10 Ways to Resolve Marital Conflict

IMG_0270Who doesn’t love a wedding? But with months and months of planning, it only lasts a short while – and then there’s the marriage. If history is prologue, neither former first daughter, Chelsea Clinton, nor longtime boyfriend, Marc Mezvinsky, had great role models for marital bliss. And that’s even without the religious issues – she was raised Christian and he’s Jewish.

This much publicized union is affirmation of America’s shifting religious landscape. There has been a gradual increase in interfaith marriages over the past two decades and more than 30% U.S. households now are mixed-faith. Despite changing attitudes, it’s still not easy to make marriage work.

If you or a loved one has recently tied the knot, you know that marriage constitutes a major change. Emotional reactions at times of transition are common and normal. And in making the necessary adjustments, some conflict is inevitable – all couples get angry and have arguments. Whether a marriage will last depends, in part, on how you prepare for the challenges. You’ll find that some of these tips may serve you well:

1. Keep your communication open and honest.Talk out misunderstandings before they become arguments. Don’t resort to low blows or get side-tracked by pointing out questionable character traits. Practice active listening skills and sending I-focused messages to clarify that what you’re saying is your own opinion.

2. Use cooperation and compromise. Be direct yet flexible as you make your way through disagreements. Look at the issue from your partner’s perspective and practice empathy. Ask yourself if being right and winning the fight is more important than the success of your relationship.

3. Minimize emotional overload. Flooding is a physiological arousal that is activated when tensions are high and communication stalls. If you’re quarreling, state a desired outcome and stick to the subject at hand. Try not to blame your partner or get defensive, and take some responsibility for what’s going on.

4. Practice non-threatening behavior. Monitor any negative comments and be slow to criticize. Try to control your emotions because your body language and tone of voice make a difference. Count to 10 before reacting – if it looks like the conversation is escalating, walk away.

5. Agree to a time-out strategy. Before you say something you may later regret, decide to put some distance between yourselves and the problem. Plan to return to the conversation later and work out a solution. And then take a break until you’re less upset and settled down enough to listen without planning a rebuttal.

6. Find a comfortable position, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Hold your breath for several seconds and release it slowly through your mouth. Repeat this several times, brushing away any distractions. Notice how focusing only on each breath can make you feel more calm.

7. Pay attention to constructive thoughts. You can turn the negatives into more positives.  For example, his anger isn’t all about me; we really do love each other; she’s under a lot of pressure at work; this too shall pass; I’m upset now but I know we’re right for each other.

8. Choose your words. In the midst of an argument, any one of these phrases would be welcomed by a partner feeling misunderstood: I might be wrong; stay with me and don’t withdraw; I see my part in all of this; let’s find common ground; I love you and we’ll work this out.

9. Stay engaged. A gentle touch, eye contact or a quick hug can release oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates bonding as well as reduces blood pressure and stress levels. When you’re feeling tense, an affectionate moment can help you feel closer, loved and even more relaxed.

10. Build emotional dividends. If you characteristically turn toward rather than away from each other, the goodwill you accumulate can provide an emotional cushion. Maintain a reserve of shared positive feelings and you will be able to draw from this supply of affection in times of conflict.

No matter who you marry, there are bound to be all sorts of differences – family values, cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic status, religious traditions. But if you work toward understanding, each can complement and enrich the other.

Chelsea and Marc have attended family holidays together so they may have already started a discussion that includes Christmas trees and Hanukah menorahs. It is often rituals and family relationships that give faith meaning. The Clintons have raised Chelsea well and she has stood by her parents through tough times. And Chelsea is a survivor – resilient, transcendent, private, well balanced – all qualities that can only enhance a marriage that seems off to a very good start.

This blog post was contributed by Phyllis Goldberg, PhD © HerMentorCenter, 2012. All rights reserved. The above material may not be copied to another web site without the express permission of HerMentorCenter.com.

Got Relationship Blues?

Hint: Stop Criticizing

Why endless criticism is doomed to failure.

 

Look at your relationship.

The problems seem obvious. But, what are the solutions?

This guest blog by Heather Edwards, breaks down relationship problems into a digestible form,making it easier for you to do what’s needed to be happier.

The Good Relationship:

Sometimes the key to discovering what works best in a relationship is eliminating what we knowdoesn’t work. There are a number of scientifically proven actions that destroy relationships. John Gottman calls these the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” So let’s start there.

Criticism:

The first is Criticism. Unless this is constructive with the intent of helping, it’s probably hurtful. In destructive criticism, couples will attack each other’s personality or character in an effort to prove who is right and who is wrong. It leaves both feeling angry and dissatisfied in the long and short run. These statements tend to start with generalizations, and include absolute words like “always” and “never.”

Contempt:

The second is Contempt. In this communication style, one partner will attack by name-calling, mockery, hostility, and negative or aggressive body language and tone of voice. Its intent is to demean and dis-empower the other person’s position and character. There are no happy endings when contempt enters the room.

Defensiveness:

The third is Defensiveness. When one partner feels like a victim, she may deny or make excuses for her behavior. Or, he may cross complain by lodging one of his own complaints in retaliation, or “Yes, but!” the original complaint in refusal of responsibility. It’s a very closed, blaming, andjudgmental way of approaching conflicts. And it doesn’t work.

Stonewalling:

The fourth is Stonewalling. When one partner stonewalls, he has shut down the conversationThe relationship store is closed for business. There is a stony silence, avoidance, and a withdrawal from communication. There may be a belief that the avoidance prevents a bigger blow up, but what it really conveys is icy distance, disconnection and smugness. It actually worsens the problem and sabotages thechance of resolution.

Learning From Happy Couples:

Happy couples have 5 positive interactions to every negative one. Gottman calls this the “Five to One Ratio.” Positive interactions are cultivated everyday in successful marriages. A few examples of easy ways to do this are giving a compliment, showing your appreciation for something big or small, reliving a fun memory, or doing something nice for the other person. The key to the most successful relationships is spending time being together and talking together. Share your ideas, experiences, and dreams with each other.

More sex = more joy. People are 55% more likely to report higher levels of happiness when they have sex two to three times per week. Having sex at least one time per week makes people 44% more likely to report happiness. The happiest couples have sex at least 2 to 3 times per month. The hormones released during sex create stronger bonds, warm fuzzy feelings, and a sense of relaxed satisfaction. What are you waiting for? Make sex a priority in your busy life.

Strong relationships have the Michelangelo Effect:

This means that one partner brings out the best in the other. It creates a sense of esteem and personal satisfaction in actualizing the ideal self. They also share new experiences, celebrate good news, and laugh together. So go for an evening walk, try a new restaurant, explore new places, relive a funny moment, and show enthusiasm for the other person’s accomplishments.

When in disagreement, their arguing style is open, considerate, and empathic. It includes active listening, humor, and affection. They even concede on certain points their partner makes. After all, one person can’t be right all the time! Plus, very few things in life occur “always” or “never”—except, of course, for sunsets and taxes.

Now you have an idea of what empowers relationships, and what destroys them. You may have recognized some of these positive and negative qualities in yours.

Remember that it’s never too late to make things better. If you and your partner are invested in enjoying a happy life together, then start employing some of the tips here—and try to change the negative oneswhen they surface.

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This piece was a contribution by guest blogger, Heather Edwards, MA, LMHC, who is a therapist and life coach located in New York City. She can be reached for consultation at:

• http://newyorkpsychotherapyandlifecoaching.com/

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Four Horsemen and Michelangelo

IMG_6974In this article, Heather Edwards sheds light on what makes relationships thrive – and what makes them destined for doom.  It was originally published on her blog, New York Psychotherapy and Life Coaching. She is a Psychotherapist and Life Coach, and the Blog Editor in Chief of Couplewise.

                           ************************************************

The problems are obvious.  What are the solutions?

Sometimes the key to discovering what works best in a relationship is evaluating and eliminating what we know doesn’t work.  We know there are a few scientifically proven actions that destroy relationships.  John Gottman calls these the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.  So let’s start there.

The first is Criticism.  Unless this is constructive with the intent of helping, it’s probably hurtful.  In destructive criticism, couples will attack each other’s personality or character in an effort to prove who is right and who is wrong.  It leaves both feeling angry and dissatisfied in the long and short run.  These statements tend to start with generalizations, and include absolute words like “always” and “never”.

The second is Contempt.  In this communication style one partner will attack the other’s sense of self using name-calling, mockery, hostility, and negative or aggressive body language and tone of voice.  It’s intent is to demean and disempower the other person’s position and character. There are no happy endings when contempt enters the room.

The third is Defensiveness.  When one partner feels like a victim, he/she might deny or make excuses for their behavior. They may cross-complain by lodging one of their own complaints in retaliation, or “Yes, but!” the original complaint in refusal of responsibility.  It is a very closed, blaming, and judgemental way of approaching conflicts. And it doesn’t work.

The fourth is Stonewalling.  When one partner stonewalls, he/she has shut down the conversation. The relationship store is closed for business.  There is a stony silence, avoidance, and a withdrawal from communication.  There may be a belief that the avoidance prevents a bigger blow up, but what it really conveys is icy distance, disconnection and smugness.  It actually worsens the problem and sabotages the chance of resolution.

What we know about happy couples:

Happy couples have 5 positive interactions to every negative one.  Gottman calls this the “Five to One Ratio”. Positive interactions are cultivated everyday in successful marriages.  A few examples of easy ways to do this are giving a compliment, showing your appreciation for something big or small, reliving a fun memory, or doing something nice for the other person. The key to the most successful relationships is spending time being together and talking together.  Share your ideas, experiences, and dreams with each other.

More sex = more joy.   In a recent study it was determined that people are 55% more likely to report higher levels of happiness when they have sex two to three times per week.  Having sex at least one time per week makes people 44% more likely to report happiness.  The happiest couples have sex at least 2 to 3 times per month.  The hormones released during sex create stronger bonds, warm fuzzy feelings, and a sense of relaxed satisfaction.  What are you waiting for?  Make sex a priority in your busy life.

Strong relationships have the Michelangelo Effect.  This means that one partner brings out the best in the other.  It creates a sense of esteem and personal satisfaction in actualizing the ideal self. They also share new experiences, celebrate good news, and laugh together.   So go for an evening walk, try a new restaurant, explore new places, relive a funny moment, and show enthusiasm for the other person’s accomplishments.

When in disagreement, the happy couple’s arguing style is open, considerate, and empathic.  It includes active listening, humor, and affection.  They even conceding on certain points their partner makes. After all, one person can’t be right all the time!  Plus, very few things in life occur “always” or “never”.  Except, of course, sunsets and taxes.

Now you have an idea of what empowers relationships, and what destroys them.  You may have recognized some of these positive and negative qualities in yours.  Remember that it’s never too late to make things better.  If you and your partner are invested in enjoying a happy life together, then start employing some of the tips here – and recognize and change the negative ones when they surface.

10 Tips for Fair Fighting

IMG_5208

10 easy tips for fair fighting will simplify and calm the way you respond to conflict.  Having a few ready-made tools can improve your success in navigating those dreaded heated moments with your partner.  Being mindful, factual, and empathic are just a few of the basic skills that deescalate potentially problematic interactions. It’s never too late to change bad habits – as long as you’re willing to try a new approach.  Conflict in relationships is a fact of life.  It doesn’t have to be deal breaker.  –Intro by Gary Krane, PhD and Heather Edwards, LMHC

-Originally written and posted by Heather Edwards, LMHC in NewYorkPsychotherapyandLifeCoaching.com

In my Coaching and Psychotherapy work with individuals, couples, families, and business partners I’ve found a few simple & effective tools for de-escalating arguments and resolving conflict as tensions rise. People often seek coaching or therapy once they’ve found themselves in repeated unhealthy or unproductive patterns. This can be a frustrating and seemingly hopeless situation without the intervention of a helper or the resources needed to get out of the mire. We can all attest to the fact that feeling stuck stinks, so try these simple tips to enlighten the way you debate.

1. Use “I” messages instead of “You” messages.
Recognize how conflict affects you. Give your feelings words. Unless your partner is clairvoyant, there is no way for him/her to truly know your experience. Brush up on your feelings-words vocabulary. Be specific about your experience. Notice where you feel your feelings. Physical symptoms are cues to recognizing your emotional responses, such as anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, or joy. Don’t be afraid to make yourself vulnerable by sharing your feelings. It can open the conversation to a genuine course of understanding and problem solving.

2. Own your feelings, actions, and wishes. State them clearly.
Use concrete, behavioral terms to describe what you want to say. Keep it short and sweet. Take responsibility for what you see, what you want, and how things need to change. Avoid accusations and blame.

3. Eliminate the words “always” and “never” from your vocabulary.
Very few things occur 100% of the time. Instead, think in terms of percentages on a scale of 1-100. Ask yourself, “What percentage of the time does this problem occur?”. Chances are it is not nearly as often as it seems. This can help gain a more accurate and realistic view of the problem which will help you address it more effectively.

4. Stick to the facts.
Resist making generalizations, interpretations or blaming statements. These will only put the other person on the defensive and derail the purpose of the argument. Stating facts rather than personal attacks keeps the conversation moving forward in a proactive way.

5. Stay focused on the goal of resolution, rather than “winning” the argument.
Once you get caught up in who’s right and who’s wrong the original problem becomes moot. When voices are raised and tempers are heated, the anger is what’s heard instead of the message. The conflict is now a power struggle that nobody really wins.

6. Avoid name calling, and physical violence.
This sabotages problem solving, mutual understanding, and conflict resolution. It damages the foundation of your relationship, threatens safety, and is more difficult to heal than the original dispute. Keep your anger and triggers in check. Be assertive, not aggressive.

7. Leave past issues in the past.
Focus on resolving the disagreement that exists in the here and now. When ancient history is exhumed, the current problem gets lost, becomes ambiguous, and takes a whole new shape. If there are unresolved issues from the past, come back to them in a dedicated discussion at another time when both parties are cool.

8. Be an active listener.
Hear what the other has to say. It’s only fair to offer the kind of listening you want and deserve in return! Repeat out loud what you heard the speaker say and check it out with him/her to be sure you got it right. Give him/her an opportunity to clarify, tweak, or restate his/her message.

9. Practice empathy.
Consider the other’s feelings and perspective of the problem with an open mind. Ask for their ideas. Don’t assume you already know them. We are all individuals with our own history, experience, and frame of reference that shade the way we think, perceive, and interact with others. Honor each other’s unique self.

10. Keep calm.
Take deep breaths or a five-minute-time-out to stay cool. Recognize when your barometer is rising. Once anger wins, the argument is lost. As stated by Thomas Paine, “The greatest remedy for anger is delay.”.

Arguments as Opportunities for Intimacy and Empathy in Your Relationship

photoMany couples find themselves repeating the same fight. The patterns become habitual and ineffective ways of meeting needs and resolving conflict. But what if couples hit the pause button and first determined their goal?

Before responding to your partner consider this, “What is most important to me? Is it the quality of this relationship or being right?”. Having the wrong goals only exacerbates the discord.  Refocusing is the ultimate teaching of CoupleWise. Acknowledging the unmet needs that are fueling the argument helps to clarify the real problem. Then, couples can address the source of the conflict, (e.g. trust, respect, safety, etc.) rather than the symptom.  Refocusing and the quality of the relationship becomes the priority.

In Dan Wile’s insightful paper below, he describes “refocusing” this way: “The inner atmosphere of a relationship is continually changing. There is the possibility at any moment to capture an intimacy that is intrinsic to that moment and to create a collaborative (empathic) cycle.”  In shifting our focus and goals, we are deciding to keep our partner as an ally rather than as a stranger or enemy. In any argument, there is an opportunity to develop intimacy rather than distance and alienation. In this article, Wile describes just how this change can happen, creating the “second level in the relationship”.

Wile, as our readers might recall from his excellent essay about Repair Attempts, which we published earlier in our blog, is the therapist whom the eminent Dr. John Gottman calls, “a genius and the greatest living marital therapist [in America].”.  Wile’s website is http://danwile.com/ and he can be reached at dan@danwile.com.   –Intro by Gary Krane, PhD & Heather Edwards, LMHC

OPENING UP A SECOND LEVEL IN THE RELATIONSHIP

(Originally published in the Los Angeles Psychologist, a publication of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, Nov/Dec 2000) by Daniel B. Wile

A relationship is like the weather ‑‑ continuously changing. At any moment, you can confide your concerns and turn your partner into an ally, avoid them and turn your partner into a stranger, or attack and turn your partner into an enemy. You’d be turning your partner into an ally were you to say, “I’ve been feeling lonely all day at work.” You’d be turning your partner into an enemy were you to say, instead, “You’d never think to call me, would you?” You’d be turning your partner into a stranger were you to say nothing about what you’re feeling and ask, simply, “Anything good on TV tonight?”
What you want to do, of course, is to turn your partner into an ally ‑‑ and just keep him or her there. But let’s say your partner (you’re a wife talking to her husband) is taking too long to get to the point, you’re finding yourself getting impatient, and you can’t think of how to tell him that without hurting his feelings, starting a fight, and ruining the evening? So, you keep your mouth shut, but that turns him into a stranger, and a still-nattering one at that. Eventually you blurt out, “Can you get to the point some time in this century!” which turns him into an enemy, hurts his feelings, starts a fight, and ruins the evening. There was relief in getting that out, but you were surprised yourself at how harsh it sounded.
The quality of life in the relationship depends on how you deal with this enemy (or stranger) you repeatedly turn your partner into. What you’d like to be able to do is immediately turn him into an ally, by telling him, “I can’t believe I said that,” or “I think I just crossed the line, or “I’m shocked myself at how harshly that came out,” or “There was a point I was trying to make but I don’t think that was the way to do it.” You’d be taking him into your confidence about your distress over what you just said. You’d be turning him into an ally in the manner by which you’d be acknowledging having just turned him into an enemy. You’d be opening up a second level in the relationship.
This is the capability I want to talk about here ‑‑ the capability of solving the problem you just created by re-assembling the relationship on the next higher level. You’d be creating a second tier in the relationship, an observation post, a process relationship, a joint platform, an observing couple ego.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine anyone having the presence of mind to come up with such a perfect conciliatory gesture. To start with, you don’t feel conciliatory. You’re angry at him. Later, in the shower, you’re still angry. You tell yourself: “What a bore he is. And if he knew me at all ‑‑ and he should after all these years ‑‑ he’d know I’m the last person on earth to care about all those details.” But, having gotten that out of your system, you’re calm enough to think, “He really did look stricken when I snapped at him like that. Poor guy!” And who says I’m so easy to live with? In fact, I’ve got the opposite problem. I worry so about boring people that I don’t give them enough information to know what I’m feeling. Who’s to say which is worse?”
You stepped into the shower commiserating with yourself; you stepped out of it commiserating with him ‑‑ which puts you in position to turn him into an ally. You go to him and say, “I feel bad about snapping at you earlier.” You hope he’ll say, “Well, I appreciate your saying that.” But no such luck. “Yes,” he says, “why do you always have to do that!?!” This immediately makes you sorry you said anything at all. You’re obviously his enemy now, which makes you want to return the favor. You open your mouth to tell him, “Here, I’m trying to be an adult and what do you do: you use it against me. You’re acting like a baby. The hell with you!”
But before you can get that you, you tell yourself, “Of course, my original comment was pretty harsh ‑‑ I was acting like a baby ‑‑ so I can’t expect him to come around right away. He needs a little time to get over it. His rejecting of your peace offering turned you into his enemy; your inner re-analysis of it turned you back into his ally. You tell him, “Yes, well, I’m not proud of it.” Your soft response when he was expecting another retaliatory sally ‑‑ he was actually wincing in anticipation of it ‑‑ completely turns him around. He says, “Well, I’m not proud of taking so long to get to the point. I know I do that a lot ‑‑ sort of get lost in minor details ‑‑ in fact I’ve been doing that with people all day and no one’s been listening to me.” He’s looking at things from your point of view in response to your having just done so from his. He’s sympathizing with you for having a partner who doesn’t get to the point, in response to your having just sympathized with him for having one who snaps at you when you don’t. The two of you are standing back looking at your earlier fight, but now each of you is viewing the other person’s position compassionately. This is the definition of shifting to the second level.
What everyone wants to do, of course, is to make such a compassionate second level an increasingly more prominent part of the relationship. Every couple has its own set of unsolvable problems that they’ll be grappling with throughout the relationship. Establishing such a second level is an ideal grappling tool.
The difficult-to-achieve goal, although you hope over the years to approximate it, is to turn the unsolvable problems (e.g., your getting impatient when your partner takes too long to get to the point), as well as any moment-to-moment problems, into usable clues for navigating the relationship. Imagine being able to tell your partner, “I hate to tell you this, but I’m starting to tap my foot,” and ‑‑ here’s the important part ‑‑ knowing that he will welcome your saying it. You’ll know he’ll see you as making a contribution to the relationship, as rescuing the two of you from the morale-sapping exchange in which you are pretending to be interested and he is pretending not to notice that you aren’t ‑‑ which, when one of you stops pretending, will lead to a fight.
Imagine further his telling you ‑‑ which he very well might do, since he’d be taking what you said as information rather than as criticism ‑‑ “Yes, I didn’t realize it until what you just said, but something’s troubling me that I’ve been circling around because I don’t know what it is.” You, then, are able to say, “Well, maybe it’s what you just said: that no one’s been listening to you all day?” You’d have avoided becoming part of the problem ‑‑ another person who wasn’t listening to him ‑‑ and, instead, had become part of the solution: someone who finally was. You would have turned this ongoing issue in the relationship ‑‑ this unsolvable problem ‑‑ into an opportunity for intimacy.
Here is the theory of relationships implied in this example:
1. You repeatedly find yourself in the unmanageable situation of having feelings about your partner that, if you express them, lead to one set of problems, and, if you don’t express them, lead to another.
2. A good way to deal with this unmanageable situation is to open up a second level in the relationship. But you can do so only when you find yourself looking at things from your partner’s point of view. Everything depends on how you feel when you get out of the shower.
3. Even then, you can’t expect your partner to come around right away. Much depends on how well the conversation you have with yourself guides you through the shoals of the one you have with your partner.
4. The ultimate goal is to turn the problems of the relationship into opportunities for intimacy.