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Rebooting Your Relationship: Dealing With Conflict

We have been in a series entitle Relationship Reboot on how to bring refreshment to marriages, partners and friends.  So far we have discussed why it begins with becoming mature and what maturity looks like.  We noted that becoming mature was more than just adulting—showing up for work on time, paying bills but that maturity involved being able to respect others, listen well, love well as well as being able to set boundaries, practice self-care and interpret one’s feelings.  

We also noted last week that a healthy relationship also involves the myriad of ways we tend our relationships.  We offer affection, say we care and express our love toward our spouse or partner.  We also notice and appreciate how our partners or family members help us, support us and how those behaviors leave deposits in our partner’s love bank. 

This week are going to review conflict and offer some strategies to help in resolving conflict.  And we will examine 4 aspects that influence the outcome of our conflicts. 

First, The Four Horseman

We have been using material from Dr. Gottman’s book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and he outlines 4 behaviors that damage relationships.  We all have them to some degree but if these behaviors are present in increasing measures, the relationship could be nearing its end. 

The first is Criticism: Criticism is to complain about your partner as if your partner or spouse is defective.  And example is this: “what’s wrong with you, your just like your father.” Or “ I’ve noticed something about you and I think you need therapy.”  These criticisms usually begin with more aggressive “You” statements.  An antidote is to use “I” statements, to speak kindly and focus not on the person but the problem.  It is also important to simply share the complaint rather than assign blame.

Next is Contempt: Contempt is when someone feels superior and speaks down to their partner.  It is often a disrespectful attitude conveyed through one’s tone.  It can be conveying that you are morally superior, above or self-righteous or judging.  An example is: “I can’t believe how dumb you are. Or “if you would just get your act together.” 

Then comes Defensiveness.  Defensiveness is a protective strategy when instead of owning one’s part, one defends oneself.  It looks like this: Wife: “you didn’t listen to me at dinner.” Husband, “well you didn’t balance the checkbook.” Or  wife, “you didn’t listen to me at dinner, “husband, “what about all of the good things I do that don’t get noticed.”  An antidote would be to own one’s part and actually address the real concern.  One could say, “I’m sorry, I guess I was preoccupied.”  Which de-escalates the anxiety almost immediately. 

Finally the 4th behavior is Stonewalling.  This is when one person withdraws from the conversation.  They may still be emotionally aroused but is actually moving into a fight, or flight response.  By withdrawing they shutdown emotionally leaving the other person feeling abandoned.  This often escalates the anxiety in the relationship and again resolves nothing.  The antidote is to simply take a break and calm oneself so that after a time, the conversation can resume.  When one is stonewalling, the stonewaller is unable to be empathetic, hearing and vision are actually compromised.  So there is a good reason to halt the conversation, take a break and use strategies to calm oneself--not thinking about the conflict at all.  Then after a time… 20 or more minutes, the return to the conversation can be much more productive.  Sometimes it is even better to wait until the next day. 

The Bible tells us to “speak the truth in love” by beginning conversations kindly.  Dr. Gottman calls this a soft start-up verses a harsh start-up.  By bringing up issues softly, we are less likely to engage in the 4 horseman.  The Bible also reminds us to deal with our conflicts quickly when it says, do not let the sun go down on your anger.  This does not mean all has to be settled before bed but that it is important to do the hard work of relationship at some point soon. 

Second, one of the most important factors in dealing with conflict is being able to accept your spouse or partner’s influence. 

Accepting influence is easier for some people than others however it is highly important in working through or managing conflicts.  Accepting influence is simply being able to be impacted by the thoughts and views of another person.  We may not always agree but we can find reasonable parts of our spouses requests.  Accepting influence involves conveying honor and respect to your spouse or partner. 

Research shows that 81 percent of all divorce rates happen when influence is not accepted and one partner is unwilling to share power in the relationship.  However when couples are able to accept influence and share power the relationship is much healthier.  The truth is that when influence is accepted, one actually has more power and influence in the relationship because in sharing power a deep trust is built. 

Accepting influence involves seeking to hear the reasonable part of one’s partner’s request.  For example, “you are always busy at work, you are never home.”  If one is listening, one might hear this, “I miss you, I wish I could spend more time with you.”  And that is a reasonable request. The Bible tells us to submit to one another.  In doing this, we listen to our spouse, respect their needs, seek to address their concerns and continue to do the hard work of relationship. 

Third, there are two kinds of conflict. 

The first kind of conflict are the conflicts that have a solution.  The focus is usually on the problem and can be easily solved.  39 percent of all conflicts are solvable. However, 61 percent of all conflicts are perpetual and continue to come up time and time again.  Perpetual conflicts have to do with an individual’s personality or deeply held values.  For example: often in a relationship there is a saver and a spender or one who is very neat or one who is very messy.  Sometimes an introvert marries and extrovert.  These have to do more with personalities are not really solvable.  Perpetual conflicts can also be centered around deeply held values.  There was a story in the book about a couch surfing friend who one partner felt was taking advantage.  When they discussed the situation, the wife discovered that this couch surfing friend had been there for her husband when he was a teen going through a rough time.  He felt that he needed to be there for his friend in his time of need.  Sometimes such perpetual conflicts center around a child with special needs or an on-going illness that is not going away.  Such conflicts are not solvable. 

Once again 61 percent of all conflicts are perpetual.  

What a couple can do with such conflicts is to manage them… they talk about them, they seek to learn what their spouse needs around that concern.  They accept influence.  For example, as an introvert, I can get tired and crabby when I am around the very large family of my husband.  They are lovely people but I can just get worn out with all of the activity and talking etc.  At one time, this was a conflict for us.  But I learned that there are a number of things I can do and my spouse who has become understanding around this is fine with these strategies.  I can limit my time, drive separately.  If it’s a long family trip, I can make sure we have our own space and that it’s ok for me to retreat to re-energize myself.  We will never have a solution but can continue to talk about this, come up with ways to meet my needs and my spouses needs around this concern.  

Fourth, Use strategies to solve the solvable problems.

Let’s take a look at some very practical strategies that help people solve problems. 

One: Use a soft start-up

What is a soft start-up?  It is simply bringing up an issue or concern with kindness.  There is a soft-start-up formula that many of you have already heard of.  This formula involves using “I” statements and then stating the need and being specific about what one needs for it to be resolved.  It sounds like this:  “when you are busy so many hours at work, I feel lonely and I miss you.  I need you to set aside some time just for me.  How about we go out to dinner and a movie this Friday.” 

Usually when a soft start-up is used, the conversation begins with kindness and has a better chance of ending well. 

Second: Learn to make and receive repairs.

We are not perfect in our engagements with one another and sometimes we hurt one another or start the conversation a bit harshly.  We can repair. 

Usually a repair is simply saying, “I’m sorry” or “I started the conversation a bit harshly, could we start over.”  A repair attempt is anything someone does to try to move the conversation to a more healthy place.  It could be simply saying, “I am feeling the need to take a break.” “Could we take some time to calm ourselves and then return to the conversation later.”  These actions seek to repair and keep the conversation kind and healthy. 

Third: Notice when you need to take a break

When a person moves into stonewalling, it is usually because they are flooded.  There is a practical solution to flooding.  Flooding is when the heart rate rises above 100 beats per minute.  During this rise, it is difficult to be empathetic or creative.  And even hearing is compromised.  So it is in the best interest of the relationship to takes some time to calm oneself.  A partner or spouse can even help in this process. 

Fourth: Learn to compromise

When we compromise, we get some of what we want and our spouse or partner gets some of what they want.  In this, it’s important to know what we need and ask for it.  It’s also important for our spouse or partner to express what they need and ask for it.  That’s the place to begin.  Then we can ask ourselves, what part can I give up?  What part matters less to me?  Then we can find places of agreement. This leads to a compromise. 

Lastly: Learn to accept one another’s faults.

None of us are without faults.  When we get married or begin a relationship we in a sense sign on to a life with an imperfect person.  It’s easier if we can learn to accept that person without trying to fix them.  Even if we wonder about a more perfect person out there, that person will also have faults.  We have to learn a bit of tolerance and acceptance. 

However, we don’t accept abusive behavior or criminal behavior or any kind of behavior that is harmful.  That’s not what I mean by acceptance and tolerance.  BTW, if one in a relationship is being abusive especially physically, it is imperative for that person to seek help and for the one experiencing violence to remove themselves from the relationship until the abusive person gets help and changes behavior.  Tolerating and accepting abuse is harmful. 

Honestly it’s not possible to cover all that is needed around conflict but I hope this gives us a place to begin.  Carefully cultivating some of these strategies can help create a healthy family, a healthy church and a more healthy community.  And because we don’t have time to cover all that is needed, I would encourage you to take one idea and put it into practice.  It could be accepting influence… that’s one that we can practice even at the grocery store or in other small ways.  Then when something big comes up, you will have the skills necessary to work through bigger conflicts.  You could also choose to learn the soft start-up skills, speaking kindly when bringing up conflicts or concerns in a relationship.  Practice, repair, practice, repair.  Soon you will master some of these skills.

I’d also encourage you to read books that help with conflict skills and strategies and to learn as much as you can about this.  We live in a world that is full of conflict.  And learning even a single skill can make a difference. 


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