All couples will have disagreements. And most couples will talk to their spouse about their opinions and preferences and try to explain what they think is the best approach. But many couples get into arguments that are never settled, or turn into verbal fights that damage the relationship. What it comes down to is: Are you fighting to win or beat your opponent or are you discussing things in order to work out your differences in a way that is thoughtful, caring and respectful of both desires. We are talking about whether each person has a one person focus or the two person focus. The one person focus means you are just focusing on yourself and your needs. The two person focus means you are thinking about your needs and your partners needs. The one person undermines the health and strength of the relationship. The two person focus makes the relationship healthy and strong.
Having a two person focus means you have to care about your partners needs and feelings too. It means you are open-hearted to your partner. To have an open-heart means you listen to your partners needs, you ask about why they think what they do, you try to find solutions that take their needs into account, as well as your needs.
Why is this so hard to do, you may ask yourself. Part of the reason is that when there is a disagreement or verbal conflict, we go into a “fight or flight” state of mind. This is a reaction the brain does automatically to protect ourselves from danger. We lose the ability to think and communicate in thoughtful and caring ways. Instead we operate from the “survival” part of our brain, which functions to protect us from danger: typically by either fighting or fleeing. When we try to have arguments while our brain is in the “fight or flight” state, we tend to be aggressive, argumentative, fearful and selfish. This would not be the best state of mind to be in, to solve a problem together with a loved one.
Avoiding fights and successfully communicating will take some changes. This means changing some of your habits. This takes practice: learning some new skills, trying them out over and over, until you can interrupt the “fight or flight” state of mind, and come back into a calmer state of mind, where you can have discussions that are more successful. In this more open-hearted state, you can work things out with your spouse.
Here’s how to do it:
1) First, become aware that you are in a state of mind that is the “fight or flight” state. The things that tell you, you are in it are: you are fearful, you hear your voice change tone – sometimes a bit of a tremor in your voice, your partner seems like an enemy or desperately crazy in what they are saying, you’re speaking in an aggressive tone, or an unusually logical and dispassionate tone. No one is listening to the other, but just insisting on their point of view.
2) Once you are aware you’re in the “fight or flight” state, take a deep breath. This will help you shift gears, will get you doing something positive rather than making the fight worse, and will get needed oxygen to your brain, so that it can operate more than just the “fight or flight” center of the brain.
3) Then try a different approach, ask you partner to explain more about their perspective. You may also ask how they are feeling.
4) If you can’t calm down enough to try a different approach, take a break by telling your partner you need to take a break and set a time to continue the conversation at a later moment, whether it’s in an hour or in a day. Then follow to continue the conversation at the appointed time.
If there has been a fight, remember to apologize. Your ego may sometimes get in the way and tell you that your partner should apologize first. This is almost always the wrong approach. Ideally both of you will be racing to be the first to apologize. But don’t get caught up in what you think your partner should do. Take action and responsibility for your behavior, and apologize first. If you’re always the first to apologize and your partner doesn’t take responsibility for their actions, you may want to consult with a Couples Therapist to get some help with this. If you would like to learn more about how to offer an apology that works, try reading my article: The Reparative Apology.