6 Tools for Avoiding Conflict in Your Marriage
By: Mark W. Merrill
1. Expectation Identification.
This is a useful tool for a spouse who is frustrated for unknown reasons.
Think about one thing that causes you to experience disappointment or anger in your marriage and write it down. Usually, it can be traced back to your spouse failing to fulfill your expectations. Maybe you had it set in your mind that your wife would always wear feminine negligees instead of flannel pajamas. Or you expected your husband to sit with you, baring his soul and chatting for hours. But it never happened…just wishful thinking. Now your expectations are unfulfilled—you’re frustrated and your frustration leads to anger and conflict.
How do we manage unfulfilled expectations? First, identify the expectation that caused the disappointment or anger. Second, communicate the expectation to your spouse.
2. Drive-Through Communication.
This is a useful tool for spouses who do not listen well to each other…it slows down conversation and forces you to listen.
One way to effectively communicate your expectations is by using what relationship expert Gary Smalley calls the “drive-through communication” method (also called the Speaker-Listener technique). Think about how a drive-through window works. You give your order and the cashier repeats it back to you, “So that’s two burgers, fries, and a milkshake.” Then you either say, “That’s right,” or you repeat yourself.
Well, that type of communication works in marriage too. When one person makes a statement, the other repeats it back: “Honey, when you come home from work and immediately sit in front of the TV, it makes me feel like the TV is more important to you than I am.” Then the other person repeats it back, “You said it bothers you when I come home and go right for the TV. It makes you feel unimportant.”
Notice how the spouse addressing the issue diplomatically phrased her concerns. She essentially said “In situation X, when you do Y, I feel Z”—sometimes called the XYZ formula. This communication technique works because you’re talking about how you “feel” instead of focusing on the other person’s actions.
While using this technique, it’s very important to be an active listener. That means that you are giving the other person your full attention and looking them in the eyes, not reading your text messages or watching TV; you are watching their body language…do they seem happy, sad or angry; and you are thinking about what they are saying, not how you are going to respond.
You’ll have a much better chance of having a calm discussion if you follow the rules of “drive-through communication.”
1. Only one person speaks at a time. Use an object such as a pencil or even the TV remote (but make sure the TV is off) to pass back and forth between you to designate who the current speaker is.
2. The speaker makes one statement or point and the listener repeats it back.
3. When the speaker feels confident that they have been heard and understood, switch roles.
3. Good Timing.
This is a useful tool for a spouse who has an immediate need to get things off their mind – right now.
Wisely choose when you will have serious discussions. A good rule of thumb is to avoid settings that are already tense—getting the kids to school in the morning, when you’re dealing with plumbing problems, or right when your spouse walks in the door after work. Instead, choose a time when you’re both rested, when you have some peace and quiet, and when the other person is open to having a serious discussion.
Soon after my wife and I were married, we made a discovery. It seemed like most of our arguments were at night…when we were tired and irritable from a long day. So, we set a nine o’ clock curfew on serious discussions. We found that it really helps. Now, when we get into a heavy talk after nine, we remind each other that it’s late, we’re not going to resolve anything tonight and we can talk about it tomorrow. And you know what? The next morning we’re usually refreshed and can talk about things calmly or decide that it wasn’t that important in the first place.
And here’s something else to keep in mind—don’t mix business with pleasure. In other words, you don’t want to bring up heavy topics when you and your spouse are having a fun time or are in friendship mode. If you’re out together for your first date night in months, or you’re finally having a little cuddle time on the couch, don’t even venture into potential areas of conflict.
For the person who just can’t wait to unload, one thing that my wife, Susan, does is to text or email me what’s on her mind.
4. Taking a Break.
This is a useful tool for couples when conflict starts to escalate out of control.
One way to avoid conflict before it starts is by “taking a break.” Let’s say you and your spouse are arguing, things are getting pretty intense, and the ugly words are starting to fly. That’s when one of you needs to muster up the calmness to say, “Let’s take a break.” The break begins promptly and the person who called for the break immediately sets a time within 24 hours when you’ll have the discussion again. By then, you will have had time to calmly think about the issue and resolve not to let things get personal with name-calling or yelling.
Of course “taking a break” in the midst of battle is more easily said than done. Recently my wife and I were having a heated discussion. At first I followed my own advice and suggested we “take a break” so we could cool off. But, a few minutes later I just had to make one more point…and that’s when things got really hot. So to be effective, both parties have to agree to abide by “taking a break.”
5. “Do Over”.
This is a useful tool for a spouse who tends to say things the wrong way, or without thinking. If you realize you have offended your spouse or have been misinterpreted, you can ask for a “do-over” and rephrase the statement so that it is kinder and clearer. This tool, introduced by Dr. Gary Oliver, can help couples avoid many arguments.
6. Scale of 1-10.
This tool is useful for someone who has a hard time conveying the importance of their issues to their spouse. When presenting an issue to your spouse, identify the issue on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most important. So, if you want your spouse to take you seriously on an issue, you may say: “Honey, I need to talk to you about something and I want you to know that this is a 9 to me.” That way, you’ll get their attention and they’ll listen.
© 2009 Copyright by Mark W. Merrill. All rights reserved.