My husband and I came into marriage with diametrically opposed perspectives regarding conflict. He hails from a large Italian-American family where arguments happened on a somewhat regular basis. Family members would yell at each other, the temperature in the room would escalate, and then someone would tell a joke, diffusing the tension and returning the household to normal. No one ever apologized or resolved anything. Ever.
My roots are English and German. Let’s just say keeping a stiff upper lip was a much higher priority than showing your emotions—or telling the truth.
During our 26-year marriage, figuring out how to do conflict well has been imperative and essential. Here’s some of what we’ve learned.
1. Commit to deeply listen to each other. This means developing an open posture toward your spouse.
2. Refuse to become defensive. This is incredibly important and incredibly difficult!
3. Decide your comfort level regarding decibels. Few of us thrive when someone is yelling. Some of us even shut down. Determine what’s acceptable before you have a fight—and then hold each other accountable.
4. Avoid swearing, lashing out and any kind of physical violence against your spouse. This often begins when one person bars an exit or is rough. If this has already happened, please talk about it—and get some help.
5. Decide if it’s OK for one of you leave the room. Early on in our marriage, if my husband walked out, I would totally freak out. When my parents fought, one of them left for hours. I had to learn to trust my husband not to leave, which meant we sat in the same room together until we made some progress. Now, after 26 years together, it’s totally fine if he needs to go for a walk because I know he will come back.
6. Don’t let the sun go down. We understand this to mean don’t deny or avoid and don’t delay. We don’t always get to a point of resolution before the sun goes down. Sometimes, we’re just too tired and know that if we continue, the fight may escalate. However, we always bookmark it: “We need to talk about this over the weekend.”
7. Humbly confess and thoroughly apologize when you blow it.
8. Avoid blaming your spouse. (This includes using the words “never” and “always.” As in you always do this!)
9. Own your share of the conflict. (We have found it helpful to ask ourselves, How did I contribute to this?)
10. Pray together. One of the hardest things to do when we’re angry is pray but it’s also one of the best ways to keep our hearts soft and get through anger constructively.
11. Stay connected physically. Small gestures have so much power in these situations. That said, I often have to will myself to reach across the divide and hold my husband’s hand.
12. Speak directly and honestly rather than lying or relying on sarcasm or inappropriate humor.
13. Offer each other empathy. Step out of your story and seek to understand what’s happening for your spouse. By mirroring back what you hear and sense, your spouse will know that you have understood what they are trying to communicate.
14. Keep talking and working until you find a place of true resolution and peace. If you continue to have the same conflict over and over again, chances are, you’re fighting about something that symbolizes a deeper issue.
15. Don’t stockpile. Bring up one issue at a time and get back to zero.
16. Pay attention personality differences. Extroverts may need to stop talking and introverts may need to start.
17. Learn the art of overlooking and avoid the dysfunction of denial. There are many times when we need to simply extend grace and choose to overlook things. This is not the same as denying substantial and consequential issues.
18. Assume the best of each other. For some reason, when we are in the midst of a heated argument, it’s far too easy to ascribe wrong motivations to our spouse. Unless there is unmistakeable evidence to the contrary, your spouse is on your team.
19. Forgive fully. Every. Time. No matter how difficult it is.
20. If you don’t know what to say or do in the middle of a fight, tell your spouse you love them and aren’t going anywhere. This won’t resolve your conflict but it will help your spouse to feel more secure.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer, author, and photographer who lives and works outside Boston. You can find more of her work on Twitter (@DorothyGreco) or Facebook (Words&Images by Dorothy Greco).