“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” — Kahlil Gibran
To be human is to mess up every now and then, which means that if you live in an intimate partnership, sooner or later you are going to disappoint or anger your spouse, and vice-versa. In other words, conflict is baked into the cake we call marriage. Tell a skillful divorce lawyer or family therapist that there’s no conflict in your marriage and you should expect concern, not congratulations. They know the fundamental truth that avoiding conflict in your marriage to keep the peace means starting a war — or at least some major turmoil — inside yourself.
Conflict between you and your spouse is nature’s way of telling both of you that something important isn’t working, is becoming destructive, and needs to change. Forget the appealing and all-too-common notion that once you and your spouse resolve one — or a bundle — of specific trigger issues, trumpets will sound and your marriage will finally leave the desert and enter the promised land of “how it’s supposed to be.” Not so. As long as you are alive and living with another human being, conflict is part of the deal. None of us is happy about that. But if you want a life worth living, you’ve got to embrace some important truths about how conflict works, and you’ve got to master a few basic conflict resolution skills that don’t come naturally to most of us. Most important of all, you’ve got to embrace a new and higher aspiration about putting those tedious conflicts to rest.
Some Important Truths About Conflict
- If you and your partner seem to argue all the time about the same tired irritations, recall the old saying wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein [actually it was Rita Mae Brown]: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” You’re not insane (yet), so it’s probably time to try something different next time a trigger issue leaves you and your spouse squabbling.
- Albert Einstein probably did say something like this: “Problems cannot be resolved at the same level at which they were created,” and that is a profound truth to wrap your mind around if you aspire to truly deep and durable resolution of persistent conflicts with your intimate partner. Meaning: forget about reaching consensus about who is right and who is wrong. Stay at that level and you can count on fighting a slightly altered version of that same old battle again tomorrow. Or the next day. Or next month.
Some Important Basic Skills for Resolving Conflicts
In the heat of argument, just as in the cold fury of silent resentment, no matter how smart or accomplished you may be, your exquisitely-evolved thinking brain that is capable of writing poetry or solving complex equations goes offline and, like any other angry human, you are temporarily incapable of thinking your way out of a paper bag. You are also incapable of empathy. Your brain regards you as under attack and mobilizes the offensive and defensive capabilities required to survive attack by a sabre-toothed tiger. Thinking here is a handicap rather than an asset; instead, you’re programmed to react and to attack. Fight, flight, play dead: that’s the survival repertoire, and until the neurotransmitters that precipitate that reaction have settled down again, your partner and adversary, biochemically speaking, barely registers as a human being worthy of consideration, empathy or love.
It’s obvious, then, that while you and/or your partner are in the throes of conflict, nothing at all positive can happen until you both calm down so that the parts of your brain responsible for feeling compassion and for imagining solutions are back in gear. Here’s a primer before you can aspire to deep resolution.
- Learn easy physiological calming methods to help relax your body’s high-alert reactivity, including deep breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, self-guided imagery, hand or finger massage, chewing gum, washing face and wrists with cold water, squeezing a soft stress ball.
- Take a break and go outside for ten minutes of brisk walking.
- Drive around the block in your car and sing at the top of your lungs.
- When you think it’s time to talk, embrace curiosity to ensure ongoing access to your thinking brain. Ask yourself: “What one thing would I genuinely like to know right now about my partner’s (behavior/words/manner/thinking/intentions/etc.) that I’ve presently got not a clue about?” Then formulate as neutral and curious a question as you can, stripping away all words that convey your own feelings, and ask it as calmly as you can. Then ask another. Read about this technique in Sharon Ellison’s Taking the War Out of Our Words.
- Learn active and reflective listening techniques that ensure you have heard and understood accurately what your partner is saying.
Embracing Higher Aspirations About Resolving Relationship Conflicts
Making a deal with your partner about squeezing and capping the toothpaste tube isn’t likely to transform your marriage into a daily love-fest, even if you’re genuinely curious about your partner’s behavior and listen well to her explanations and vice versa. That’s because if you’ve been having persistent destabilizing arguments about the toothpaste tube and its cap, they most likely represent magnetic proxies for the deeper discontents that can build up over time upon the accumulated debris of years of unresolved disagreements. These are discontents that we may not even understand ourselves, much less feel comfortable talking about with our partner. As Kenneth Cloke (a brilliant conflict resolution theorist and practitioner) puts it, there is a way of resolving conflicts deeply that involves neither opposition nor negotiation, but rather a kind of mutual discovery that can only happen when you and your partner do it together. When two people walk side by side through the doorway into the kind of deep resolution process that Cloke describes, they move beyond simply ending the argument. They complete the conflict, they reach closure and, in doing so, they make the conflict disappear for good, replaced by comprehension and compassion and maybe even humor. As it disappears before their eyes, the conflict narrative, with all its resentment and pain, that had held both partners captive dissolves and sometimes even transforms into the joy of discovering one another anew in that moment.
The pathway to deep resolution involves not avoiding conflict, nor denying that it exists. It involves locating exactly where the conflict lives that is holding you and your partner hostage, and moving directly into the center of it. It requires persistence as you track down and name the human need each of you feels to be seen clearly by your partner, in all its disguises — a need that has gone unmet in ways small and big, that seemed not worth arguing about at the time, or that you grew tired of asking for. Naming it not with a sense of entitlement, but with a kind of naked humility and hope, or even trust.
This pathway to genuine resolution invokes universal truths about living your life well and fully that have been expressed over millennia in many ways by many wise teachers. Angeles Arrien, a transpersonal anthropologist, summarized it this way: “Show up; pay attention; speak your own truth; and don’t be attached to the outcome.” Lao Tzu, the great 5th (or 4th or 6th) century BCE Chinese Taoist sage, advised seeing the person who opposes you as your greatest teacher, the one who can show you your own part in creating the conflict.
Lest you think that this is pie-in-the-sky, crunchy-granola, California bliss-ninny touchy-feely wishful thinking, let me remind you: I am a longtime specialist in family law whose work is with divorcing couples who need all the professional help and support a Collaborative Divorce team can offer in order to discuss their differences, resolve their disputes, and end their marriages. Many of the couples I work with just want to be done with one another, but a surprising number of them experience transformative conversations as a part of moving to a different, less intimate, but better relationship with one another after the divorce. And when that happens, one or both typically will tell us, “If we’d known about how to embrace and resolve our disagreements this way a long time ago, our marriage wouldn’t have had to end like this.”
If you want to learn more about professionals who help couples have these “deep resolution” conversations, there is a wealth of information at www.collaborativepractice.com and www.collaborativedivorcecalifornia. You can find valuable self-help tools for conflict resolution, self-care, and better communications, at the website of the Greater Good Science Center. And if you’re at the point of contemplating separation or divorce, a good way to orient yourself before acting precipitously is to read my book.
Author: Pauline H. Tesler, J.D., CFLS
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