Ten minutes ago you asked to talk to your spouse about something.
Seven minutes ago you felt attacked, and you responded with something sarcastic. Something that you knew would get under his skin.
Five minutes ago you both began yelling at each other.
Two minutes ago you declared that you can’t do this anymore (you meant arguing like this all the time, but the statement still hangs like a fog in the house, obscuring your heart’s intent. “Besides,” you think, “maybe divorce is the right option. We obviously can’t get along.”)
One minute ago he slammed the front door as he left to go for a drive. You’ve tried to call him, but he’s turned off his phone.
You sit down on the edge of the living room couch and try to relax, but the echoes of the argument fill the house with an oppressive humidity, and you can’t catch your breath. All you wanted to do was talk.
“What on earth went wrong,” you wonder. “Why can’t we communicate?”
If this scenario sounds even a little bit familiar, there is hope. Conflict in a marriage is never easy, even for those who seem to have mastered the task. The difference between the “masters” and you is that they have spent years (sometimes decades) learning how to navigate the multitude of landmines that lay between where they are and where they want to be.
Fortunately, this skill can be learned. And while you can’t make your relationship conflict free, you can protect the marriage during disagreements so that you and your partner feel valued and achieve resolution.
But only if you know where the landmines are hiding beneath the ground.
So, here they are, the ten landmines of conflict and how to avoid them.
1) You begin the conversation harshly
You want to connect with your spouse, so you ask if you can talk to them. But the way you begin the conversation is so blunt and direct it puts the conversation on a negative path. Perhaps you begin with a “you” statement. Perhaps your tone is accusatory. Maybe you are demanding that your spouse do something, or maybe you are telling them, rather them asking them, to help. Whatever it is, if the conversation begins in a negative, blaming, or critical way, your spouse will most likely defend themselves. They will not want to hear what you have to say and an argument will quickly develop.
TIP: According to the research of Dr. John Gottman, a person can predict with a 96% accuracy the outcome of a fifteen-minute conversation based on what happens in the first three minutes of that interaction. If you want your conversations to have a greater chance for success, he suggests you do four things: 1) Begin with something positive. This is not “blowing sunshine” at someone. It is rephrasing that accusation in your mind so that it communicates your desire to work with, spend more time with, or increase connection with them. 2) Express appreciation and gratitude … then turn your criticism into a request. Take the words “should,” “must,” “ought,” etc., out and substitute “please,” “could you,” “would you mind,” etc., instead. 3) Start with “I” instead of “you.” The word “you” usually puts people on the defensive (unless it is complimentary or expresses concern for them). Therefore, speak only about in terms of “I.” It can have a powerfully positive effect if followed up by a desire or emotion. 4) Don’t stockpile complaints. No one likes feeling as if you just backed up the dump truck and unloaded a two-ton emotional pile on them. Bring up only one situation at a time. You may find that as you talk through one issue, your assumptions about a second are quickly erased/calmed.
2) You quickly establish a defensive posture
This often occurs in one of two ways: You either over-talk or you shut down. You probably didn’t think that over-talking is bad for communication, but the truth is good communication should be like a game of catch, an easy back and forth where each person gets to take a turn at both sending and receiving a message. But over-talking may never let the other person have a chance to play. This defensive posture prohibits other people from being able to speak. Over-talking can also be the equivalent of “beating a dead horse.” This may be the result of feeling like an issue is not emotionally resolved or it may be due to feeling like you haven’t convinced your spouse of your position (more on that later)
Shutting down, on the other hand, is often born out of frustration when there appears to be no positive way out of the conversation — “either I say what I want to say and hurt you, or I stop talking altogether and make you feel ignored.” In some serious circumstances, it is a person’s attempt to calm down. They are trying to keep the volcano from erupting. If this is the case, BACK OFF! Let them calm down. We don’t want them to blow and say/do something that both of you will regret later. Give them their space so their logical brain can come back online.
TIP: For over-talkers — Speak in sentences. Not in paragraphs. Limit yourself to 2-3 sentences each time it is your turn to talk. Don’t make every “turn” be about making a point. Effective communicators spend most of their time ensuring that they understand the other person’s point of view and trying to find a way to connect their perspective with their spouse’s. They do this through exploratory questions, such as who, what, when, where, and how, but they avoid “why” like the plague. The question of why forces people to explain themselves and cues your brain to look for mistakes in their explanation. This escalates conflict and can often relapse into over-talking.
If you are the person shutting down, tell your partner you need 20-30 minutes to calm down. It will take at least that long for the adrenaline to leave your system, but remember that problems MUST be resolved once you are calm. If they are not, they will stack on top of each other and increase the frustration level within you. Come back and engage in a brainstorming session with your spouse. Show them that you genuinely view them as a member of your team and you want to know “how do we fix this together?” If you are not the one shutting down, give the other person space. Later, during the resolution discussion, ask what you said or did that made them feel either unloved or disrespected so that you don’t make them feel that way again in the future.
3) You ignore one of the vital components of communication
All communication is comprised of the three following components: 1) Situation (I tell you what happened), 2) Logic (I explain why it happened), and if necessary, 3) Emotion (I describe how it impacted me). I would estimate that most of our day to day communication follows this basic pattern. Because it works so well in communicating over 90% of our day, we often make the assumption that that same pattern will work during a conflict. Not only is this a false assumption. It is one of the easiest landmines to step on, because talking about situation and logic to the exclusion of feelings is just as frustrating to our partners as talking about feelings and situation to the exclusion of logic.
TIP: The easiest way to avoid this pitfall is to remember that the usually successful S.L.E. pattern does not work in conflict. Instead, we need to reverse the order and follow E.L.S. (Emotion – how it impacted me, Logic – why I was impacted that way, and Situation – what can we do to prevent this from reoccurring?) Many therapists will recommend that you use a simple fill in the blank sentence: “When ___ I felt ___ because of ____.” This helps you and your spouse to clearly communicate what is going on for each of you and why. The problem with this sentence is that most hearers respond to the “when” or “because” parts and ignore the “I feel” part. Remember, when you follow E.L.S. your first response should be to that middle statement. For this reason, it is paramount that you listen for how your partner is filling in these blanks (especially if they are not stating it outright). Remember that only ONE word should go in the “I feel” blank. This will help you understand your partner better and allow you to summarize their point of view accurately. Contrary to what you may think, your primary job is to resolve feelings during a conflict. Resolving the situation will always come second. Doing conflict in this order should not only improve the communication between you but should increase how many problems you resolve as well.
4) You don’t care about feelings
In most cases, this is because you are either scared (of looking weak) or you are ignorant (of the feeling spectrums). It may not be true of how you actually think/feel, but these attitudes cause you to appear uncaring, purely logical, or insensitive. Such a response will almost always blow up underneath you. Spouses want to feel cared for, to know that they are important. They want to know that they are not only desired but also worthy of being taken into consideration. Rejecting them on any of these levels can easily create defensiveness and criticism.
TIP:If your problem is fear, be aware that nothing makes you feel more attractive and connected to your partner than a little vulnerability. You cannot have high connection while simultaneously having low vulnerability. It just doesn’t happen.
“Hey, baby, let’s have a really passionate night together.”
“Oooh! Sounds great! But can we only hold hands?”
See? High connection with low vulnerability is impossible. If you want to be connected to your spouse, you have to be willing to be vulnerable. You have to risk being exposed. If your problem is the ignorance, be aware that there are CATEGORIES of feelings, such as sad, mad, happy, afraid, confused, ashamed, and lonely. And under each category there are a variety of emotions that fall on a spectrum, ranging from a little to a lot.
If your problem is ignorance, be aware that there are CATEGORIES of feelings, such as sad, mad, happy, afraid, confused, ashamed, and lonely. And under each category there are a variety of emotions that fall on a spectrum, ranging from a little to a lot.
Continually ask yourself where you and your spouse are on these spectrums? If you don’t know, educate yourself. Build your emotional vocabulary. Life does not exist at either a 0 or a 10. There is a lot of grey area in between. If you can articulate where you and your spouse are on the feeling spectrum, you will build connection and move closer to resolution. Get to know the greys and practice identifying them regularly. Use this handout to get you started.
5) You think your job is to teach and/or persuade
It’s not. If you do either one of these things, you make communication all about yourself and shut off any potential pathways for connection, understanding, and resolution. When you try to teach, it comes off as condescension. When you try to persuade, it comes off as argumentative. If you are like most people, you married someone who is very close to your own IQ level. In other words, they are not stupid! They probably have good ideas of their own that would be beneficial to you, if you would take time to learn from them.
TIP: Stop making yourself and your ideas the center of the communication. Be the student for a change. Listen to your spouse. Understand where they are coming from (intellectually and emotionally), and be humble enough to apologize/take responsibility for your part of their problem. People like to relate to people who make mistakes, but it’s hard to relate to someone on their moral high horse. If you actively work to blend the best of their ideas with the best of your ideas, i.e., to work with them instead of against them, you may actually solve the problem.
6) You’re not listening to yourself
Mark Twain once said that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning bolt and the lightning bug.” But how many times do you pause to measure the impact of your words before you speak them? Do you often try to choose the right word or the right way of saying something or do you just say whatever first pops into your mind? Impulsivity in communication is a sure-fire way of escalating arguments. You may not think that there is no big difference in the words that you choose, but ask yourself which would your wife like to hear more: “You look pretty,” “You look beautiful,” or “You look sexy”? Each word means the same thing, i.e. she has a form and appearance that is pleasing to the eye. But that’s what we call denotation (the definition of a word). However, each word evokes a different feeling in her (that’s what we call connotation), which may create either a positive or negative response.
TIP: Be deliberate about the words you choose. Speaking without intentionality can lead to hurt feelings, anger, and a broken relationship with your spouse. To do this, slow yourself down. Take a few seconds to weigh your words on an emotional balance in your mind. Which word will set your partner off? Which one will allow them to continue hearing you? Are there ideas that your words suggest that you should avoid? What better words could you pick to communicate the right ideas with the same meaning? Remember, your job is not to be a “button pusher.” Your job is to aim for a peaceful dialogue, to choose words that will allow the two of you to continue talking civilly and will encourage mutual problem solving. As the Apostle Paul once said, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
7) You don’t pay attention to your body language
You may not be aware of this but 95% of communication is nonverbal. The rate of speech, volume, body posture, eye contact, etc., are all important in sending the type of message you want to send. In fact, you can say the same words in two different ways and communicate two different messages. For instance, the sentence “Hey, what are you doing?” is completely different from “HEY! WHAT are you doing?!” Additionally, if I constantly look at my watch and sigh heavily while we are talking, I haven’t said any words but I have communicated A LOT about wanting to be elsewhere.
TIP: Self-awareness is an important trait to nurture. Pay attention to what you are saying nonverbally. Open body posture, good eye contact, moderate volume/rate of speech, etc., all communicate engagement and interest while crossed arms/legs, raised voices, and staring suggest you are closed off and aggressive. If you want to watch an interesting show on Netflix that deals in the nuances of nonverbal communication, watch “Lie to Me.” It was cancelled after 3 seasons, but is potentially helpful for the “nonverbally challenged.”
8) You don’t practice (or accept) repair attempts when in conflict
Most of the couples that I work with are like cartoon characters caught in a giant snowball of conflict. Arms and legs sticking out everywhere. Powerless to stop its growth or momentum. But every now and then I run across a couple who frequently practices repair attempts. In other words, they say or do something that takes the tension out of the conflict and allows them to approach their conflict more level-headed and cooperatively. This may be an apology, a joke, a smile, a soothing touch or remark, etc. When repair attempts are made and accepted during conflict, the couple is able to develop a “we” mentality and escape the “me vs. you” dynamic that plagues so many people.
TIP: Like so many good insights about relationships, this idea comes from the work of Dr. John Gottman. Don’t just practice offering repairs in your conflicts. Actively look for your partner attempting repairs too so that you can accept them. If you want to stop having the same stupid arguments over and over, repairs are a quick way to get there. To see an example of what repair attempts look like.
9) You have moved to a frequent “I love you but I don’t like you” attitude
This underlying attitude is where the continual behaviors of criticizing, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling come from. When you don’t like someone, you don’t respect that person. You assume the worst of them, especially in conflict, and you find yourself predicting how they will negatively respond or react to what you say or do. Begin to get to know your spouse again. Maybe he isn’t an a– or she isn’t a b—-. Maybe they are just frustrated because they feel unloved and/or disrespected on a regular basis. Maybe what you interpret from them as nastiness is really a cry to be treated as if you love them AND you like them.
TIP: One of the main contributors to this attitude is a spirit of competitiveness. You are a winner and you want to win! To do so, you cannot see your spouse as a likable person. You have to see them as your opponent, i.e., as bad people with bad qualities who deserve no mercy. However, in order for you to win, you must intentionally place your spouse in a losing position. You must corner their logic, guilt them into acquiescing, verbally beat them down, or just be more stubborn than they are. And while this may win you the argument, it will lose you your marriage. Stop trying to compete against your spouse. Instead, find ways to create a team where the two of you perform equal, but different, roles. This will create a pincer move against the issue the two of you are facing and significantly increase your chances of resolution. But if you insist on battling your partner, then every issue that comes up in your marriage is a potential threat to the love and connection that you have.
10) You don’t know what your core message is
Every successful business has a mission statement that defines not only what they do but also why they do it. Similarly, every effective communicator knows not only what they are trying to say but also why they are saying it. What most people don’t understand, though, is that the why is always more important than the what. For this reason every communicator should have a clearly defined core message that they want their spouse to hear. Usually it fits the basic idea of “Everything I say or do is to ______.” This core message will express itself regardless of the situation or whether you are approaching your spouse intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. It is the driving force behind everything that you do in your marriage. It defines not only how you conduct yourself as a partner but also why you say what you say.
TIP: Don’t be lazy when defining your core message. If you fill in the example sentence above with “Everything I say or do is to make you happy” or “Everything I say or do is to show you I that I love you,” you are not thinking hard enough. Being happy or being loved should both be consequences of your core message, not the message itself. Ask yourself what approach to your spouse would result in a defining attitude that could infiltrate all aspects of your interaction with them so that at the end of every communication they understand how treasured and valued they are? Whatever your answer is to that question, that is your core message. Let that be your guiding thought/goal for every communication, and you will soon see the changes you need to make to yourself as well as reaping the benefits of a better marriage. If you are still having difficulty understanding what I’m talking about watch the Ted Talk “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. Although it is targeted at business people, the principles can be applied in this area as well.
Diffuse the Bombs
Admit it. It’s hard being married.
Disagreements and differences of opinions are bound to happen, but just because you don’t see things eye-to-eye doesn’t mean your marriage is doomed to fail.
You can have awesome conflicts that produce mutually satisfying resolutions if you practice some basic principles.
Take these steps and you’ll experience more understanding, more cooperation, and more connection with your spouse. All because you know where the landmines lay and how to avoid them.
Together you and your spouse can navigate your problems safely.