Respectfully Handling Differences and Solving Problems

A story is told of a bride, sighing blissfully on her wedding day, ‘Mom, I’m at the end of all my troubles!’ ‘Yes,’ replied her mother, ‘but at which end?”Conflicts, disagreements, and challenges are a normal part of every marriage. It’s how differences are handled that is an important key to marital success or failure. Knowing how to handle differences respectfully is part of making a good marriage better.

What are some of the areas in which couples may have differences and disagreements? In one national telephone survey, money and children were issues couples were most likely to report arguing about.

It’s possible for married couples to deal with the issues between them without the discussion escalating into an argument. Here are some ideas for handling differences and solving problems in marriage respectfully:

Prevention. Some issues need never be raised. Simply being loving and caring deeply for our partner may prevent some of these things from ever becoming an issue. For example, maybe we can let go the concern about the toothpaste being left uncapped.

Part of prevention includes working to eliminate destructive interaction patterns from our relationships so they don’t creep in and influence the nature of our discussion of issues. Researcher John Gottman has identified major patterns he terms the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:” criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism involves attacking someone’s personality or character, rather than a specific behavior, usually with blame. For example, instead of saying “There’s no gas in the car. Why didn’t you fill it up like you said you would” one might say “Why can’t you ever remember anything? I’ve told you a thousand times to fill up the tank and you didn’t.”

Contempt is criticism made personal, with the intention to insult and psychologically abuse. It includes words (insults, sarcasm, name calling, hostile humor, mockery) as well as body language (eye rolling, sneering).

Contempt leads to defensiveness, a natural reaction when being attacked. The following show defensiveness: Denying Responsibility (It wasn’t my fault, it was your fault); Making Excuses (I couldn’t help being late); Cross-complaining (We never go out anymore vs. Well, you never want to be romantic); Rubber Man/Rubber Woman (You don’t listen to me vs. Well, you don’t listen to me); Whining (What are you picking on me for?);Body Language (Arms folded across chest, false smile)

Stonewalling occurs when one or both partners withdraw or disengage during discussion of an issue in the relationship. The stonewaller removes themselves from the situation and stops responding. Silence. No usual “uh huh” “yes” “ok” or “hmmm” responses are given. Everyone occasionally withdraws during heating marital exchanges. The danger is if it is habitual, because this results in failures to address real issues in the relationship.

Another important aspect of prevention is the holding of regular couple meetings. Couple meetings provide the opportunity to discuss issues directly related to the marriage relationship. Couples who regularly visit together about their relationship are more likely to nip marriage problems in the bud. This is also a time when love and appreciation for one another can be reconfirmed, and a time to say, if necessary, ‘Sweetheart, I am sorry about what happened today. Please forgive me.”

When an issue is important enough to talk about, here are some ideas to deal with them respectfully:

Calm yourself first. Before approaching someone on an issue, ask: Am I in control of myself? We need to calm ourselves first so that we can address an issue well and avoid contention. Contention results in anger escalation, hostility and hurt feelings that can seriously harm relationships. If you cannot approach an issue without contending about it, it’s better to try and deal with it later after you have calmed yourself. Do whatever calms you: prayer, peaceful music, a walk around the block, a warm bath, etc.

Bring up the concern softly, gently, and privately. Set the stage for a discussion by bringing up issues softly, gently, and calmly. Avoid negative, accusatory remarks, sarcasm, critical and contemptuous statements. It’s okay to complain but don’t blame. Speak for yourself. Use “I” statements to communicate your feelings (I felt hurt when you left me alone at the party), not “you” statements (You are so inconsiderate!). Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Be clear. Be polite. Be appreciative. Bring up the issue privately with your partner.

Learn to make and receive repair attempts. When a discussion on an issue gets off on the wrong foot, put the brakes on before disaster strikes and things get contentious. Gottman calls this a “repair attempt.” Ultimately, it is anything persons in a discussion do to de-escalate tension so that discussion and solving of a problem can proceed. It might include apologies (I’m sorry, please forgive me, I didn’t mean that), acknowledgment of actions (yes, you do help with the laundry on occasion), or taking breaks (Whoa! This is getting out of hand. Let’s take 10 minutes and cool off!).

Soothe yourself and each other. Taking breaks may be essential if repair attempts are unsuccessful or if you begin to feel out of control physically and emotionally, or “flooded.” You need to go back and calm yourself. Self-soothing may be accomplished by using one or more relaxation techniques. After you’ve spent about 20 minutes calming down on your own, you can help soothe each other by talking about what produced the “flood” and what each of you can do to calm one another. Some need longer to become calm enough to resume the discussion.

Stay focused. Stay focused on the problem at hand. Don’t bring up the past. Stay in control of your emotions, maintain mutual respect and concern for one another. If any one of these isn’t possible, take a time-out until you can.

Listen with the head and heart. True listening is an expression of love. Head-and-heart listening involves laying aside distractions and giving full attention, acknowledging/validating feelings, inviting more discussion/clarifying, and showing understanding by paraphrasing.  Avoid interrupting or rebutting. The goal of listening is understanding.

Reach a consensus about a solution.  After a full discussion of an issue has occurred, counsel together to find a solution you both feel good about. Let your spouse influence you as you arrive at a mutually agreeable solution. Be willing to compromise. Steps to getting agreement might include: Brainstorm possibilities, evaluate alternatives, choose one you feel good about, put solution into action, and follow-up.

For Further Reading:

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
by John Gottman

The Relationship Cure
by John Gottman

Fighting for Your Marriage
by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg  

Additional Websites

Couple Communication Program

Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP)

Relationship Enhancement programs

PAIRS programs

CoupleCARE program

Marital or family therapy