It wasn’t long into my marriage, probably about a week in, that I realized conflict starts right away. There is no waiting period for conflict when it comes to marriage. One thing that I have learned is that conflict is a normal and healthy part of every marriage. It isn’t simply having conflict that negatively impacts a marriage, it is the way in which conflict is dealt with that can negatively impact it. I have often heard people say, “oh we don’t ever have conflict.” As a counselor, and a human being for that matter, I just don’t buy that! In my personal opinion, if a couple tells me they don’t have conflict they are either lying or suppressing conflict for fear of damaging the marriage.
So what can be done to minimize the negative impact conflict can have on marriage? Here are a few things that I have learned since being marriage that have helped me to positively handle conflict and in turn strengthen my marriage and connection with my husband. Maybe they will help you out as well.
Be aware of your weaknesses: I feel like I can’t say enough about being self-aware. To me this is one of the most important things a person can do in life and will determine not only the impact he or she has on others but also his or her ability to improve. So how does being aware of your weaknesses help you handle conflict in your marriage? If you know where you are lacking, whether it be with personality traits or your responsibilities, when your spouse makes a complaint you can more easily accept responsibility for it. Let me give an example. When my husband brings up the fact that I sometimes leave a small hurricane behind when I leave the house I can calmly take responsibility for this. Why can I do this? well because I know that I am easily flustered and don’t always manage my time wisely. My weakness is not being messy or careless, it is rather thinking I have more time than I do, realizing I don’t, not getting to all the things I needed to get to before I had to leave, and then rushing out in a mad dash so that I wont be late, sometimes leaving a disaster behind. Because I know this about myself I can accept his complaint, apologize, and let him know I am aware and want to improve this area of weakness. If I lacked awareness I might get angry and accuse him of blaming me without reason. Of course, one key to this is actually working toward change. For tips on increasing self awareness you can check out my recent blog on the topic here.
Be aware of your partners weaknesses: Not only should you be aware of your own weaknesses, but of your partners as well. This helps you to show more compassion and less anger when confronting an issue. Don’t assume your partner should be just like you. Our differences are what make us better together than apart. If you know your husband or wife has a hard time showing emotion try to be more gentle with him or her when you expect an emotional reaction. Its not wrong to complain about an issue, what is wrong is complaining with anger and dislike. Try to remind yourself of all the things he or she does right before bringing up whats bugging you. This can minimize your anger and help you to get your frustration across in a more loving way.
Minimize your reactions: I have always struggled with reacting defensively when confronted with any kind of complaint. This was because I was totally freaked out by the thought of possibly not being good enough (something I discovered through self-awareness). Once I was able to recognize this I was able to learn how to minimize my reactions to conflict. If your spouse attacks you or criticizes you, instead of getting angry or attacking back, try saying something like this “You know what hunny, you’re right. I did drop the ball on that and I’m really sorry.” He or she may look at you like your crazy. This one takes a lot of practice and requires some serious self-control. try to be genuine. We can typically find some kind of truth in our partners complaint, something we are responsible for. Find it and admit it calmly. Over time this will change the way your partner brings things up to you. Typically we bring things up in a negative or critical way because we assume that our spouse will react negatively and deny responsibility. If we show our spouse the opposite, eventually he or she will start bringing up complaints in a more calm and loving way, expecting a calm and loving reaction.
Allow your partner to feel exactly what he or she says he or she is feeling: Stop, I repeat STOP telling your spouse he or she shouldn’t feel a certain way. I have been guilty of this many times. Over time this can cause your spouse to stop sharing his or her feelings with you altogether. Not only that, it tells your spouse that you simply do not care about what he or she is feeling. It doesn’t matter if you agree with it or not, a person’s feeling is a person’s feeling and it deserves to be cared about and explored. I have learned that when I stop making it about me, and start making it about my husband I am able to accept his feelings with love and compassion. If your husband tells you he feels rejected by you it might make you feel guilty and tempt you to defend yourself. An easy way of doing this is to tell him he shouldn’t feel rejected because you accept him. This is wrong and will only lead to more issues. If he feels rejected there is a reason for it and you should want to do what you can to fix it. Even if his feeling ends up being irrational it is still important to care. After all, how many of my feelings are irrational? A LOT! I still want my husband to care. Additionally, you may feel that you are accepting him but you might be doing something that tells him otherwise. denying his feeling takes away the chance to explore it and come up with a solution, showing him you love him and care in the process. This leads to acceptance and a deeper emotional connection.
Increase your positive interactions: Dr. John Gottman says that happy couples have a positive to negative interaction ratio of 5:1. Increasing positive interactions is a great way to improve the way you handle conflict. When do you feel the most frustrated with your spouse? I feel this way when my needs aren’t being met. When my husband is showing me affection, attention, encouragement, and love I tend to be less irritated by silly things. Additionally, I am more capable of handling big frustrations in a more loving way. When my husband feels supported, respected, and appreciated he is less likely to be bothered by my weknesses and responds more lovingly to conflict. Meeting needs comes through positive interactions. This might include going on a date, reminiscing about happy memories together, leaving a loving note, making love, eating dinner together, expressing appreciation, etc. If you focus on increasing positive interactions conflict will be much easier to deal with.