A few posts ago, I wrote about How to Stop Fighting, and after thinking about, I decided I wanted to expand on that. I realized that the answer is simple: the talk more. But, that in itself isn’t a full answer, because some people don’t have the skills to resolve conflict and talk effectively. So, I’m going to go through some behaviors of ineffective communication so you will recognize them in your own marriage, then we’ll go through how to turn them around into effective communication behaviors to resolve conflict.
How not to resolve conflict
These are all behaviors my wife and I used to engage in during our first 8+ years of marriage, so if you do it, you are not alone!
When an argument starts about leaving your shoes in the middle of the entry way, and all of a sudden, the fact that you don’t turn the thermostat down when you leave comes up, and that you leave your underwear on the floor, and that one time you forgot to pay the hydro bill, and the time you bought that car that turned out to be a lemon, and your never home on time all comes into play. It’s the behavior of bringing forth any and all possible arguments into the current argument. Basically, everything including the kitchen-sink gets brought to bear as ammunition. Of course, this means the argument isn’t really about the shoes, it’s about attacking your partner.
Do you find yourself summarizing what you just said over and over again in an argument? Maybe you think if you just explained it one more time, your spouse would understand. They just aren’t listening, but if you say it one more time you can get your point across. I mean, what they’re saying, or their perspective doesn’t matter anyways, because what your saying is right, and if you can just get them to see it, they’d agree. Of course, in this case, you aren’t having a conversation, you’re lecturing, even if they’re talking as well.
This is a complex way of saying “I know what you’re thinking”. For example, have you ever said “Well, you only cleaned up the garbage so that I would stop nagging you!” Or “You never buy me flowers because your cheap!” Or “You only agreed to go to my parents this weekend so we would go to yours next weekend!” Basically, you are telling your partner what their motives are and how they think. Again, your really having a conversation with yourself at this time, because you’ve already assumed what they’re going to say and why.
Do you find this pattern n your fighting: You say something like “You know, it really bothers me when you don’t put the cap back on the toothpaste.” Immediately, your partner retaliates with “Well, you always leave the gas tank empty in the car when I have to drive next!” Cross complaining is when an argument about one topic is met with an argument about nothing topic. Of course, this isn’t really a discussion anymore, it’s a listing of grievances.
This is when you ask a question that has no real answer. Things like “What kind of idiot do you have to be to buy a car that won’t start?”, or “How dumb do you have to be to buy eggs at that price?” Again, these aren’t arguments, these are shots at your spouse, meant to tear them down.
This is when you tell your spouse what they need to do, it has the assumption with it that they can’t figure it out on their own, and your right. “What you need to do is go downstairs and start on the laundry!” or “What you should do is go down to the unemployment office and stand in line until you get a job.”, or “If I were you, I would stop my complaining and just go do it.” Of course, this isn’t a discussion either. This is similar to a adult telling a child what to do, or a manager telling a subordinate. This is not conducive to a good relationship between spouses.
How to resolve conflict effectively
Of course, the simplest way to change these is to reverse them:
- When you are a discussing a topic, stick with the topic, don’t bring up past arguments (unless the discussion is about the behavior of kitchen-sinking) or other unrelated issues. Even if you think they are related. Both spouses need to be on guard for this. Either you need to stop yourself from bringing up the related issue, or your spouse needs to step in and say “That’s not what we’re talking about, if you want to discuss that, let’s write it down and deal with it after we’ve resolved this topic.”
- Don’t self-summarize, instead, other-summarize. Rather than “You’re not listening to me, this is what I said ….”, turn it around to “This is what I’m hearing you say …. is that how you feel?” Then, you begin a conversation, and you focus on your partner’s feelings instead of your own.
- Don’t assume you know what your partner is thinking. Ask them what they’re thinking and feeling. Ask them why they did what they did. Learn why they think, and what they think because you care, not so that you can ambush them better later on.
- Don’t retaliate in a fight. I know, it’s hard. When you spouse says “I want to talk about how you load the dishwasher wrong.”, resist the urge to say “Well, you never load the dishwasher!” Instead say “OK, this might hurt, but it’s hurting my spouse now, so let’s see how we can make this better so we can both be happier together.”
- Ask open ended questions, not closed questions. Instead of “What is wrong with you?” ask “I’d like to understand why you made this decision.” The trick is asking with true interest into why they did what they did. Because if you both know, maybe you will learn that it wasn’t such a bad idea, or maybe they just have a problem with impulse buys that you both need to work towards resolving.
- Don’t tell your partner what they should do unless they ask for your advice. If you have something you think would work, ask first if it’s OK if you share it. Then, let them decide if they want to do it or not.
My wife and I used to fight all the time. We used to always have the same arguments, and they would just go around and around in circles, never getting anywhere. Somewhere a long the way, we picked up these skills without knowing we were doing it, and we started actually getting traction in our marriage and fixing our issues. The different is like night and day.
Resolved conflict is good
Every marriage is going to have conflict, it’s inevitable. But conflict isn’t a bad thing. Conflict is good, and healthy. It means you two are different, have different desires and opinions. That’s what makes things interesting and exciting and causes you to grow. But, these differences can either cause fights, or cause growth. The biggest differentiation between the two is love.
If you can bring up an area of conflict while using humor, or expressing affection, or showing interest in your spouse (in how they act/feel, who they are), then research shows that you have a much higher chance of successfully managing that conflict.
Break the cycle
Lastly, couples stuck in the ineffective behaviors tend to follow a pretty specific pattern: A negative statement will be responded to with a negative statement most of the time. Couples who have manage conflict well are more flexible. In those relationships a negative statement will sometimes be followed by a negative statement (we’re human after all), but it could also be followed by a neutral statement, or even a positive one!
What does this look like?
Well, in a conflict-challenged couple, one might say “I’m not happy in with our relationship.” Chances are, the spouse is going to respond negatively “Well, I’m not happy either!” But in conflict-effective marriages, the response might be “OK, let’s talk about how you’re feeling (neutral).” or even “Wow, well, I love you, and I know we can find a way to make it better, tell me how you feel (positive).” As you can imagine, if you constantly have cycles of negative following negative, this can quickly lead to an unbearable relationship and divorce. But, if you can turn it around and respond positively to negative statements, you can make changes and eventually be one of those couples everyone looks at and says “I wonder why they seem so happy?” Or course, both spouses need to participate this effective behaviors to get there. And why wouldn’t you? Better conflict management usually (sorry, not always, no magic pills here) leads to a stronger bond, better emotional stability and more sex, so there’s something for everyone in it.
When you fight, do you use these negative behaviors? Which ones? Maybe send this to your spouse and say “WE do this, and I want US to stop.” Change the cycle, and become the marriage you were hoping for when you got married.
12 thoughts on “How to resolve conflict more effectively”
I know for a fact that I do several of these without even thinking about it and thats not a good thing. I do Self-Summarizing and Cross-complaining for sure. This is a really good and helpful post that I think a lot of people could learn from including me.
Hey William, welcome to the site!
Good for you, recognizing those behaviors in yourself. Now the trick is to get rid of them!
Glad it can be of help.
I wish my husband could see that having different opinions and discussing it politely, without negativity, isn’t “fighting” and not something to be avoided to the point of either lying or jumping out the window (which he has literally done).
I honestly don’t know how to avoid guessing what my husband is thinking because he point blank refuses to tell me what is he thinking and tells me if I don’t know what he is thinking, then there is no point talking about it. I’m not a mind reader, I can rarely work out why he says and does the things he does, but how do you get someone to tell you if they refuse to say?
I’ve gone out of my way to make him feel safe that he can tell me absolutely anything and logically he knows it, but still refuses to tell me things. And I don’t understand why. He didn’t grow up in critical household. He had a family where he could safely tell them anything, but at the same time refused to tell them things too. He has no previous girlfriends so there is no woman-hurt there and all he has no bad friend relationship experience. I know he has low self esteem but can’t understand why he’d prefer to jump out windows than tell people what he thinks.
The only suggestion my wife and I could think of is having him write out what he thinks instead of telling you. It might be less confrontational for him.
My husband and I have never really had a “fight”. There have been times when we discuss how the other has made us feel because of their actions. I always try to remember to use I statements. But I really think communication is KEY for working out these little issues.
I thought you did a great job on this post pointing out what common mistakes people make when having a conflict. Sometimes we just don’t even realize that we are doing it! Thank you for sharing!
Welcome to the site!
Yeah, some people grow up with these skills, or learn them early on without even realizing it. Others have to fail first, then figure it out. I think many never do figure it out. Between the ~50% divorce rate + the amount of unhappy couples that stay married, it seems the majority never do learn good conflict resolution.
Glad you liked it.
Wow, I think I’ve seen about all of these in our marriage at one time or another! It really helps to have a concrete list like this to evaluate how you respond.
Usually couples don’t really know how they resolve conflict (or don’t). The ones who can’t just say “we fight in circles” and the ones who do just say “I don’t know, we talk it out”, but neither really know what the actual difference in behaviors is.
Great read….very informative and helpful!
Glad it was helpful!
I know I do a lot of these. He does too but I think I’ll start with changing what I do and see if that prompts a change in the conversation, without bringing up a list at which he’d balk. (He’s not really one for self-help sites… or taking advice.)