Some couples forced to stay at home together during the pandemic have found all that togetherness trying. Here are some tips that will help you stay together by managing conflict effectively.
Fights often start as misunderstandings then escalate. Some couples forced to stay at home together during the pandemic have found all that togetherness can be trying. Worry about safety from COVID-19, personal losses from the pandemic, including illness and death of loved ones, home-schooling children, economic insecurity, and a loss of routine that may include a change in diet and exercise add up to unprecedented stress.
We are not talking about intimate partner violence. That has also seen an increase during the pandemic for some of the above reasons. I am referring to verbal conflict resolution, not abuse.
There is no complex data in Canada yet to show a definitive increase in divorce, likely because some courts are closed down. Some lawyers report that interest in divorce has increased.
The emotional reaction to the pressure we're under as individuals makes relationship pressure even harder. I've seen reports by colleagues of an increase in couples seeking divorce during the pandemic. This could be a symptom of a higher than normal level of anxiety in these difficult times.
The busyness of life, particularly when parents are raising children, can often get in the way of what couples need. In these challenging times, couples experience conflict over money or parenting styles. When a couple falls into destructive patterns of fighting, it makes it harder to heal the relationship.
There are ways to successfully resolve conflict, with respect, patience, caring, and listening — but no natural way to "fight fair." Most people in an intimate relationship realize that a fight often ends up with a winner and a loser, or both people feeling they equally have lost. The concept of 'fairness' also means different things to different people.
We think that the argument itself is a vehicle to get somewhere, and it's actually not. Arguments don't usually result in what people want, typically the other person seeing their point of view. The key is learning, listening, and understanding one another, which are core human needs.
Defusing conflict so that couples can seek resolution comes down to one word "curiosity." Sincere curiosity shows a desire to understand your partner and de-escalate arguments by demonstrating caring. Even couples who know one another very well and can finish each other's sentences will argue in times of stress because of built-up assumptions and the baggage from previous conflicts.
One thing that can really re-energize and renew a relationship is learning something new about one another. When couples feel conflict building during a discussion, take a pause, check your assumptions, then "be curious" about what is causing the other person's reaction, and notice your own defensiveness when it comes up.
In moments of charged emotion, it can be difficult to be curious because it can seem like the other person doesn't care or isn't listening.
Take a moment to learn new things about one another. You can set date nights, take a mini weekend vacation, or even just plan a 20-minute daily chat about each other's day. The busyness of life, particularly when parents are raising children, can often get in the way of what couples need from one another.
Pay close attention to when you or your partner gets defensive. The first step to clearing up communication with your partner is to notice those moments when you get defensive. Getting defensive will cause the other person to do the same, and communication will inevitably begin to break down.
We're too busy trying to prove that we were right or we've been wronged.
The only person in a fight that you have any control over is you. Repeating your point at increasing volume is not going to work because the other person will stop listening.
Learn to fight fair. Take the fight out of the communication. Ensure you are hearing your partner correctly and confirm your understanding of what's been communicated. Ask your partner calmly what they mean because simple misunderstandings are at the root of most conflicts.
If the argument has become counterproductive and you decide it won't result in any understanding, agree to pause, calm down and come back later. Make sure you do return to the discussion, so you don't use this as a tool to avoid conflict.
Knowing you and your partner's natural conflict style — such as preventing conflict, accommodating the other person, problem-solving, collaborating, or competing to be correct — can be accommodating in understanding your own dynamic and how to manage it. Move from trying to win arguments by shifting your approach to resolving conflicts with understanding and respect.
Couples discover more about themselves and why they've been disagreeing and decide to give their relationship another chance. Sometimes people come to the realization that what they were fighting about can be healed. Curiosity and empathy both are the keys to unlocking healing. You can fight fair by taking the fight out of it.
If you want to have a constructive discussion, stick to one issue at a time. Unhappy couples are likely to drag multiple topics into one discussion, a habit renowned conflict researcher John Gottman calls "kitchen-sinking." This refers to the old expression "everything but the kitchen sink," which implies that every possible thing has been included.
Try to solve your problems one at a time. This seems obvious, but in the heat of the moment, a fight about one topic can turn into a complaining session, with both partners trading grievances. The more complaints you raise, the less likely any will actually get fully discussed or resolved.
Come out and plainly state what is bothering you and avoid taking the indirect approach of expressing displeasure. One partner may speak to the other in a condescending style that implies underlying hostility. Another approach leads to partners moping and pout without addressing the issue openly.
Partners may avoid discussing a problem altogether by quickly switching topics and being evasive when the issue comes up. Indirect ways of expressing anger are not constructive because they don't give the person who is the target of these behaviors a clear idea of how to respond. They know their partner is irritated, but the indirectness leaves them without a clear idea of what they can do to solve the problem.
It can be frustrating to feel like your partner is not paying attention to you. When you interrupt your partner or assume that you know what they're thinking, you're not giving them a chance to express themselves. Even if you are confident that you know where your partner is coming from, you could still be wrong. Ensure your partner feels like you're listening.
Show your partner that you're paying attention by using active listening techniques. When your partner speaks, paraphrase what they say — that is, rephrase what they are communicating in your own words. This can prevent misunderstandings before they start.
Another option is to perception-check by making sure that you're interpreting your partner's reactions correctly. For example, "You seem irritated by my comment — am I right?" These strategies prevent misunderstandings and persuade your partner that you're paying attention to them and care about what they're saying.
Statements that directly attack your partner's character can be especially damaging to a relationship. When frustrated by your partner's jealousy and responding with the statement, "you're totally irrational!" will invite the target of these statements to become defensive, which will shut down further conversations. A constructive strategy is to use "I statements" and pair them with "behavior descriptions."
I statements focus on how you feel without blaming your partner, and behavior descriptions focus on a specific behavior your partner is engaging in, rather than a character flaw.
For example, "I get irritated when you claim I'm flirting with someone during an innocent conversation." These tactics are direct and kind. They work!
Research has shown that blaming and rejecting one's partner during a conflict discussion was associated with lower relationship satisfaction over time and tended to make problems worse for couples with relatively minor issues.
For couples with significant problems, a different picture emerged. Blaming and rejecting behaviors resulted in reduced satisfaction immediately following the conflict discussion. Conversely, open discussions over the long-term led to increases in relationship satisfaction.
When you're addressing a problem, avoid making generalizations about your partner. Statements like "you never help out around the house" or "you're always staring at your cell phone" will result in your partner becoming defensive. Shift the discussion away from how your partner could be more helpful or attentive by generating counterexamples of all the times they were, in fact, helpful or attentive. You don't want to put your partner on the defensive, so focus on their strengths.
When you're criticized, it's hard not to get defensive. But defensiveness doesn't solve problems. Imagine a couple arguing because one individual wants their partner to do more chores around the house.
Destructive, defensive behavior is "cross-complaining" when you respond to your partner's complaint with one of your own. For example, responding to "You don't clean up enough around the house" with "you're a neat freak."
It's important to hear your partner out and really consider what they're saying.
Listening to your partner requires you to take their perspective and try to understand where they're coming from. Those who can empathize with their partner's perspective are less likely to become angry during a conflict discussion.
Research has shown that taking a more objective perspective can be helpful. In one study, researchers staged a simple marital quality intervention, asking participants to write about a specific disagreement they had with their partners from the perspective of a neutral third party who wanted the best for both members of the couple. Couples that engaged in this 20-minute writing exercise three times a year maintained stable levels of marital satisfaction over the year, while couples who didn't show slumps in satisfaction.
Of all of the negative things you can do and say during a conflict, the worst may be contempt. Gottman has found that it is the top predictor of divorce.
Contemptuous remarks are those that belittle your partner. This can involve sarcasm and name-calling. It can also include nonverbal behavior like rolling your eyes or smirking. These behaviors are disrespectful and imply that you're disgusted with your partner.
Contempt makes it impossible to engage in an open discussion and is likely to elicit anger from your partner rather than solving the problem.
When couples engage in what Gottman and his colleagues call "negative affect reciprocity," they trade more and more heated insults and contemptuous remarks. As the conflict continues, the negativity escalates.
Gottman's research found that the magic number is a 5 to 1 ratio. Couples that maintained a ratio of five positive behaviors (attempts at good-natured humor, warmth, collaboration) to each negative behavior were significantly less likely to be divorced or separated four years later.
If you see yourself falling into negative patterns, consider taking a time out from your argument. Even a short break or a few deep breaths can be enough to calm yourself.
The research on conflict shows that both perspective-taking and controlling your anger are vital to managing conflicts well. Airing your grievances can be productive for your relationship, but conflicts must be skillfully managed, or you run the risk of making them worse.
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