Additional Information on Chapter 2, page 22
One does not need to be married to establish excellent conflict-resolution skills. In fact those who have learned to resolve conflict early in the relationship are likely to continue those healthy patterns on into their marriage. There are couples who fight like cats and dogs throughout the course of a relationship. One wonders why anyone would wish to live that way, and the couple who constantly fights often seems oblivious to the ridiculous expenditure of energy. We’re given one lifetime here on earth, why would anyone want to spend it fighting and arguing? In any marriage, conflict will occur and even the most peace-loving couples will have occasional discord but a good marriage can easily survive the occasional conflict. However a relationship characterized by ongoing conflict is difficult to comprehend.
If you are one who simply enjoys fighting and have no desire to change, then skip to a different topic. But, for the majority, there is agreement on two simple realities: 1) Arguing makes both parties feel miserable, and 2) Arguing is one of the least effective ways of resolving conflict. If you prefer to live a life together in which conflict is not the destructive norm, then some proactive thinking prior to the marriage is in order. What follows is a model that provides effective ways to minimize or eliminate destructive forms of conflict.
The model identifies a structure that in most cases can be adapted to fit the needs of any couple. The earlier they establish a set of actions based on this model the more likely they are to establish long-term conflict resolution skills. Once again, anyone using this model will need to understand the basic components and adapt them to fit their situation.
1. Realize that Conflict Will Occur
Will differences of opinion and conflict occur during the course of a marriage? The answer: “Of course!” No two people can be married to each other without hundreds or perhaps a few thousand differences of opinion during the course of a marriage.
2. Identify Emotional States that Facilitate Resolution and Emotional States that are Destructive to Resolution of Challenges
Be proactive in response to the reality stated in Step 1. We know that conflict will occur. We know that conflict that develops into arguing or fighting and is (often devastatingly) unpleasant. We know that arguing and fighting is one of the least effective ways of resolving conflict so we need to understand how to avoid unpleasant arguments. Central to understanding such a model is to acknowledge one of the most foundational principles of personality psychology.
As emotions increase the ability to think clearly decreases.
During intense emotions clear thinking is often severely compromised. While this principle operates for both positive and negative emotions here we deal with the emotions associated with conflict.
When Elizabeth and I were on our honeymoon (we took a five-day train trip from Birmingham, Alabama to Edmonton, Alberta) we created our own model. Part of the process was to establish emotional states in which our ability to respond objectively and productively resolve a situation was compromised. I discovered a list much more extensive than I had anticipated when I was simply teaching the model to my students. Here’s our list. See how well it fits yours.
- Emotionally aroused
Next we consider an emotional environment in which we are most able to resolve (often-difficult) issues. A couple of clues were helpful to us. First consider what it is like to help with someone else’s problem. When you listen calmly and alertly to another’s difficulty it is often surprising how quickly you gain insights into the difficulty and find yourself able to generate resolutions to the problem. Consider your emotional state when helping in that type of setting. Cool, calm, objective, analytical, and keenly focused on possible solutions. What is your ideal emotional state when you are trying to accomplish any act that requires clear, objective thought Whether it is figuring how to tie vacation gear on the top of your car or preparing for a major entrance examination. This is the type of atmosphere you should strive to reproduce when resolving conflict. There is a need to de-emotionalize the situation so that your greater powers of resolution are at play.
So the trick is to work toward resolution of conflict when you are not in the former (emotionally aroused states) but are in the latter (objective, calm, focused) states. The second important consideration is to understand what can cause a transition from the former state to the latter state. Many couples are never able to unravel this mystery. We provide guidelines in the steps that follow.
3. Determine a Signal to Alert Your Partner that Potentially Dangerous Emotions are Escalating
The most destructive interactions occur when negative emotions develop and one or both partners are unaware of their increase, don’t care if they increase, or are unaware of the destructive power of interacting when possessed by one or more of these negative emotions. Thus it is important that one or both of you to identify when 1) a conflict exists and 2) when temperatures begin to rise. We recognize that there are people who can shift from calm peacefulness to a screaming frenzy in moments. The best we can say about such people, or if you such a person, is; “Get help!” No marriage can survive that level of intense negativity. The more quickly you are able to identify either of the two realities (conflict exists, emotions are rising) the more likely you are to be able to stop destructive emotions and eventually solve the problem.
One method of stopping escalating emotions before permanently damaging things are communicated, is to 1) Remember how ineffective and damaging armed conflict is, and 2) agree that a certain phrase or action will stop the interaction. For instance, the cue might be a pre-arranged phrase such as “temperature rising!”, “flooding imminent!”, “becoming dysfunctional!”, or whatever word(s) or actions that instantly identify to the other person that you are heading for dangerous waters. The signal can be something cute as long as it communicates instantly the need to stop. For instance John Gottman in his groundbreaking book The Seven Principles of Successful Marriages identifies what he calls the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” referring to criticism, anger, contempt, and stonewalling. Any of these reactions can devastate a discussion and eventually the entire marriage. One couple, to identify when any of the four horsemen were emerging, signaled this by saying “clip clop”! 11-42
4. Set a Specific Time to Resolve the Issue
When the escalation has stopped the next step is to determine a time to address the topic again after emotions have settled. Don’t be in a rush to do so immediately. There is an intrinsic mechanism present in most people that urges them to complete a task rather than to leave it unresolved. 11-43 Most people want resolution and are anxious that resolution occur NOW. The first step is to resist this urge. I feel that one of my worst qualities early in my first marriage was an almost uncontrollable urge to push through to conclusion any discussion no matter how bloodied it left the combatants. I have since learned the important lesson that it is fine to allow some things to resolve in the natural course of events. Let’s look a little closer at this issue.
Some topics cannot be resolved in a single session-even if the couple is non-aroused and working at their most efficient. In cases like this the phrase “well, we’ve made good progress, let’s let the topic simmer for awhile and continue the discussion tomorrow after the kids are in bed.” This statement acknowledges three things: 1) an absence of excessive anxiety about the topic, 2) A willingness to stop a discussion even though unresolved, and 3) an awareness that the topic will not resolve in one session and that several sessions may be necessary to bring to complete resolution. Those who are able to stop and continue at a later time are the couples who will make maximum use of this model. If you only get more anxious during the break, I have simple advice for you: “Get over it.” You cannot live a fully successful life with the uncontrollable urge to press things to conclusion that are not press-able or conclude-able. Learn when it is appropriate to allow a conflict to wait rather than to force it through to a conclusion .
So how long a gap is desirable? The actual length of time is not the issue. It is important that whatever time is established is long enough to return to an unemotional and fully cognitive and rational state. Some issues are too emotionally arousing to fully accomplish this, but you must be in a position to lay aside your emotions and listen with full comprehension. Sometimes it might be wise to re-address the topic a few hours later “after the kids are in bed”. There are some instances in which 30 seconds to take a deep breath and refocus might be enough. The critical concern is that you don’t allow compulsive urges to control the timing of re-addressing the issue.
5. Learn to Listen With Exactly One Goal in Mind: To fully understand your partner
During the re-address phase, there is one clear objective: Listen until you fully understand the perspective of the other.11-44 The negative emotions have now subsided and you have disciplined your mind to keep the emotions at bay and listen to gain full comprehension; to listen without trying to figure out a response, and listen in a way in which the other person feels heard. A tall order? Not particularly. When a person realizes that the objective is to listen without worrying about responding, it is surprising how easy it is to listen. There is one qualifier to the “without thought of response” phrase. It is perfectly acceptable, in many cases desirable, to have paper and pencil handy and jot down ideas as the other person is talking. This allows you to focus full attention on the other without anxiety that you will forget something important. Again the attitude is one of calm comprehension.
6. Sometimes it is Helpful to Structure Your Discussion
Sometimes it helps to actually structure the flow of events in the re-address session. For instance the husband might talk and present his perspective for 20 minutes (or whatever time is necessary to feel that he has fully addressed the topic). She will listen with full attention and jot down notes if necessary. It is OK for her to speak during his presentation but only clarifying questions. She may not understand something he is saying so questions like “I don’t fully understand, could you explain that again?” “Is this what you mean?” “Like the time when Sally and I . . .?”
When he is finished then it is the wifes’ turn. A question emerges: Who should go first? Who goes first will typically be associated with the most productive sequence of dialog. For instance, if Karen is distressed about how the children are being disciplined, then, since the issue bothers her the most, she should go first so she has opportunity to fully express her position. In many discussions there are initiators and responders on a given topic. In the case of the children’s discipline, Karen is the initiator and should go first. Sometimes both have an equal state in the discussion and a coin flip is fine to determine who starts. Like her partner, the woman now listens with full attention, taking down notes if desired, and asking only clarifying questions. The focus, again is to fully understand the other.
After both sides have been fully expressed then one of three situations have emerged. 1) Sometimes resolution has taken place just by the act of listening to the other. Rejoice, go out and celebrate! 2) Sometimes a foundational resolution has emerged but takes further discussion to determine how exactly that settlement will be negotiated. It becomes, at this point, simply a matter of determining the best implementation of that solution. 3) The problem has not resolved and further discussion is required. Either of the first two outcomes provides solution and you can go on about your business. The third option requires further discussion.
If resolution has not yet taken place, then the discussion continues. Just like in a formal debate, after the initial positions have been stated clearly then you go into the “rebuttal” phase. Actually the debate phrase smacks a little too much of controversy and an adversarial positioning, so lets use, rather, the phrase a “continued clarification”. Now is the time for the partners to make use of the notes they have taken and thoughtfully address each concern. If it is a very sensitive topic you might even create additional structure: The Husband asks questions or provides a response to the wife’s concerns while she listens to his response and answers his questions. When his questions have been fully addressed, then she does the same with him listening and responding. Once again there are two outcomes to this continued discussion: 1) Resolution eventually emerges. In this case you rejoice, go out and celebrate. 2) Resolution does not emerge. In the second case you need to determine if “sufficient progress has been made” and you set another time to continue the discussion. In somewhere between 95 and 99% of the cases this process will resolve the issue. 11-45 It is quite astonishing the power of non-defensive listening. However if the issue has not resolved and you both feel that further discussion will not further contribute, then you move to step 7.
7. Determine Who Makes the Final Decision When the Two of You Genuinely Disagree
The US and Canadian Governments have it, the military has it, every corporation has it, every school has it, and, in general the process works. That is you need to establish, long before the conflict, who has the final word in the event of gridlock. Who makes the final decision is a matter for the couple to decide. There are many models that may be followed, we explore a few.
1) The patriarchal model establishes the husband as the head of the household and the final decision-maker. This model is practiced in many societies and in Christian or Jewish communities represents a scriptural model with the husband as the patriarch or high priest of the family. Research reveals that families that fully accept this model generally do well with it. However, if the wife is restive or resentful about the pattern, then the model may break down.
2) The matriarchal model in which the wife is the final decision-maker does not have much support in any first-world society. There are no known societies that are unambiguously matriarchal, although there are a number of attested matrilinear, matrilocal and avunculocal societies, especially among indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa, such as those of the Minangkabau, Mosuo or Tuareg.
3) A much more popular model to day is that of shared leadership, that is, sometimes the husband has the final word and sometimes the wife does. How this is negotiated will reflect the personalities of the two individuals. A common pattern is to determine shared leadership based on certain domains or areas of expertise. For instance she might make decisions related to finances and the children; he may make decisions related to home maintenance, shopping and automobiles. The different patterns are as diverse as the couples who attempt a shared leadership model.
OK, so we’ve decided who our leader is-the person who has the final say in the event of gridlock. In a good marriage a final decision by the “leader” is rare. A couple who has to revert frequently to “the leader” for a final decision probably represents a couple with some serious problems in the relationship. One of John Gottman’s central principles of successful marriages is that each partner must be influence-able by the other.11-48 There is a significant gender difference here: typically it is the husband who needs to learn to be influenced by his wife. If one takes some sort of dictatorial role, a foundational principle of success has been violated. Often such a person has serious psychological problems (such as the urge to control or manipulate another) that is almost certain to guarantee an unsuccessful marriage. Fortunately these tendencies can usually be picked up during the courtship phase, and someone with an operational brain will cut off the relationship rather than risk almost certain disaster.
For those who do set a satisfactory chain of command, in the few instances when it is necessary, the other partner accepts the decision of the leaser as meekly as a political candidate who has lost an election. The leader will enact the choice with awareness of and respect to the feelings of the other party. When this pattern is established then the relationship can thrive despite not always getting one’s way.
8. Arbitration May Be Necessary in Rare Instances
Let us say that the couple has a good marriage and their conflict-resolution skills continue to improve. Let us say that 99% of issues are resolved by mutual discussion and the decision of the leader is an infrequent event, in many instances fewer than once a year. There may be a few times in a lifetime when the one partner is so distressed by outcome of this process that there needs to be a “supreme court” to sort out what is the best choice. The process is for the distressed partner to appeal to this “supreme court” for a final decision. In most cases this court is a mutually agreed upon objective person who will listen to both sides of the issue and make the final choice. In legal language it is called “binding arbitration.” In reality it may not be that formal. A respected pastor or mutual friend can serve in that role. Whoever it is, the couple has to agree that the decision is final.
Final thoughts. John Gottman in his book The Seven Principles of Successful Marriage goes into much greater depth on the issue of conflict resolution. He divides conflict points into two categories: solvable problems and insolvable problems.11-49 Gottman, of course, is talking within the context of a married (not dating) couple. In some of the examples of insolvable problems that he draws from his “love lab” at the University of Washington, there are married people who should never have been married-such as the atheist married to a person for whom participation in church was critically important. While Gottman outlines how insolvable problems can be lived with, far better to make a choice of a life partner for whom this component is minimized. Let us assume that you have set up this conflict-resolution model in a dating relationship. As stated before, if you find yourself often resorting to steps 5 and 6, it is likely that the relationship should terminate prior to the marriage. Step 5 (reverting to the leader for a final decision) should probably happen less than once a year, Step 6 (arbitration) no more than a two or three times during the entire marriage. We present one final thought.
There are some who have largely solvable problems but are so poor at objectively considering issues that they may wish to use an outside person to monitor the discussion or to act as a facilitator. A therapist may of course, carry out this role, but if the expense is prohibitive, a wise, objective person with good relational skills may be adequate as well. The function of the facilitator is to assist the couple to eventually develop the skills to resolve their own issues. But while the couple is learning the facilitator may play a pivotal role in learning this process.
Conflict resolution plan for sissies:
BullyProof acronym for handling anger in conflict situations:
Handling triggers and hot buttons: