One thing many couples struggle with is knowing how to handle the stresses of life together. Granted, there are a lot of stressors out there — job loss, finances, horrible bosses, and chronic illness or injury being just a few. But just when you’d think we’d turn to our spouse for stress-reducing conversations, we don’t. Instead of talking, sharing, listening, and empathizing, we yell, argue, take our stress out on each other, and say hateful things in the heat of the moment. There is a lack of stress-reducing conversations.
We’ve all been there, right? The initial reaction for one spouse is to lash out, which isn’t the answer. The other spouse will likely dole out advice first and listen later, and that doesn’t help, either. The key is to open up and have stress-reducing conversations that include understanding your partner, giving support, sharing emotions, and asking questions.
The point of this blog is to give you the tools necessary to help you manage stress and conversations in a healthier way.
Understanding Comes First, Then Advice
The first step in managing stress is, obviously, the person suffering from the stress being open to communicating what is going wrong in their world. In other words, being willing to talk. In turn, their spouse must be receptive and look for ways to work through everything together. According to John Gottman and the Gottman Institute, there are two key factors involved in couples that have effective stress-reducing conversations: giving support and sharing emotions.
Below is what he means by that.
Giving Support Means
- Showing genuine interest — Maintain eye contact and ask questions.
“I’m sorry that happened to you, honey.”
“Help me understand what’s going on.”
- Communicate understanding — Show that you understand what they are saying.
“That sounds horrible. What happened next?”
“I don’t blame you for feeling that way! Who says something like that?”
- We against others. Don’t side with the other — Always show you are on your spouse’s side.
“That guy is a total jerk!”
“I don’t agree with anything they did in that situation.”
- Solidarity — Show that you are there with them on this journey. It’s not one person’s struggle.
“We can get through this together.”
“This isn’t your problem. It’s our problem to figure out.”
- Affection — Show grace and love.
“Come here and give me a hug. I could use one, too.”
Beyond sharing support in stress-reducing conversations, you always want to express emotion. This is particularly important when it comes to balancing the emotions your partner is experiencing.
You want to share in their interest, excitement, sadness, fear, irritation, and even anger.
As Gottman says, “Don’t stonewall or ignore your partner; fail to respond, get defensive, or criticize.” Ask them if there is anything they need from you. If they just want a shoulder to cry on, then give them that. If they want advice or help in solving their problem, then you can confidently move forward with that approach.
How do we learn to stop arguing?
But what if the fighting isn’t because of an external stressor?
All couples do have conflict. Too often, conflict can become fighting, and any married couple will tell you that it doesn’t take much to find yourself immersed in an argument that neither of you can get out of.
So how do you stop? How do you have a conversation that leads to a healthier discussion rather than a knock-down-drag-out fight? It all comes down to reframing how you go about speaking to each other.
Here are a few tips:
- Don’t sound like a robot. Find the softness in your voice, show it on your face, and maybe grab a hand or rub a shoulder if appropriate. If there has been a lot of fighting between you, neutrality can be interpreted as sarcasm.
- Do not pause after Step 1. If you do, your partner will jump in and respond before you get a chance to express your appreciation.
- Nasty prepositions. As soon as we say I feel like…, or I feel as if…, or I feel that…, we are no longer talking about our feelings. We are masking an opinion, judgment, or interpretation and pretending we’re talking about feelings.
- Don’t go global. People respond better to a discussion about a single episode than to a personality critique. For example: “You really scared me last night when you stayed out so late without calling.” Start the conversation discussing something specific, and then the topic can expand if the tone turns to problem-solving.
- Edit all caveats. “I appreciate that you’re a great dad” is perfect with a period at the end of the sentence. The appreciation becomes lost if you say, “I appreciate that you’re a great dad, when you’re actually home.”
All we are saying here is that putting positive things into the marriage is equally as important as putting good stuff in. To truly have a safe and connected marriage, we must be intentional about having healthier conversations with our spouse, even in the face of stressful situations.
Our heart is devoted to caring about people and marriages!
Our heart is devoted to caring about people. We want to ensure you have the tools to communicate better in your marriage. The best way we know how to do that is by spreading the word to more people and let them know that we are here.
Did we leave anything out? How have you improved the conversations you’re having with each other? Please send us a quick email and help us keep this conversation going. mike@MikeandSusanDawson.com.