Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Communication Skills Get Couples Through Worst Fights

August 9, 2004

The worst fights. The worst fights couples have occur when they are in conflict over values and goals. Do any of these sound familiar? Money. Parenting. Sex. Relatives. Religion. Basic roles and responsibilities. Autonomy. Destructive habits. Work and lifestyle issues.

Disagreements in these areas test a couple's ability to communicate and problem-solve to the limit. These issues are emotional because they come from each person's perception of right and wrong and the "correct" way to live. This makes compromise difficult.

Basic values and orientations toward life are learned in our families of origin. In early marriage, there is competition to see whose values will be asserted in the new family. One of the challenges of marriage is to accept the differences in personality, background, and motivation, and then to work out common purposes, dreams, and ways of doing things.

Differences enrich a marriage and help each partner to grow and learn from one another. Each has something to contribute. The important thing isn't the differences, but "how" they are handled. There are loving, trusting, respectful ways of solving problems together.

Here's how you can do it.

- Mutual respect. Agreements on goals and values take place in an atmosphere of love, mutual respect, acceptance, trust, and commitment. In your anxiety to achieve your goals, don't use anger and resentment as tools to get your way. The approach you take ought to be soft and gentle as you strive toward working out differences.

- Pick your fights. Couples don't have to agree on everything, only the important things. The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook. Some things are never going to change. Some things about your mate will always be exasperating.

Some issues mean a lot more to one person in a relationship than the other. To your mate, they may be principles; to you, they are preferences. On some things, you just give in. Do it gracefully. It is not worth the fight. On other issues, your spouse may choose to give in to you because of your strong feelings. What is "true" still may not be "right" when you take your partner into account.

- Attack the problem, not your partner. Minimize defensiveness by stating how a particular problem or situation makes you feel. Focus on issues, not personalities. Don't get bogged down by dealing with several issues at once or by bringing up provocative hurts and unfinished business from the past.

- Get to the right issues. Disagreements may be masking other problems in a marriage. For example, a couple may be fighting about parenting when, in fact, the husband is feeling neglected or ignored in his personal relationship with his wife. The parenting issue is a "safe" and predictable fight, while addressing the real issue involves more honesty and risk.

- Express positive intent. Agree that some sort of change is needed. Both of you commit toward working for a solution. If your partner doesn't believe there is a problem or isn't willing to do something about it, that is the place to start.

- Understand each other. Each partner should have an opportunity to express how the present situation interferes with what he or she would like to be happening. Everything can be discussed. All feelings are important.

Listen for understanding. Be courteous. Don't interrupt. Allow your spouse's point of view to be expressed fully and completely. Ask probing or clarifying questions. Learn to bracket your thoughts while you concentrate on what your partner is saying. Reflect back the core idea of what was expressed to see if you properly understood what your partner meant.

Allow time for tensions to decrease. Respect the other's need for time to think about what was said and to regroup if either of you is frustrated or angry.

- Don’t be too quick to solve problems. Solutions come after understanding. Discussions often fall apart when couples rush to find a solution before they really understand what their partner’s issue really is. Get an agreement on what the problem is and then brainstorm for alternatives, options, and solutions. The proposals should meet the needs of both partners. Again, thinking time is important.

Reach a tentative decision about what you are going to try. The plan can be implemented on a trial basis with a time set aside to review how it is working and to make any necessary adjustments.

Persistent disagreements and conflict may be a sign of poor communication and problem-solving skills generally. Both partners may have their blind spots and may not know how to make their arguments productive. Marriage counseling or a couples communication class might provide the tools on how to communicate and problem-solve effectively. The more different you are, the better your communications skills need to be.

If you master these skills, your differences will still be challenging, but not necessarily threatening. From time to time, you'll surprise each other on how really different you are. ..and always will be. Then again, it might be even more surprising how alike you've become. Most of all you will learn to trust that thorny problems can be solved through a loving and respectful search for middle ground.