“We don’t fight.”
That’s what one newlywed couple said to my wife and me during dinner one night. I may have exchanged a glance with my wife at the time, but I don’t remember thinking it was a big deal.
Boy, was I wrong.
The couple proceeded to bicker, make passive-aggressive jabs at one another, and all but physically accost each other during the rest of the evening—really giving new meaning to the phrase “game night.”
To be fair, they may have just been having an off night but I sure didn’t forget it. If you want to have a healthy relationship, it’s not about whether or not you fight. Given enough time, every couple fights in some form or fashion.
What sets healthy couples apart is the way in which they fight. Research even suggests that the way in which you fight affects your chances of getting a divorce.
If you’ve ever been in a serious relationship, you’ve likely experienced exactly how damaging a poorly handled fight can be. When I was a newlywed, I had no clue how to resolve conflict in a healthy way. I would hold all my feelings inside until they festered and either oozed out in the form of bitterness or exploded out in anger. Clearly not good strategies.
It took me years to replace the destructive strategies I brought into marriage with healthy strategies for resolving conflict. In hopes of helping those who, like I was, are clueless as to how to resolve conflict in a healthy way, I’ve put together five of the most practical lessons I’ve learned over my eight amazing years of marriage.
1. Take a Minute
All the bad stuff happens when you get too upset.
Talk to your significant other about when a timeout is appropriate and agree on parameters. You might not need parameters; however, if you’re like me, you gravitate toward using timeout as a “get out of jail free” card (“Just another three hours, honey, and then I’ll be good”).
Once you agree on using timeouts, you then have to learn to watch your own emotional dashboard to know when you need a time out. This can be harder than you think. You’ll know your timeout is effective if at the end of it, you are calm enough to be able to pray together.
2. Recognize Context
Bringing up the wet towel that was left with abandon on the bed (again)? Perfectly fine. Bringing it up after a 13-hour road trip? Not cool.
Recognize the context of your circumstances and know when you need to table an issue or at least go into the issue recognizing that you aren’t at the best place to deal with conflict.
If you’re like me, you also have to be careful not to use this to wait for the absolute “perfect time” to bring up an issue (“Mars and Jupiter are aligned and we just won the lottery … I can finally bring up that hurtful ‘the 90s called and wants my cargo shorts back’ joke”).
3. Assume the Best
This is the only advice I give to newlyweds because it was by far the best I ever received. I can interpret my wife’s “Did you wash the car?” as her nagging me or as her genuinely trying to understand if it has been done.
If I assume she is nagging me, bad things will follow. But, if I assume the best and think, for example, that she is trying to plan out her day, I avoid hurting her and possibly causing a fight. Always, always assume the best and you will not only communicate love and trust to your significant other but you will also avoid a number of fights.
4. Swallow the Bitter Pill
When you’re the one who messes up, you are faced with two choices:
1) You can defend what you did, and push blame away from yourself by pointing out other issues—all just so you don’t have to stomach the idea that you hurt people and “failed.”
2) Or, you can do something extremely hard and just swallow the bitter pill. You screwed up and hurt others. Once you do this, you stop causing more harm by fighting about it and you can then empathize and apologize which is what our significant others wants and needs from us anyways.
In my experience, admitting that I’m wrong is often less harmful than escalating a fight by denying, distracting or defending my actions.
5. Look Past the Surface and Address the Deeper Issue
This is the absolute game-changer when it comes to resolving conflict. If your fight has some emotional fuel behind it, it’s likely because you’re actually fighting about something deeper.
It took me years to be able to both recognize when we were fighting about a deeper issue and then speak directly to the underlying issue. The trouble is that we can get so caught up with the surface issue that we can miss the real issue altogether.
Is your wife upset about the wet towel left on the bed or, really, is she upset because it feels like you don’t care about her enough to consider her simple request?
Stephen is a husband and father of two and blogs at Practical-Christianity.com about Christian issues and the intersection of science and faith.