If a married couple tells me they’ve never been in a “fight” – never had a disagreement – I don’t believe them. How is that even possible? You’re two different people, from different backgrounds, who have had different experiences throughout your lives. You may generally think alike, but you’re still unique individuals. Differences and disagreements will crop up from time to time.
Disagreements are not the problem. The problem arises when we let those disagreements deceive us into thinking that we’re not compatible and can’t possibly be happy together. That’s simply not true. But that’s a topic for another time.
When (not if) disagreements crop up, how you handle them is critical to the nurturing of your marriage. A heavy rainstorm can either slowly erode a landscape or can provide the water necessary for growth and eventual beauty. The difference in outcomes depends on the delivery and reception of the rain. The rain itself is not bad; quite the contrary, the rain is essential for creating a beautiful landscape. Similarly, the differences of opinion between you and your spouse are not bad. In fact, those differences can provide color and texture to the bigger picture as you weave your lives together. But, in recognizing and facing your differences, you have to be careful in your delivery.
3 disagreement strategies that DON'T work:
1. Using broad, absolute statements to describe your spouse or their behavior
Statements like “you always,” or “you never,” don’t work. These absolute statements only hurt and portray your spouse as an individual locked into one mode of thinking or action and closed to all other alternatives. They don’t give your spouse credit for the good things they’re trying to do, or the improvements they’re trying to make. These absolute statements are like painting in broad, single-colored brush strokes – there’s more to your spouse than the picture you’re painting of them. In short, these statements aren’t fair and almost always aren’t true.
2. Bringing up resolved issues of the past
Digging up hurt feelings of the past that have long since been buried doesn’t help anyone. It not only hurts the offending party, but it also hurts the offended party. It’s simply not healthy or helpful. When past wrongs are brought up in new disagreements, your spouse will not only feel attacked, but will also feel like you never truly forgave them – like they can never make it right. And when mud is thrown in one direction, a retaliatory volley typically follows. Neither of you are perfect and we all have moments we wish our spouses would forget. Bringing up resolved issues of the past fosters a score-keeping mentality – and marriage isn’t a competition between spouses. Marriage is a partnership where each party gives to benefit the other.
3. Raising your voice and trying to out-talk your spouse
In most disagreements, the volume of voices rise. This is probably because we want to make it absolutely certain that our counterpart 1) understands that we're not happy, and 2) hears our message. The cruel irony of this, however, is that when we yell, people listen to us less. They may be physically able to hear the words better due to the volume, but they will listen less. The only message that comes through loud and clear, is that you're not a very good communicator.
3 disagreement strategies that DO work:
1. Using specific situational examples to explain your feelings
Rather than expressing your feelings of frustration through broad absolute statements, try using statements like “When you do X, it makes me feel like Y.” Using this approach, you’re able to express how you feel in a given situation without attacking, or accusing, your best friend. You may very well find that your spouse never intended for you to have the negative feelings you experienced and wants to prevent the situation from happening again. When this approach is taken, your spouse will be much more prone to understand how you're feeling rather than to take offense and fight back. It will open up the door for you to discover, together, how to best resolve differences and avoid situations where either of you could feel hurt, frustrated, or neglected.
2. Forgive and forget – again and again!
Marriage is a refining process – for both spouses. I have yet to meet a happily married couple (of more than two weeks) that hasn’t endured a marital bump-in-the-road on occasion. The key to facing these differences is in recognizing that you’re both on a journey together to create, and become, something special. And you need each other every step of the way. So, don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry,” and to forgive and forget and move on. You’ve likely heard the analogy of a rock rolling down a stream that becomes very smooth due to the rough edges being gradually worn down. As we go through life, each of us have our “rough edges,” gradually smoothed down through a variety of experiences. Ultimately, the refining process helps us to become better, and to grow closer together with our spouse. That’s one of the things that makes marriage so fulfilling – being able to learn, develop, and become something great together.
3. Hushed voices
Remember how as newlyweds you would whisper "sweet nothings," in each other's ears? It's romantic, it's an expression of tenderness and care, and it's very effective. In fact, when we speak in hushed tones, people actual listen and comprehend what we're saying much better. Part of that is no doubt due to the fact that someone must pay careful attention to simply hear the words, but that's not all. When we speak in soft tones, people are drawn to what we're saying - they physically or metaphorically lean in to hear more. Using a soft voice also communicates respect and love to our spouse, telling them we care enough about them NOT to raise our voice.
While certainly not always easy, keeping our voices down is one of the keys to successfully addressing disagreements. Being able to keep your voice down shows maturity. It's a symbolic and non-verbal way to essentially tell your spouse, "Even though we may not see eye-to-eye 100% of the time, I still love and respect you - and nothing can get in the way of that!"
"What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility."
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