I know what you’re thinking.
Why on earth would I want to support my spouse when we’re fighting?
Well, because you want to stay married, that’s why. That’s the “brutally-loving” truth!
But, there’s more.
It makes fighting productive. Yes. That’s right. I mean it. It actually makes the conflict helpful for your marriage.
Now, I could go down a rabbit trail about why fighting is good for your marriage but I want you to think about your beliefs about fighting and disagreeing instead.
We generally assume that as conflict increases in a marriage, the couple’s satisfaction with their marriage decreases. That’s a good assumption. It is usually correct. But focusing on stopping the conflict as a way to improve satisfaction just leads to avoidance.
That’s not going to work.
Research in a study presented by Cramer (2003) pointed out that if you focus on unconditional acceptance, understanding and openness, as those increase, marriage satisfaction increases regardless of the quantity of conflict.
Pretty cool, hey?
This underlines the importance of focusing on the positive, of affirming what you want more of, and overall, the importance of building a healthy, thriving marriage.
When that is in place, it’s not about how much you fight any more. I want you to worry more about the quality of your marriage (infusing the good) rather than the quantity of your disagreements.
In terms of positive things you can bring to your next disagreement, let’s look at three that are critical. These skills will improve the quality of your marriage.
Non-defensive listening is vital here. This is a skill that helps “partners to focus their attention on what the other person is saying and to attempt to really understand it. This skill reduces interruptions and the preoccupation with defending oneself and formulating retorts” (Gottman, 1994).
That’s a critical definition, and a useful one. You might want to even write that down.
Of course, to listen non-defensively is a challenge when we’re already ticked off at our spouse. But you’re doing this for your marriage, not just yourself, right?
To listen in this manner is going to require self-restraint. As in, restraining your impulse to dispute your spouse’s perceptions.
Don’t worry, the research confirms this is going to be a challenge: “Non-defensive listening requires significant self-control, particularly when there is an important disagreement and passions run high” Fowers, (2001).
Think of this as a skill. Like learning to ride a bike, you won’t get it right the first time. There’ll be bumps and scrapes but eventually you will make this a habit.
And when you do, you’ll have discovered that you can keep your partner speaking while you exercise self-restraint.
This is a huge act of generosity! It is giving to your spouse the gift of attention and interest and it’s sending your spouse the signal that you believe he or she has something worthwhile to say.
So we can be generous or miserly with each other. But generosity, remember, is a top five predictor of successful marriage and so I’m challenging you to be generous by choosing to listen well.
Of course, if you are doing a good job of listening you’ll be well positioned to validate your spouse.
Validation can be as simple as what we therapists call “listener backchannels”. As in, those simple verbal cues that tell the other person you’re following them. Things like, “mmhmm” and “yeah…” and nodding, eye contact and all that good stuff.
When you do this it doesn’t need to mean that you agree. But it is just saying to your spouse that you’re listening, you’re interested, and you may have your own point of view but you want to hear him or her out.
That’s the key point. I’m not asking you to agree with your spouse.
I am asking you to communicate that you understand her/his feelings and you acknowledge those feelings as legitimate for your spouse.
This again is using generosity, especially when your spouse’s viewpoint is different from your own. But it’s so powerful to send a clear signal to your spouse that her point of view is legitimate.
To help with this, just remember that you don’t need to have the same feelings as your spouse. But you can still understand and accept his expressed feelings.
What you’re doing is giving your spouse a share in the claim to truth. And so what this does for the marriage is rather than having a problem between you, you’re working together on a problem.
Now, this is no less of a challenge than to listen well. In fact, it might be more of a challenge.
I’m a therapist (this is Caleb writing this post). I know these skills. I teach these skills. But I don’t always manage to use them when I should in our marriage!
It takes real mindfulness and commitment to choosing the right behavior rather than choosing the right to be right.
At least, that’s what I find.
Last, but not least!
Gottman and Schnarch are both big on this. They are both thought leaders in the marriage research industry.
Gottman says, “From the data gathered in our lab we’ve seen how quickly discussions fall apart as soon as one spouse’s heart rate begins to soar. Learning how to calm down helps prevent unproductive fighting or running away from the important discussions you may need to have.”
Let’s acknowledge that disagreements can be overwhelming to some of us.
They are to me.
Not so much in our marriage, but at work or other social situations where conflict is present, I really start to shake on the inside. I guess Verlynda can be scary, but in a different way 🙂
Regardless, during conflict our body responds by going into fight or flight mode. And what we really need and want to be doing is staying engaged with our spouse. So our body is often going to be working against us.
That’s ok. You don’t have to get mad at your body.
Rather, just allow yourself some compassion. Become aware of how you are responding physiologically and then learn to self-soothe.
There are a few things you could try to soothe yourself. Definitely work on regulating your breathing. That doesn’t mean clamping down on it. Rather, take deep breaths in through your nose and slowly release out through your mouth.
You can open your body posture (unfold or uncross all your limbs). Use prayer. Find what works for you. The goal is simple: calm yourself down.
Just being accepting of the disagreement itself is helpful. You wouldn’t upset if this weren’t important to you, right?
So, if you want to stay engaged you’re going to have to work a little harder. This is usually truer for us guys. We like fireworks when we’re holding the lighter. But when our beloved lights up, it can feel a little, er, scary.
Just having the awareness of what is going on in your body is powerful. Learning to comfort and self-soothe so that you can stay engaged in the discussion is going to put you in a much better place to support your spouse.
The goal is to support your spouse. Don’t get lost in your own stuff by not listening, failing to validate or allowing yourself to become overwhelmed.
Support Your Spouse While You Disagree
Now, your homework for this week is to go have a disagreement.
About half way through the conflict, when things have warmed up nicely, just do a quick check-in with your spouse. “Hey, honey. Are you feeling supported right now even though we’re disagreeing?”
Let me know what she/he says in the comments below.