Saturday, 19 July 2014

How to fight with your spouse (and why you should)

One of the mistakes I made early on in my marriage was that I didn't fight enough with my wife. By fight I do not mean raised voices and cruel things being said in anger.  Believe it or not we have never, ever had that kind of fight.  And I'm not talking about disagreements like where a picture should be hung or what color to paint a room.  I'm talking about those emotionally charged moments that start with one of you angering or hurting the feelings of the other. 

I would bottle those feelings up to avoid a potential fight.  I didn't trust myself to keep it from turning contentious, and as we know, contention is of the devil.  I saw those kind of fights as a sign of a bad relationship and I though I was doing our marriage a favor by avoiding conflict.  I told myself that she didn't mean it, so just ignore it and don't turn it into something that could potentially escalate to the point where we say things we would regret later.

Contention and fighting in anger is not a good thing, but at the same time a conflict avoided is a conflict unresolved.  Most of the time my wife upset me without ever realizing that she did it.  I denied her the chance to learn where my sore spots were, what was going on in my head.  I never gave her a chance to correct any misunderstanding I had about her motives or to adjust my expectations to something more realistic.  The times that I did talk about it, it was long after the fact and while I may have said how it made me feel, she still never saw the evidence that it did bother me that much so the words didn't sink in much.

Things just got bottled up and festered slowly until it got to a point where adding up all these offenses left me unsure if my wife really loved me.  At some point point avoiding conflict became motivated by the fear that if push came to shove, I might find out she really did mean to hurt me, or just didn't care. 

Conflicts will come up in any marriage, but they must be addressed, not avoided.  While it's true they can be addressed in very unhealthy and unproductive ways (even destructive ways) they can also be addressed in ways that strengthen a relationship and create greater intimacy.

It was a bit scary when I decided I wasn't going to avoid potential conflicts any longer.  It was a leap of faith to trust myself enough to express strong negative emotions without losing control, but I did it well enough.  Since then we have had several tense discussions charged with emotion but thankfully we both were able to stay civil.  Those discussions have been huge steps forward in our relationship and we both know each other now better than we ever did. It seemed I also had some things to learn about how to not hurt or offend her as well.  Imagine that!

While initially this change lead to a several conflicts at first, the frequency of those conflicts rapidly dropped off as we came to know each other better.  The same mistakes were not being made over and over again, or at least not as often.  We found a different kind of intimacy where you had to strip your soul naked and admit to your insecurities, jealousies, fears, and point out the past wounds that are not fully healed and need to be left alone or treated with love. 

I'm glad it never devolved into an unhealthy conflict and I think we managed to do that by sticking as best we could to some basic rules:

1.  Stay on topic.
D&C 121:43 says to reprove with sharpness, that doesn't mean with cutting remarks, it means with clarity and focus.  Don't muddy the waters by dragging in other issues, stay focused on the one problem at hand.

2.  Don't delay the discussion any more than you have to.
Generally these conflicts are best had in private, not in public and certainly not in front of the kids.  Often that means there will need to be a delay between the event and the discussion about it, but that delay should not be longer than it has to be.

The more time passes, the less serious the complaint will be taken and the less impact it will have on future behavior.  Sometimes that little delay is not a bad thing, giving you a chance to gather you thoughts and evaluate how best to state your case.

3.  Don't accuse, use feel statements instead.
Joseph Smith said: "If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you (History of the Church, 4:445)"  Accusations are by nature adversarial and prompt people to become defensive, dig in and resist change by justifying themselves.  Accusations put you and your spouse on opposite sides where one has the win and the other has to lose.  When that happens, the marriage loses either way.

It is more effective to use a feel statement instead.  A feel statement is a statement of cause and effect.  Their behavior is the cause, your emotions are the effect.  'When you do this, I feel that' goes over much better than 'You are so...'  It allows you to communicate the same information, but without putting your spouse on the defensive, in fact you open the door for them to explain their own motives and thoughts, or to modify their behavior without feeling coerced.  It also keeps you both on the same team, working toward mutual understanding and reconciliation together. 

4.  Don't justify or blame shift
Offering an apology or making a change when it is called for can be a hard thing.  Sometimes we try to avoid doing that by seeking to justify our actions.  It's the same as telling somebody that they are wrong to feel what they feel, but you don't get to decide how somebody else does or should feel about something.  Sometimes know we were wrong but we want to explain why we thought we were doing the right thing, but that is an explanation that should wait until after the apology has been made so it is not mistake for an attempt to avoid an apology.

Blame shifting is another tactic designed to avoid apologizing and changing.  With blame shifting the offender casts their offending actions as being the fault of the person they should be apologizing to, or they cast their actions as virtuous and claim their spouse only sees them as wrong because of some flaw in them.  An example of this would be the spouse who is bothered at how often their efforts to be intimate are met with rejection and winds up having the blame shifted onto them by being called carnal and sex-obsessed.

5.  No name calling, threats or insults
If you can't express love for your spouse in the middle of a conflict, you are doing it wrong.  If you do include expressions of your love for you spouse in your conflict, the fight will not scar your relationship.

No matter how much you think it is justified, no matter how much you want to lash back, don't ever insult your spouse, call them unkind names, or make threats, especially threats about divorcing or cheating on them.  Words cut deeper than any blade, you can't unsay them, and no matter how much you apologize for it after, the fact remains that those words came into your head and came out your mouth and that can plant a very bad kind of seed in your spouses mind.  Don't say anything you don't want them to really take to heart and believe. (See also: Let us oft speak kind words...)

6.  Don't attribute motives, listen to your spouse.
Like Steven R Covey said, seek to understand before you seek to be understood.  Sometimes we assume we know why somebody did something.  Sometimes the entire conflict hinges on that assumption, and often that assumption is either wrong or incomplete.  Feel statements are way to draw out from our spouse what their motives and thinking were but you have to listen, you have to give them a fair chance to explain themselves, not just rant at them and storm off.

Give your spouse the benefit of a doubt, listen to their side and try to see their perspective, not just try and force them to see things your way.  Somewhere along the way one or both of you will learn something about each other that will help avoid similar conflicts in the future.

7.  Apologize sincerely
Don't apologize insincerely, but do apologize.  Even when you think what you did was perfectly right and justified there are likely still things you can apologize for.  If you actions had unintended outcomes you regret (like offending your spouse), apologize for those.  If the conflict could have been avoided by communicating better earlier on, you can apologize for that. 

Reconciliation is the same thing as repentance.  It is about repairing a relationship harmed by wrongdoing.  Make sure you are both clear on what it was that should be apologized for, why it was wrong, and how it can be avoided in the future.  Make sure they know you do regret it, ask their forgiveness, make it up to them as best you can, and commit to not making that mistake again. (See also: A better way to say sorry)

8.  Show your love for each other and don't dredge it up again.
D&C 121:43  also says to show an increase of love after a conflict 'lest he esteem thee to be his enemy'.  When the storm is over, reaffirm your love for each other to clear the air.  Make up sex is the absolute best way to sooth over both bruised hearts.  Apology and forgiveness create deep emotional intimacy, and increased emotional intimacy easily translates into increased passion.  After that, don't dredge it up again.  God doesn't do that with us, we should follow His example.

I wish I could say that my wife and I have been perfect at following all those rules but of course we haven't been.   But we've followed them well enough to know their value and to know that avoiding conflicts rather than resolving them results in avoiding truly becoming one with each other and with God.