Katharine Hill talks about the importance of learning the right way to deal with conflict
Many couples will have one or two issues that become a regular source of conflict in their relationship. After 27 years of marriage, Richard, my husband, and I have learnt to recognise that the two issues that most often cause a disagreement between us are, Number 1 – ‘Navigation’ and Number 2 – ‘Gardening’.
Number 1 – ‘Navigation’, can usually be attributed to Richard’s desire not to sit in a traffic queue, but to find an alternative route so we can reach our destination as quickly as possible. Arguments arise because of my inability to either read a map or operate a sat nav.
Number 2 – ‘Gardening’, is caused by my desire to give the plants and shrubs in the garden a gentle trim, so that they look pretty all year round. Arguments arise because of Richard’s propensity to promote vigorous growth by using a hedge trimmer (or any other B & Q gadget) in order to cut back any green plant, bush or tree to within an inch of its life.
We have many other issues in our marriage that we agree on – and others that we don’t – but these are two that regularly come to the surface. They will, more often than not, result in disagreement if we are pressed for time, if we are tired or hungry, or particularly if we have been busy and have neglected to make time for each other. The ensuing differences of opinion can then lead (at best) to a domestic standoff, or (at worst) to a full-blown argument.
Disagreements about seemingly trivial issues – as well as the more important ones – are part and parcel of every marriage. In fact a recent survey analysed the issues that most couples argue about. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not listening came at the top of the list with conflict over money coming in a close second. Other contenders were: what to have for dinner, driving too fast, when to have sex, not closing cupboard doors, and walking past things that need to go upstairs. Any of those sound familiar?
Whilst not many people enjoy conflict, it doesn’t have to be a negative factor in our relationship. If we can learn to argue well, the process of working through a disagreement together can be a positive factor in our marriage, and can even serve to strengthen it over time.
Here are three habits we can learn that can help us to argue well:
Recognise our differences
We don’t need to have been married long to have discovered the differences between us. Often, the very differences that may have attracted us to each other in the first place can become a source of irritation and conflict. Instead of trying to change our spouse’s behaviour, seek to appreciate, and even celebrate, those differences so they complement each other, and work for us and not against us.
Respect each other
In the heat of an argument it is so easy to forget what the original issue is and attack the other person instead. Two phrases that can often slip out are “you never” and “you always”. Rather than making it personal, it is so much better to try to focus on the issue. Imagine that our spouse completely forgets our birthday. We are hurt and need to let him or her know. What will not help is to attack them – “You’re totally selfish”, “You never remember anything”, “You just don’t care… everybody notices it.” Talk, instead, about how our spouse’s behaviour makes us feel – “It made me think that you didn’t care about me.” This will keep the issue in the centre and stops our husband or wife feeling that they are the problem.
Resolve the issue
When there is a disagreement we can be tempted to enter the fray using the weapons of attack or withdrawal. Which of these tactics we use will depend on our personality, but neither will help us to resolve the issue. Instead, if we can remind ourselves that we are on the same side, we can lay down our weapons and, standing shoulder to shoulder, we can work at finding a solution together.
Learning to argue well can take a lifetime of practice, and may require us to change ourselves in the process as we seek to accommodate each other and put the other’s needs before our own. Whilst map reading and gardening may not seem the most serious of issues, Richard and I have discovered that if we can learn to argue well by tackling those small things together, then we will be better able to deal with the bigger disagreements when they come along and will find that our marriage will grow and be strengthened in the process.