two of you attempt to resolve a conflict. First, when your mate begins to speak, do you find yourself getting angry and planning your response even before your mate’s first sentence is complete? Second, do you find yourself interrupting and refuting before your mate completes all he or she intends to say?
These common tendencies indicate that you are not listening. Your castle is closed, the drawbridge is up, and you are notching your arrows for the counterattack. When both partners do this, they might as well be locked in separate rooms for all the good their discussion is doing. Neither is hearing the other.
Observing sound speaker/listener techniques can do much to resolve conflicts effectively. The first rule is that one person—let’s say your spouse— has the floor at a time and holds it without interruption as long as needed to say what she feels.
The spouse should limit what she says to the subject at hand, and it’s important that she avoid being accusative. She should talk about her own thoughts and feelings concerning the controversy and not attack her husband’s point of view or motives. (“Here is why I think we need to buy that new sofa …”) That means using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. “I” statements unite, while “you” statements are interpreted as attacks and create alienation and distance. (“You never seem to notice how ragged and lumpy those cushions are.”) She should avoid name-calling, judgments, criticisms, and all-encompassing assumptions such as “you always” or “you never” statements.
You must remain quiet and listen carefully and respectfully until she finishes. Though you disagree and may be angry yourself, you must not appear bored or show contempt with body language or facial expressions. Disagreement is no excuse for disrespect.
STEP 2: REPEAT YOUR MATE’S POINTS
Before you present your own view of the issue, you must paraphrase what you heard back to your wife to be sure you understood. She listens to your paraphrase without interrupting, and then she either affirms or corrects as needed. To ensure complete understanding, you should limit your paraphrase to a maximum of three sentences at a time before pausing for her affirmation or correction.
STEP 3: REBUTTAL
When your wife agrees that you have understood her correctly, you make your rebuttal to her original statement. As you do this, your positions reverse, and she becomes the listener, making no interruptions until you finish and then paraphrasing your words back to you as you did for her. The two of you continue this process back and forth until you reach some kind of agreement or resolution.+
You may think this procedure seems unnatural. Bingo! That’s the whole point. You already know what happens when you tackle controversy by doing what comes naturally. Having an ordered procedure tends to defuse the powder keg.
+These rules of engagement are adapted from the book, A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage by Scott Stanley, Daniel Trathen, Savanna McCain, and Milt Bryan (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998).
Arterburn, S. (2013). 7-minute marriage solution, the: 7 things to start! 7 things to stop! 7 minutes that matter most!. Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing.