4 Words That Dramatically Shift Any Conflict

Use these four little words to put you and your spouse on the same team.
I am for you

I posted last week about five ways to communicate effectively during marital conflicts. This week I’m offering you a simple strategy you can use to totally change the dynamic when you and your spouse are at odds with each other.

A couple from one of our marriage small groups offered their strategy when things get heated. One of them will stop and say:

I am for you.

Using these four simple words in the midst of a disagreement will remind your spouse that you are on the same team.  This little statement shifts the conversation in a way that invites collaborate on a solution.

When you work with each other rather than against each other it avoids accusation and makes it easier to maintain your connection.

Re-frame the Situation

In a similar way, you can convey the notion that “I am for you” when approaching a problem with your spouse simply by the way you describe the issue. Rather than taking a “me against you” posture, try taking an “us against the problem” stance.

For example, let’s say the issue is that your husband is constantly late for dinner. You could use terms that accuse him, such as, “You don’t seem to care that I work hard to prepare a nice meal for us after I put in a full day at work. You just show up whenever you want.” If repeated offenses cause you to be really angry, you might even just eat without him and leave him to fend for himself when he shows up.  A more helpful  stance would be say something like, “I know you work hard and I want to support you in your efforts to take care of our family. Since I know it’s often hard for you to know when you’ll be able to leave work, can we come up with some way that makes it easier for me to plan dinner  to line up with your schedule? It’s important to me that we find a solution that works for both of us.”

Let’s say your wife constantly makes social commitments for the two of you without consulting you or checking your schedule. You could angrily snap at her in an accusatory manner, “I’m tired of you signing me up for all these events that I don’t care about. It’s like my time counts for nothing to you.” You could also flatly refuse to go with her as a way of retribution. Alternatively, you could say something like, “I know it’s really important for you to get together with friends and family. You are super relational, and I know that people feed your soul. I want to support you in that, but is there a way we could make sure we align our schedules before making commitments? Maybe you could text or call me before saying yes? I’m open to other suggestions too.”

In both of these examples, statements of support and understanding (conveying that “I am for you”) precede the request to find a collaborative solution.

Who is the Real Enemy?

It’s hugely important to remember that your spouse is not the enemy in any conflict. Rather, think of the situation as one where you and your spouse are on the same team, facing whatever the issue might be.

When you can keep in mind that your spouse is not the enemy, it allows you to approach him or her in a collaborative manner. It also reduces the likelihood that accusation and defensiveness enter the conversation. Finally, it allows you to maintain your connection, even in the midst of conflict.

Think back to your latest disagreement with your spouse.  Would him or her saying “I am for you” have positively impacted the course of the conversation?


5 Lessons in Communication from the Election

Key lessons in effective communication during conflict learned from the recent US presidential election.

We are all reeling from the massive amount of yelling, accusation, fear-mongering, personal attacks and one-sided pontificating suffered during this election season, and we are all glad it’s over (well, mostly). Yet, I believe we can find valuable insights from it all for how to effectively communicate during disagreements in marriage.

Sadly, it seems our nation has completely lost the ability to have meaningful dialogue and respectful disagreement. People everywhere seem no longer able to listen, understand and thoughtfully respond. All too often I’ve seen this same kind of negative, destructive communication patterns used in marital conflicts. When this happens, dialogue ceases and the opportunity for understanding and growth disappears.

Here are my five lessons-learned regarding communication in conflict based on what I observed during the recent political season. By heeding these, you can maintain respect and honor in the midst of disagreement with your spouse (and anyone else for that matter).

1. Assume good intentions

What strikes me as the most toxic problem in the recent election is the way each side characterized the other side as having diabolical intentions and evil motives. I believe that the vast majority of people take their positions “for the greater good.” Each side believes that their solutions will result in a better America, yet neither side is willing to admit that we are all trying to build something better but just disagree on the methodology.

In marriage, assuming the best is also important. If you start with the belief that you both are good-hearted and a better, stronger marriage is your joint goal, it will go a long way toward allowing you to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Assuming good intentions allows grace to enter the conversation.

2. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

It seems to me neither side of the political spectrum has had the least bit of interested in understanding the other side’s point of view. When we assassinate the character of others en mass we almost always automatically discount whatever they have to say.

Similarly, in marriage, when getting our point across and defending our turf becomes our highest (and sometimes only) priority, we spend more time building our case and gathering our defenses than trying to genuinely listen and understand. If we don’t tap into the “real story” underneath the disagreement by really listening to what each other is saying, we miss the chance for relationship growth. Remember, the goal is to understand as much as it is to be understood.

3. Stick to the Issue At Hand

A common tactic I observed this year was the frequent use of diversionary tactics. Rather than talking about issues and proposed solutions to our nation’s very real troubles, people would instead drag up unrelated “dirt” on the other candidate. Both sides frequently employed such smear tactics.

How often,  in the midst of conflict, do you drag up unrelated issues or past mistakes that have,  at least in theory,  been dealt with or that have nothing to do with the issue at hand? Don’t go there. Bringing in tangential issues only fuels your partner’s defensiveness and stops progress on finding common solutions.  

4. Don’t use accusation

It’s amazing to me that so many people spew accusations in an attempt to convince others to join their side. Since when does telling someone they are stupid, crooked or deplorable actually convince them of anything,  except of your disdain?

In marriage conflicts, it’s tempting to lash out with accusations against your partner, but it will not be at all useful in helping him or her understand your viewpoint. In fact it probably prevents or at least inhibits understanding. Accusation is a terrible change agent, so even if you feel hurt or angry, stop yourself from lashing out with personal attacks. If you have to remove yourself from the conversation until you can talk calmly, do so.

5. Relationship Matters Most

Many on either side of the political spectrum have failed miserably at valuing those on the other side. I honestly believe that God values people more than he values their political beliefs. He loves all people as individuals and longs to be in relationship with them. That’s the whole reason Jesus came – to make a way for relationship.

In marriage, we must put relationship first. We need to understand that protecting connection is more important than being right. It’s not that being right or wrong doesn’t matter, it just matters less than maintaining the relationship and sustaining and growing intimacy. It is better to be love than to be right.

What other lessons in communication have you derived from the recent political season? Share your observations in a comment.

The Choice That Could Determine If You Stay Married

Every emotional interaction with your spouse goes one of three ways. Only one way is helpful.

Connection Bids

Dr. John Gottman, a relationship researcher, performed a study on newlywed couples a few years back. His team observed how the couple interacted with each other during what he calls “emotional bids.” Dr. Gottman describes bids this way:

A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection. Bids show up in simple ways, a smile or wink, and more complex ways, like a request for advice or help. In general, women make more bids than men, but in the healthiest relationships, both partners are comfortable making all kinds of bids.

Three Choices

There are actually three choices you have when our spouse makes an emotional bid:

  1. Turn away – ignore the bid and move on
  2. Turn against – respond negatively to the bid (disrespect, defensiveness, anger, accusation)
  3. Turn toward – respond with interest and affection

What the research showed was that after six years, the couples that were still married responded to bids by turning toward each other 86% of the time. Those who were divorced after six years only turned toward each other 33% of the time. That’s an astounding difference.

Choose connection

The choice to respond to your spouse’s emotional bid by turning toward him or her will often require a little bit (or a lot) of selflessness.

For example, say your wife exclaims how her feet hurt as she takes off her shoes. You could ignore her statement and continue scrolling through Facebook on your phone (turn away). You could tell her that her feet smell (turn against). Or you could move in and begin to rub her sore feet (turn toward).

As another example, say your husband comes through the door complaining about his tough day. You could pretend you didn’t hear him or simply say, “Oh,” and walk away (turn away). You could tell him you wish he would just leave that garbage at the office (turn against). Or you could give him a kiss, pour a couple glasses of wine, and ask him to join you on the couch while he tells you all about it.

In most cases, turning toward your partner is not the easiest choice. It might require a little of your time and a bit of emotional or physical effort. But the long-term benefit of building connection and trust is well worth the short-term sacrifice.

Listening for Bids

The trickiest part of emotional bids, however, is not in the choice of how to respond. No, the hardest part is actually in realizing when they happen. Some bids will be obvious but many may be really subtle.

Some examples of obvious bids:

  • How do I look in this?
  • Can we talk?
  • Do you want to come with me to the grocery store?
  • Let’s go fool around.

Some examples of more subtle bids:

  • Wow, what a day I had.
  • A sigh, a frown or staring blankly into space
  • Your spouse comes and sits close to you on the couch
  • Silence
  • I don’t know what to do

Whether obvious or subtle, your response is critical for building trust and intimacy in your relationship.

You might say to yourself, “If he/she really needs something from me, why doesn’t he/she just ask me?” It’s quite possible that your spouse isn’t even aware that he or she needs something. Second, when you respond to an unspoken desire for connection, you tell your spouse that you are tuned into them and eager to make a meaningful connection.

Gottman’s research seems to indicate that this choice is a big deal.

Make it a goal this week to be especially aware of emotional bids your spouse offers you, and make a commitment to respond by purposefully turning toward.

Share in a comment below about a time when your spouse responded to your own bid, and how it made you feel. We’d love to hear your story.

Further reading from the Gottman Institute: