Conflicts — 09 January 2011
How to diffuse marital fights

Do you believe that once you and your mate start having a strong disagreement it has an irreversible course? Many people believe this to be true and indeed, experience it repeatedly. How would you feel if you could adopt a few tools to curtail the spiraling course of distressing verbal exchanges?

In “The Evaluation and Treatment of Marital Conflict: A Four-Stage Approach,” Philip Guerin and colleagues state, “Marriage is a struggle, a constant struggle to relate intimately to another human being without being controlled or taken for granted. It can be a playful struggle that enriches both spouses and fosters their growth, or it can be a deadly struggle, in which one or both spouses are convinced that their emotional–even physical–survival is at stake.”

Being positively connected to a partner is essential to each individual’s psychological well being, as are one’s autonomy and worth. When a threat to one’s significance is perceived, fear and anger are evoked and trust and openness toward the mate are weakened. Fights further distance the feuding spouses.

Professor Susan Johnson in her article, “Are You There for Me?” clarifies the source of lovers’ quarrels: “The central issue in the marriage, rarely concerns the content of a couple’s arguments, but almost always concerns the strength and responsiveness of the attachment relationship they have. All couples fight, but the fights that really define a relationship are always about the same thing: whether the partners feel they have a safe, secure connection with the other.”

So how do you savor the preciousness of your connection to each other when you think that your partner is disregarding, disrespecting, hurting or rejecting you?

The best way is to remember that anything your partner says is about him/her –NOT about you, even if it is attributed to you.

You do so by knowing that when your mate is angry, accusatory, disrespectful, or misinterprets your words or intentions, he/she is in personal emotional distress. When you show concern about your mate’s hurt, rather than defending yourself, you avoid needless pain, help your spouse and prevent an ensuing fight.

To diffuse fights:

• Consider your partner’s negative emotions/words as evidence of his/her distress. It’s NOT about you.
• Respond to your spouse’s anger or accusations with an appreciation: “You are usually a kind and respectful person. You seem upset right now. Tell me your concerns and how I can be of help.”
• Ask – Don’t Tell. Avoid analyzing the anger. Instead of saying, “You get mad when I don’t return your calls because you think I am ignoring you,” ask, “Tell me how this issue stresses you?”
• Listen with an open – non-defensive heart. Remember that “right” and “wrong” are valid in exact sciences, but destabilize the connection in love.
• Be present for your partner even during hard interactive times. Responding with acceptance and compassion validates and calms your mate and reaffirms your commitment to him/her and to the stability of your union.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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