How to resolve conflict with my spouse?
“I feel awful, uncomfortable and restless. I want to talk things through but I feel so angry that I prefer being alone, in a locked room. I mean, I’m not going to go out and start starting – let him take the lead. Yes, we both screamed at each other and lost our cool but he was the first one who yelled – so I deserve an apology first. I’m not going to open the door till he begs me to, that’s the only way to teach him a lesson.”
This is what Seema tells herself while her husband Ashok is in another room feeling similarly angry and hurt.
Every couple goes through conflict in some form or the other. If a couple says they never fight, it’s probably because they hardly communicate or they are not saying the truth! Conflict can be good for a marriage. What makes it messy is the unhealthy way in which we manage conflict.
We all have unique patterns of expressing hurt, anger, sadness, disappointment, resentment or rage during a fight. Sometimes these emotions can erupt intensely only with our spouse and no other human on earth. Perhaps we feel safe to express the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to our spouse. This is why we may say or do things with our spouse that we may never say to another person. Unfortunately most of us haven’t been taught conflict management lessons in school or in our childhood homes. So we may end up protecting our vulnerabilities that come up most strongly in a marriage by attacking our spouse. Therefore it is often the way we fight that makes a marriage unhappy, and not necessarily fighting itself.
An important step to better manage our conflict is to become aware of our unique patterns of expressing ourselves during a fight. We may notice in time that the same pattern repeats itself irrespective of the issue being fought upon.
In Ashok and Seema’case, let’s rewind and see what caused Seema & Ashok to feel they way they did and a possible pattern in their conflicts:
Ashok’s colleagues suddenly decided to join him for dinner at home. He calls his wife Seema and informs her about an additional 4 people joining for dinner. Seema has been used to Ashok’s friends coming home but was not in a mood to cook that particular day and requests Ashok to buy food on his way back. Ashok gets angry as he feels it would be an insult to give his friends restaurant food when his wife cooks so well. He yells at Seema and she yells back and cuts the phone, feeling misunderstood and hurt. Ashok gives an excuse to his friends and comes back home. As he enters the house – words are exchanged and soon voices get louder. Seema goes to the bedroom, bangs the door and locks it. Ashok goes to another room and bangs it too. Seema then waits for Ashok to come and apologize to her.
In their case, a possible pattern is that both of them jump to yell at the other person if they feel misunderstood without attempting a reasonable discussion before showing dramatic expressions of hurt. Perhaps Ashok’s short temperedness triggers similar responses from Seema. Another pattern that might repeat itself is that Seema bangs and locks the door whenever she feels hurt, possibly as a way to escape from difficult emotions – this in turn triggers Ashok to also bang the door and withdraw from Seema.
If Ashok and Seema become aware of how each of their expressions strengthens a response from the other – they may soon see a pattern of responses that may be similar across all their fights. This pattern may be similar in the manner in which they fight and not so much the content of their fight. Therefore the first step in managing conflict would be to recognize and break unhealthy patterns and learn more healthy ways of resolving differences.
With time, a couple can understand each other’s patterns – triggers, reactions, expressions and specific behaviours during conflict along with how much time each person takes to get into a reasonable discussion.
There are various factors that contribute to our unique style and patterns in dealing with conflict. They are:
- Childhood experiences
- Parenting styles of our parents
- Conflict management style of our parents
- Learnt behaviour through environment and culture
- Personality traits
- Gender roles and expectations
- Power and control issues in the marriage
Couples may want to consider talking to each other openly about their patterns so that when they are in conflict, they can recognize the pattern and break it immediately. But often recognizing these patterns and communicating to each other is not easy. Discussions may start in a reasonable tone but end up with intense emotions. At these times it is useful to involve a third person, preferably someone who would be neutral to both parties, to help the couple negotiate and communicate better.
If you are struggling to resolve differences with your spouse or want to improve the way you manage conflict, consider meeting a couple’s counsellor who will help you become aware of your patterns and facilitate better management of your fights.
Remember conflict is good because it can bring you closer to your spouse, if you learn to negotiate and manage the conflict. It triggers deeper communication that may have been impossible without the conflict. After the conflict is over, you may experience more intimacy.