It’s often said that marriage is about sacrifice and compromise. That doesn’t sound so great, does it? The reality is, though, that in much of your marriage, you will be in constant agreement to do something, one way or another, with more than a large gray area in between.
This can be anything from picking where to go out for dinner, to where you will go on vacation this year, and similar things. Or it can mean more serious decisions, like moving across the country because your partner got a promotion, and now you have to leave your friends and family behind. Agreeing to do something, when done properly, can enhance a feeling of connection and harmony, while the opposite leads to frustration, anger, depression, and all sorts of really toxic behaviors.
The Wrong Way
Whether consciously or unconsciously, couples develop unique conflict resolution patterns. They may fight for a while and then drop the issue altogether. They may decide in favor of the partner who insists most, or is most aggressive or verbally skilled. Or they may take turns with who gets their way, and even keep score on whose “turn” it is to prevail. Or both partners compromise by giving up some of what they want, with no one truly feeling satisfied.
It’s Easy to Start Hating Your Partner This Way
Commonly, couples get trapped in one of the following unproductive conflict resolution patterns:
- Fight (and win). In order for one to win, the other has to lose. It’s about getting what they want, while not paying attention to the other partner’s needs. Deep down the “losing party” feels angry, resentful, and depressed.
- Flight (and avoid). The main motivation is the avoidance of a fight and distraction with something else. It results in all kinds of other excessive and addictive behaviors such as drinking and alcohol abuse, but also more “socially acceptable” behaviors, such as eating disorders, excessive TV watching, staying late at work, pursuing a hobby excessively at the expense of family time, and an array of other escapes.
- Give in (give up and submit). The main motivation here is to sustain the relationship and be nice. One partner feels weaker than the other, and acts so. Such a pattern is commonly accompanied with low self-esteem of a particular partner. It leads to depression.
These behavior patterns lead to negative feelings accumulating over long periods of time. That is why they are especially toxic.
The Win-Win Approach
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way, as there is a solution. The win-win approach has three simple steps:
1. Say what you want.
State what you want in a considerate and polite way by using phrases like, “I would like to …” Pay attention and avoid talking about what you don’t want.
Less effective: “I don’t want to stay at home this evening,” is less effective than,
Much better: “I’d like us to go out and have some fun together.”
2. Explore the concerns of the other.
This step is the most important one. At this point you want to clarify your thoughts and your spouse’s. Use the clarification phrases and the five magic questions to ask:
- “What do you mean?“
- “How come this is so important to you?”
- “Help me understand…”
- “So, what you’re saying is that …?”
While exploring the concerns of your partner, make sure to follow these two additional suggestions:
- Avoid asking why.
You might say that asking ‘why’ and ‘how come’ isn’t that much different. And you would be right. Still, there is a difference. Starting your questions with why will usually get you a BS answer. ‘Why’ begets ‘because…’ which makes people instinctively become more entrenched in their position, no matter if they are right or wrong. On the other hand ‘how come’ sounds softer, gentler, and as such represents a less confrontational way to ask for more information. Just try it.
- Pay attention to your own body language.
If you find yourself sitting with your arms crossed and shaking your head no-no-no (or just thinking it), when your spouse is trying to explain his or her position, the discussion will not get anywhere.
3. Create a solution.
Using the details gathered during the exploration phase, you got some clues as to what to propose. Be creative. Obviously, if you came this far, you must feel strongly about the topic.
Don’t just back off now or comply, because you will compromise the whole process when the next similar conflict occurs. It takes more effort and creativity to reach a satisfying solution, yet in the long run, this is essential.
It’s such a liberating feeling.
What to Do in Especially Difficult Situations?
There will be cases when there will clearly be one spouse who wins out over the other. Typical cases are moving somewhere, or accepting a job hundreds of miles away. Those are not easy decisions.
Sure, it might be easier to just comply with your spouse, and deliberately disregard your own concerns. But this is as bad as forcing a decision your way. If you comply and give in and pay no attention to your own feelings, resentment and bitterness can result, even if you are trying to be generous. Don’t be a martyr.
Instead, think in terms of solution sets.
Rather than one solution, develop more of them. We all like to have a choice. Being able to pick between A and B is much better than if we are offered only A, even though A is already well thought out. This is how our brain works.
Lastly, the more you practice the win-win approach with the small stuff, the easier it gets with the big issues like children, finances, or what job to accept. In the end, you will be able to come to solutions that meet the needs and desires of both of you in a satisfying way.
QUESTION: Which conflict pattern do you use? How well does it serve you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.