"So, how are you using conflict to help your marriage?"
Yes. You heard me correctly. Conflict can HELP YOUR MARRIAGE.
Full disclosure, I used to think conflict was a bad thing. It took me getting my Master's degree and going through extensive training on treating couples to realize how misguided I was.
Many people grow up in homes where conflict was actually unhealthy. Sometimes parents were fighting all the time, being mean (even cruel) to each other, yelling and shouting. Sometimes parents wouldn’t fight at all, not even having a small disagreement about the way to cook vegetables in front of their kids.
Most of the time when working with couples, we talk about parental styles of conflict. Not because we are trying to blame our parents for what is wrong with us. What we need to do is understand what we learned that was helpful and unhelpful, and then learn new ways of conflict that help us.
So how do we do this? How do we turn our nasty combative ways into healthy conflict? Here are three simple steps you can take to start this journey.
1. Think about how you fight with your spouse.
Think back on when you were growing up. How did your parents handle conflict around you? What did you see? What did you NOT see?
We often learn by watching others. Sometimes we are exactly like our parents, literally quoting our parents in the midst of an argument. Or we do the exact opposite because we didn’t like what we saw/didn’t see. This is especially true when we are just reacting to the arguments as they arise.
One thing that can help you better understand yourself is to rate a scale of 1-10, how accurate is this for you? Do you find yourself aggressive and insulting? Maybe you are the silent one who won’t engage at all, shutting down in any disagreement to avoid conflict?
2. Now think about what you WANT to look like when fighting with your spouse.
Now that you have learned a little about what you have been doing, I want you to think about what you would want yourself to look like in conflict. And really get detailed.
Do you want to be kind and gentle with a soft-spoken demeanor? Ensuring your partner feels heard and seen? Or maybe you want to be assertive and clear? Voicing your thoughts in a helpful way to be understood?
I often have clients write out a scene of how they would want conflict to look in their marriage. Like a scene in a movie script. From the beginning, when the disagreement arises, through to the end, when the issue is resolved.
Vividly picturing your end goal, identifying all the tiny details, helps you to find a way to reach this goal.
Remember, there is no single right way to have healthy conflict. It’s about finding the style that is healthy for both you and your spouse.
3. Finally, identify the small ways you can work towards fighting in a healthy way with your spouse.
Now, think about how you could take steps to become the person you want to be when having conflict with your partner. And remember, this is about you, not your partner. You can only control yourself, here.
Maybe it is by choosing to listen to your spouse speak first until you understand their side? Maybe it is choosing not to say anything rude or condescending for an entire day?
Think back to step 2 and the tiny details you identified about your ideal fighting style. If you wrote the script (way to go!), look at those tiny details. Even paying attention to the details that ARE NOT present, like the sarcastic insults, dramatic sighs, even the contemptuous eye rolls.
Make sure to start wherever will be the easiest for you to make the change. If you start where it is easier, you are more likely to be successful. This will create a snowball effect to make it easier to continue making changes towards healthy fighting with your spouse.
And then you can begin using conflict to strengthen your marriage.
Take care, friends!
Alisha Sweyd, LMFT