One difference between couples in a healthy versus an unhealthy marriage isn’t whether they argue—it’s how they argue.
Think about it; virtually all spouses are going to butt heads from time to time. It’s an inevitable outcome of individual minds creating a life together while still being true to themselves. In fact, a study conducted by John Gottman determined that couples in a relationship disagree 67% of the time.
But unlike people in unhealthy relationships, people in healthy relationships generally know how to navigate conflict without resorting to behaviors that can harm their marriage. Quite the contrary: when handled well, conflict can be an opportunity for growth and learning with an intimate relationship.
To ensure you and your spouse approach conflict in a way that won’t harm (and maybe even help) your marriage, here are five ideas to keep in mind:
1. Seek to Understand
If the only goal you have when arguing with your spouse is to prove you’re “right” or they’re “wrong,” you’re setting yourself up for an unsatisfactory outcome. That’s because approaching conflict with this binary mindset tends to cause both people just to dig in their heels even more. It also suggests a lack of consideration for another person’s point of view and personal experience.
Besides, marital disagreements are rarely as simple as right versus wrong. There is often nuance, additional information, and common ground that need to be explored.
So, seek to understand your partner’s point of view by truly listening to what they are saying. Practice listening without immediately thinking about a rebuttal or criticism. Do not interrupt. Ask clarifying questions. Repeat back to them what they said in order to show them you understand or give them a chance to clarify their point.
2. Stay On Topic
When you’re angry at your spouse about something, it’s tempting to start bringing up other unresolved issues or past grievances. This isn’t a wise use of energy, because it can easily accelerate your emotions, making you more reactive and less present (and at a time when being present is the most important).
Tackle conflicts one at a time. Stay on topic. Express your needs and feelings as they relate to the specific situation. Agree that you both have the right and responsibility to press pause on a conversation if it starts to deviate: “Hold on, we’re getting off-topic here.” This gives you both a chance to recollect your thoughts and get the conversation back on track.
Staying on topic has the added benefit of helping you become aware of when the true root of a conflict is hidden by superficial details. For example, an argument about forgetting to take the trash out could really be about one partner feeling disrespected. Staying on topic creates space for these deeper issues to come to light.
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3. No Name-Calling—Ever
Name-calling, insults, and attacks on a person’s character have no place in a healthy marriage. Over time, these displays of disrespect can erode the trust between two people and lead to contempt, criticism, and resentment.
If either of you are too emotionally charged to speak without insulting or attacking the other person, take a time-out. Get into a calmer state before returning to the discussion.
4. Notice Repair Attempts
Repair attempts are de-escalation statements or actions made by either partner during an argument. They are so important during heated discussions because they can prevent negativity from escalating out of control. Making repair attempts—and noticing your partner’s—also helps keep your conversation on track. “Hold on, we’re getting off-topic here,” is a great example.
Here are other repair attempt phrases to use or notice during an argument:
- “I see what you mean.”
- “I don’t know what you mean by that. Can you say it in another way?”
- “Please don’t walk away.”
- “I want us to find a solution.”
- “We’re a team.”
- “I’m starting to feel really triggered. Can we take a break?”
- “I can understand why you feel that way.”
- “I never thought about it like that before.”
Let’s face it: no one handles themselves perfectly in every conflict. In the heat of the moment, we all say things we wish we didn’t. So, when you recognize that you owe your spouse an apology, offer it. Take responsibility for your words and actions.
Would you and your spouse like to master the skills necessary for healthy, productive conflict? Contact the Marriage Restoration Project today to learn how imago relationship therapy can fix your marriage.