Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, Boulder, Colorado, and author of Getting Through to the Man You Love: The No-Nonsense, No-Nagging Guide for Women. DivorceBusting.com
Bottom Line: Recurrent tiffs are completely avoidable
Research suggests that more than two-thirds of what couples argue about actually is unresolvable. Whether it’s differences in parenting styles or how money is spent, couples will never see eye-to-eye on some issues. But that doesn’t stop us from relentlessly trying to persuade our partners that we’re right. I call these interactions “More of the Same” fights. Everyone engages in these automatic-pilot tiffs from time to time. They’re a waste of time and energy, and they’re completely avoidable. Here’s how…
To break free from unproductive patterns, you have to change your steps in the dance. When you do, the dance will change.
The next time you find yourself in an old familiar triggering situation, start by taking a deep breath and asking yourself, What’s my goal right now? Is what I’m about to do or say going to bring me closer to that goal? If the answer is, No, it will push me further away, or It simply will be another round of the same old fight, then don’t do it! No matter how justified you feel, refrain from doing the same old thing. Instead, promise yourself that you will do something different—because anything different can change the outcome.
Example: Sally and Bob have been married for 35 years. Sally, an easygoing woman, was repeatedly upset by her husband’s tendency to anger easily when he felt frustrated. They had frequent arguments about this. Each time Bob got irritated, Sally tried to calm him down, which had the unintended effect of infuriating him. Eventually, rather than blame Bob for his behavior, she decided to try a different approach—change how she was handling Bob’s anger.
One day, while Bob was working in the den, Sally heard him complaining loudly, “I wasn’t at the training. I can’t believe my boss expects me to do this assignment. I don’t know how!” Although tempted to do the usual—rush into the den to demand that he calm down, which would typically spark an argument—she stormed into the den and shouted, “You weren’t at the training, and it’s unbelievable that your boss would expect you to know what to do. That’s ridiculous!” Dead silence. After several moments, with a stunned look on his face, Bob said to Sally in a reassuring manner, “Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out. It will be OK.” It was the first time Sally realized how her lifelong efforts to calm Bob had actually fueled his fire. In other words, her old solution had become the problem.
Although sweeping things under the carpet when you have lingering feelings of resentment isn’t healthful for any relationship, neither is making a mountain out of a molehill. Your spouse is who your spouse is. And as much as you would like to change certain things about each other, it’s not realistic.
Example: My husband believes that only he holds the key to the correct way to load a dishwasher. No amount of discussion over the years has changed his thinking on this. Long ago, I decided that when he corrected me or reorganized the dishes in the dishwasher, instead of standing my ground, I would simply tell myself, It’s not about me. It’s not that I agree with what I see as his “OCD” tendencies, it’s just that I’ve decided not to sweat the small stuff. And we’re both better off because of it.
The key to this strategy lies in knowing the difference between issues that arise that warrant your going to the mat, such as being treated with respect and kindness, versus disliking your partner’s style or quirks.
Example: You got married knowing about a difference in tidiness thresholds, but you assumed that it would change. When it didn’t, it became a source of frustration. Switching your perspective about those quirks or style differences may put an end to arguments. Ask yourself, How important is this issue really? Can I let it drop because she’s never going to change on this point? In spite of the popular marital maxim that you should always “speak your truth,” in reality, sometimes silence is golden.
Human beings have a universal need to be heard, understood and validated. Unfortunately, we’re often too busy stating our positions to genuinely hear or be curious about our partners’ thoughts or feelings. Then, because they feel unheard, they up the ante and more zealously reiterate their opinions.
The key to neutralizing any escalating argument is to stop talking, stop focusing on your retort and instead deeply listen to what the other person has been saying and acknowledge his/her feelings. Agreement is not necessary.
Example: Say, “I honestly see your point. My perspective is different, but I do understand why you feel the way you do. Here’s what I hear you saying.” And then repeat back what you’ve heard. It’s astonishing how readily people become more conciliatory when they feel that their messages have gotten through.
There are times when even the simplest disagreement spins out of control, and before you know it, you’re fuming. At this point, it’s best to pause the debate. When you’re agitated, you’re far less likely to have constructive conversation and far more likely to do or say something hurtful. Some signs that you or your partner has reached this boiling point…
Negative body language. Is one of you sitting with crossed arms, piercing eyes or no eye contact at all? That’s a signal that listening has stopped and that further conversation will be fruitless.
Feeling hopeless. You find yourself saying, “Here we go again,” or thinking, You always have to be right. There’s no point talking to you.
Tensing up. You feel it in your body. Some people describe a tightness in their chests. Others say their stomachs are in knots. Still others say their faces feel flushed, or they experience adrenaline rushes that create extreme emotional states.
These are all signs of a dead-end debate or an argument that can spin out of control. The key to de-escalating lies in your ability to spot these signs early on, before you become emotionally hijacked. Instead, take an agreed-upon time-out.
What is an agreed-upon time-out? It means that the two of you have decided—in advance—that some arguments should be put on pause. Choose a signal such as forming a “T” with both hands, or pick a word that is your “safe” word. Then both partners must honor the request and take a break from each other for 30 minutes. Take a walk. Read a book. Listen to music.
Warning: With emotions riding high, it can take a lot of self-control to pause the conversation. Remember past experiences when taking a break has been successful to break the cycle of anger. If you haven’t tried it yet, then remind yourself how not taking a break has only escalated the disagreement up until now.
After 30 minutes, reconvene and decide whether or not you need to revisit the conversation. If one partner feels “unfinished,” it’s important to re-up the discussion. If, however, both partners wish to drop the issue, that’s perfectly acceptable. Or if emotions still are running high, agree to a time later when the conversation can be completed.
Mistake: Confusing an agreed-upon time-out with a walk-out. Some of my clients say, “Oh, I do that by leaving the room, but my spouse follows me and keeps on arguing.” It’s important for you to realize that a unilateral decision to end a discussion by leaving the room or shutting down emotionally is entirely different from having a prearranged mutual agreement to take a breather. Unilateral decisions to exit a conversation, although perhaps helpful to the “leaver,” often feel like abandonment to the spouse who wants to resolve matters. Agreeing to reconnect and re-up the conversation, if necessary, after the break makes honoring a time-out much more feasible.
Although “circuit-breaker” skills minimize the damage of pointless fighting, they’re no substitute for intentionally investing time and energy into maintaining the love and passion you share. In today’s high-pressured and heads-to-the-screen society, it’s increasingly common for couples to feel disconnected even when they are in the same physical space. A foundation based on shared positive experiences—having date nights, engaging in meaningful conversations and a satisfying sexual relationship—creates strong bonds that, in turn, help couples weather rocky times, and remember, This too shall pass.