OK. So you had ANOTHER fight – another disagreement. It’s like, man, are we ever going to stop fighting? Remember, the goal is not achieving zero disagreements, it’s learning to disagree productively!
Caleb and I recently had a disagreement. Caleb told the story in our podcast episode:
“So I remember a recent disagreement we had. We were actually talking about a Sunday school lesson you were doing in the Old Testament. And you really wanted to emphasize the holiness of God as was expressed in that passage – how we need to revere God and not be flippant or casual about how we approach him.
And I was like, “Well, I think you just want to intimidate these kids so you can force them to behave in a certain way and that isn’t going to create genuine transformation”
Which created a long, awkward silence…
Then, you completely went around my harshness and came back with this very gracious response that totally opened a window into my own issues. And you framed it in the context of how certain values from my own FOO (Family of Origin) conflicted with values from yours, and without worrying about who was right or wrong, how those values influenced how we emphasize differently certain attributes of God’s character.
The irony, of course, is that I was calling you to be more gracious in a very harsh way, but you responded graciously to show me how I was being harsh about being gracious. LOL.”
How this relates to our topic today is, we could have had a long argument about theology and why each other was wrong, and probably never would have come to any agreement. This highlights a critical point which Olson et al., pointed out – “the way we handle problems, more than the problems themselves, often can be the problem”.[i]
Let’s look at our example more closely.
“The surface problem was theology and how to interpret it. But the real problem was my harshness and I was responding or reacting out of my own junk.
Rather than reacting superficially, you pointed out how I was coming to it and why, and did so softly, in a way I could receive it. That totally topped us from derailing but more than that, it created insight, understanding and growth.”
So, how can we disagree without sinking our love boat? Think of it as diffusing a bomb – it’s a much better day for both of you if the conflict is resolved rather than escalated!
#1 – Make sure your spouse feels understood.
This comes from giving them space and time to share their feelings and ideas during the disagreement. Take their disagreement seriously. Don’t discount or dismiss your spouse’s concerns.
If it means enough to him or her that she/he has raised something negative or of concern, you have to pay attention. This is all part of making them feel understood. Remember, this is not about the content matter of the disagreement; it’s about HOW you are handling the disagreement.[ii]
This is part of what is called person-centeredness.[iii]
Person-centeredness is the idea of taking information that you’re hearing from your spouse and incorporating that into the discussion you’re having by referring to it in subsequent comments or questions. In doing so, you’re sending a very signal that you’re listening, absorbing, taking this in, and processing it.
You still haven’t agreed with anything so you haven’t had to give up your own beliefs but what is really awesome is you are sending your spouse a very clear, simple message. That message is, “I am not shutting you out. I am hearing you. I get you. Your input matters to me.” That is such a different signal than completely ignoring or dismissing their input!
Have you ever had a disagreement with a person and by the end you’re not even sure if they’ve heard one thing you’ve said? That. Drives. Me. Nuts. It’s psychologically manipulative. I had a boss that wouldn’t even look me in the eye when I was talking to him and just stared over my shoulder. You start to wonder if one of you is not even a human being.
So, it’s so important to make your spouse feel understood. At the end of the day, you want to know their truth. What do they see and believe? Know the truth, and the truth will set you free. You get to that truth by listening well.
There’s one more point from the research before we leave this. You owe it to your spouse to explain your position in a way that he or she can understand you. Your spouse actually will find you more attractive when they can understand you and track your arguments easily.[iv]
This is a tactical strategy now: you need to use language with meaning that your spouse can identify with and relate to. Couples that align their tactics do better than couples that don’t when they are trying to resolve disagreements. It just makes the interaction that much easier to follow and connect with.
#2 – Speak from a place of autonomy.
In 2005, some researchers wanted to understand the relationship between self-determination and conflict in romantic relationships.[v] Being self-determined simply means that you govern your own behavior – your actions are autonomous, freely chosen and fully endorsed by the self.
It’s a nice way of saying that you feel free to choose to do what you want to do. You are not coerced or guilted into the relationship; you know why you’re there! It’s not about independence or detachment or avoidance or rebelliousness. It does NOT mean that your spouse is not committed and could bail at any time.
Rather, the construct of autonomy or self-determination used by these researchers reflects a very deep personal endorsement of your actions and involvement with your spouse. You’re totally committed because you want to be, you feel like you have chosen that. People who engage their marriages from this place are better adjusted socially and personally.
It’s more precious to me that Caleb has chosen to be committed to our marriage than to think of him as just being stuck with me out of obligation!
Ironically, this autonomy – despite having a very independent ring to it – is connected to being securely attached to your spouse. When you’re in this place of self-determination, you can have satisfying, honest, naturally occurring interactions with your spouse.
How does that independent, autonomous, self-determined stance create better conversations? You’re no longer trying to save face, or have the need to blame the spouse or aggravate the situation. Researchers found that the more autonomous you perceive yourself to be, the less you are worried about saving face and blaming others.[vi]
When you don’t have the need to protect your self-image and realize you are where you are because of the choices you’ve made, you can be more open to events and information that are coming up in your marriage. You can be more open to those because you are much less invested in the concern over whether these things portray you in a good or negative light.
Back to the research. The conclusion the researchers came to was people who have higher levels of autonomy in their marriage had greater feelings of satisfaction following a conflict.
Caleb referred to our personal argument again:
“You put aside the need to save face or blame me back, Verlynda. That created a much more satisfying outcome to the disagreement. In the end, I “let” you keep your perspective, I learned something, we both had some insight and we both grew.”
If you always fight the same way, about the same things, and end up in the same place every time, choose a different pathway! You are where you are because of the choices that you’ve made, so this time make a different choice:
- Work really hard to help your spouse feel understood and to help your spouse understand you, and;
- Be aware of how you’re trying to save face or blame and set that aside. Own the fact that you’ve made choices that have brought you to this point, and speak out of the place of a person who is making more choices – right choices – about how to respond in this disagreement.
Don’t be controlled by the situation, but take control and lead the next disagreement to a safe harbor. Don’t let your disagreements sink your love boat!
We know this can be difficult to do. That’s one of the reasons we offer coaching – because coaching is one way that you can help your marriage out by exploring other options and possibilities that you might not have been able to think of to this point.
[i] David Olson, Amy Olson-Sigg, and Peter Larson, National Survey of Married Couples (Life Innovations, Inc., 2008), https://www.prepare-enrich.com/pe/pdf/research/2011/national_survey_of_married_couples_2008.pdf.
[iii] Vincent R. Waldron and James L. Applegate, “Similarity in the Use of Person‐centered Tactics: Effects on Social Attraction and Persuasiveness in Dyadic Verbal Disagreements,” Communication Reports 11, no. 2 (June 1998): 155–65, doi:10.1080/08934219809367697.
[v] C. Raymond Knee et al., “Self-Determination and Conflict in Romantic Relationships,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89, no. 6 (December 2005): 997–1009, doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.527.