Does it ever feel like you have the same fight or argument or conflict over and over again? The subjects may be different, but the way you fight is the same old, same old. And the next conversation is never any better than the last one.
That is a frustrating and totally exhausting way to have a relationship!
It is no secret that most couples just do not have the skills or understanding to process an argument well. “Old habits die hard” is maybe more true in arguments than anywhere else. Paths through arguments are deeply ingrained, and so it is no wonder couples always end up at the same negative place.
Each time you take the same path through an argument, more hurt and pain are deposited into the relationship. Over time it starts to feel like you are stuck! Couples don’t find the solutions they need and they keep piling more negativity on their partner and themselves. The cycle continues because it appears this is “just what couples do” or “there’s no effective way to communicate with my spouse.”
In working with couples, I have found a technique by John Gottman that is not only effective in helping them process an argument successfully, but that is simple to learn and put into practice in their own home. It really works for almost all couples that will use it when they argue. This tool provides a structure to help them talk about the right things, the most important things, and to feel good about each other afterwards. It is important to follow the structure in order of the steps.
5 Steps for Couples to Process Conflict for Success
1. Identify the feelings and emotions experienced before, during, and after the ‘event.’
Ask yourself some questions, then share with your partner ALL that you were feeling. Did you feel defensive, unappreciated, unloved, angry, sad, powerless, lonely, like you had no influence, totally overwhelmed, taken for granted, something else? As you share with one another, concentrate on what your partner was going through in their head and heart!
2. Summarize your perspective.
Next, each partner should share their own perspective on how they saw the conflict event. This should be a short, summarized view where both are listening for what they CAN accept, or that makes sense from their partners’ perspective. Remember- everyone has their own perspective and view of what happened. Our “realities” are subjective and will not be the same. The goal here is not agreement; that will rarely happen. The goal is to hear their perspective and be interested and curious (remember the “Movie Theater Attitude”) in how they see it.
3. Validate your partner’s perspective.
This is a critical step. Each partner must listen intentionally to their partners “reality” (step 2) and find at least one thing that makes sense, is understandable from their partner’s perspective, or can accept from their view.
4. Take individual responsibility for the fight.
Each partner should admit their responsibility in the fight. Are you irritable, or stressed lately? Do you need alone time, but not asked for it? Are you too critical or sensitive lately? Have you been emotionally unavailable, or not expressed your appreciation to your spouse? There are many influences in our lives that can impact our emotions, thinking and behaviors. All too often those come out toward the ones we love; and until we intentionally examine ourselves, we cannot see the effect on us and on our relationships.
5. Identify changes for the future.
Once you both have decided what your own contribution to the fight was (step 4), each partner should state at least one thing they could do differently in the future. This looks like being more calm and listening better next time. Or, communicating with your spouse that you need some time, or that you need something from them like some affection or appreciation. Maybe you need to self soothe, or take better care of yourself emotionally or physically. And then ask your partner for one thing they might be able to do that would help you to do better the next time.
When couples go through these steps the amazing thing is that they not only learn to manage conflict without fighting, but they can actually bond and grow closer through their conflict. Working through a conflict together validates the myriad of emotions both have experienced. They also find they are more understanding of each other’s perspective and appreciative that their partner cares enough to work with them to heal their hurt. As a team they carve a new path through the fight and end up on the other side with a greater sense of hope for the future.
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