Whether we argue consistently with our spouses, or only lock horns on rare occasions, when we’re in the thick of a conflict it’s natural for us to ask: Why are we fighting?*
While finding the answer might seem important, and prompt us to solicit advice from friends or delve into the topic with spouses, when our time and energy are at a premium—meaning, pretty much all of the time for parents with young kids—I think it’s wise for us to shift our emphasis from “why” to:
How do we fight?
I’ve coached a few couples in which one or both spouses insist they don’t fight. Yet conflict-avoidance is how some of us do conflict, despite our insistence otherwise.
Whether or not we’re comfortable with conflict, it’s important to know that not only is it a normal part of relationships; it’s a necessary one.
In fact, psychologists like Lawrence A. Kudek and John Gottman have discovered that our satisfaction with spouses is tied to how well we resolve conflicts and how effectively we manage their negative impact on our relationships and on us.
The problem with disagreements, then, isn’t that we have them, it’s that most of us are neither skilled at resolving them nor adept at ensuring their impact on our marriage is productive instead of destructive.
Most importantly, I believe that learning how to better navigate conflict is crucial to parenting. Why? Because the stakes aren’t solely about our relationship satisfaction, but also include how capably we model conflict-resolution for our kids and with our kids.
In other words, developing the ability to “fight well” with our spouses enhances how we handle disagreements with our children, now and in the future, and can also impact how they manage relationship conflict in their own lives.
I’m a big fan of John Gottman’s work on this topic and appreciate his simple, yet compelling, list of 4 primary negative attitudes and behaviors—what he dramatically calls: “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—that erode relationship happiness.
For all intents and purposes, this list is a blueprint for how most of us currently handle or instigate conflict:
1) Disrespect (a.k.a., Contempt; the most destructive, according to Gottman)
Just to be clear, we’re talking about actions as much as words, e.g., Disrespect might manifest as a sarcastic comment or rolling our eyes; Stonewalling might involve walking out of a room or announcing that we’re done talking.
Whatever our predilection, becoming more aware of how we fight is an important first step in improving our conflict-styles. Why? Because when we’re being disrespectful, pointing fingers, shirking responsibility or refusing to interact with each other, we get so stuck in our style of conflict that resolution becomes impossible.
When I start to coach a couple, I ask this question pretty quickly:
What’s your favorite conflict-style?
I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have an answer (though some of us, myself included, find it hard to choose just one!). Once you’ve picked the style you default to most, share it with your spouse; this works best if you share with each other.
Now, spend a few minutes talking about how you, together, can shift the emphasis from your conflict-styles to conflict-resolution in future disagreements.
Here’s what some couples have tried: They’ve given their Horsemen names—preferably, ones not associated with friends or family—and agreed that if either of them notices, say, Defensive Dave or Critical Clarissa making an appearance in their conversation, they call them out and ask them to leave.
Whether or not we agree with our spouse’s belief that we’re being defensive or critical isn’t important in that moment. Instead, what matters most is our willingness to pause, assume that our spouse notices something that we might not be aware of, and try to shift how we’re approaching the topic at hand.
A great way to make that shift is to invert Gottman’s list. Doing so gives us 4 powerful ways to fan the flames of relationship satisfaction via:
If you’re adept at Disrespect, ask: How can I discuss this subject respectfully?
If Criticism is your forte, think about: How can I appreciate my spouse even if I don’t like something he or she does or says? & How can I share what I’m thinking or feeling without pointing fingers?
If you’re prone to Defensiveness, consider: What’s my part in this?
And if Stonewalling is your thing, ask: How can I stay connected to my spouse, even if I want to shut down or run away?
Asking these questions, like owning our favorite conflict-styles, doesn’t magically resolve disagreements or ensure there’s no negative fallout. Yet the more we’re able to shift how we fight, the more we’re able to infuse our conflicts with respect, appreciation, personal responsibility and engagement. That’s bound to enhance relationship satisfaction and our parenting skills.
* If you’re keen on delving into the “why” question, here are a couple of books that offer interesting theories and techniques: Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want; and Stephen Betchen’s Magnetic Partners.