How to Engage in Healthy Conflict with Your Spouse

You and your spouse may spend most days living side-by-side in peaceful harmony, but every couple comes to a crossroads at some point that sparks a confrontation. The key to a healthy, happy marriage isn't to avoid conflict, but to learn healthy conflict resolution strategies.

Timing is everything.
Unleashing a litany of demands or criticisms the minute your spouse walks through the door is an example of what experts call a “harsh start-up.”

“Harsh start-up is something people can do that will immediately close down the openness in the relationship. It makes the argument less effective for providing resolution,” says Dr. Jill Thorne, a psychologist and marriage therapist. "Harsh start-up is one of the big mistakes that doesn't set the tone well."

Soften your tone and approach the discussion in a way that doesn't feel like a guerrilla attack. That might mean postponing the discussion until after dinner when you and your spouse aren't hungry, tired and in the midst of dinnertime chaos when emotions may already be running high.

“[Also] avoid talking through a touchy subject if other people are around or if you are rushing out the door,” Thorne says.

Refusing to acknowledge or validate your partner's perspective can escalate the argument and elicit elevated reactions and low blows. On the other hand, listening with an open mind will help him feel heard.

“When we can put our own agenda on hold, the other person feels validated and understood, usually squelching the fight,” says Adrienne Dreher, family counselor.

Although conflict is scary, airing grievances in a non-abusive way helps people negotiate the needs of others and understand different perspectives. Couples often avoid conflict because they are passive in how they communicate, feel insecure about how to assert their needs or feel intimidated by the other person. Other times, they dismiss an argument before a resolution has been reached. “If there is not a resolution, [a person] can start to feel resentful deep down and start to build distance emotionally,” Thorne says.

If you feel too overwhelmed and stressed to continue an emotionally charged disagreement, tell your spouse you need a break. But, agree on a time to return to the discussion.

Arguing in front of kids.
Many couples strive to keep the peace around the kids, but experts say kids can learn from witnessing a healthy disagreement, as long as the issue isn’t too intimate in nature.

“It’s good, smart and healthy to allow the kids to see some [conflict],” Thorne says. “Children learn mostly through social role modeling. They can learn how to discuss when they are feeling angry or hurt, which is important for future relationships.” If your child becomes frightened or upset by an argument between you and your spouse, stop and reassure her, says Thorne. You might say: “We're just talking through something we don't agree on. It will be OK.” Warmth and affection between you and your spouse following an argument shows your child that despite disagreements, you still care about each other.

Repair and forgive.
Make efforts to repair any emotional fall-out and forgive each other.

“Be able to apologize or say you are sorry, whether it's saying ‘I want to hear what you are saying,’ ‘Let me say that again in a better way’ or ‘I know I was harsh about that when I first brought it up,’” says Karen Irick, LCSW, a marriage counselor. Asking for a break during an argument is also a form of repair.

Enable the air bag.

When the foundation of your marriage is strong, disagreements aren't as threatening to a partnership.

Show affection and offer small, thoughtful acts of kindness toward each other. Spend time doing activities you both enjoy to avoid complacency and emotional distance. Date each other, flirt and remember what brought you together in the first place. Check in with each other during the day. Look for marriage retreats and other opportunities to reconnect.

Consult a third party if you continue to rehash old disagreements or have trouble fighting fairly. A trained therapist can help establish healthier communication patterns.

Regularly scheduled date nights are a healthy way to nurture a relationship. Find ideas for San Diego date nights on the water here.

Unhealthy behaviors to avoid, according to The Gottman Institute.

  • Criticism. Attributing negative personality traits to your partner: “You never help out around here” or “You are so selfish.”
  • Defensiveness. Self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood: “It's not my fault that we’re always broke” or “You’re the one who spends all the money.”
  • Contempt. Insults, name-calling, mockery, and hostile body language such as eye-rolling and sneering.
  • Stonewalling. Emotional withdrawal from the interaction.

Books that may help:

  • Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman
  • Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix
  • The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman

Freelance journalist, Christa Melnyk Hines, and her husband of 18 years are the parents of two boys.

Published February 2016

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