“I don’t understand why you did this!” I shouted at my husband, Ron. “We agreed we’d stick to the budget. Our savings vanished when your car broke down last month, and we need to replenish the account ASAP. It’s a no-brainer. What were you thinking?”
My frustration with Ron was rising. So was the volume of my voice. He’s irresponsible. He knows I’m right, I thought.
Ron shook his head and looked into my eyes: “Deb, you talk faster than I do,” he said calmly. “And you process faster than I do. And if you want to win, you’re on a roll. But if you want the best solution — one we can both support — you need to slow down so we can hear each other out.”
My immediate thought was, Do I want to win or do I want the best solution? My approach is the best solution. Therefore I win!
This was not my finest moment.
In retrospect, I’m grateful I didn’t say it out loud. My husband accurately described my approach to the conflict du jour, and swallowing my pride was not easy.
DEAL with it
Conflict is inevitable in marriage and can create damage or discovery — we choose which it will be. Discovery means learning new ideas, approaches and solutions if we fight together for our marriage.
Conflict is not the problem. How we manage the conflict is the problem. DEAL is a problem-solving tool that stands for:
Don’t take the bait.
Explain the impact of the behaviour and express your needs and expectations.
Ask questions to draw your spouse into dialogue to gain understanding.
Let go of the need to manage your spouse’s behaviour. Manage your own.
Let’s explore each part of the process in more detail.
Don’t take the bait
Often the motive in conflict is to hook another person into doing what serves one’s own purpose, regardless of the impact on the other. That’s manipulation.
Everyone has hot buttons — things that push him or her over the edge. And when someone’s button is pushed, he or she often reacts instead of responds. The difference is that a response is a purposeful, thoughtful process. A reaction is a retort that the speaker usually regrets the moment it leaves his or her lips.
Communicate purposefully to build dialogue, not to debate. Pause and consider the best reply, because words can create peace or ignite a power play, which pushes two people further into conflict and further from agreement.
Explain the impact of the behaviour and express your expectations
This step helps your spouse understand the impact of his or her behaviour. It can also help defuse the situation if the conversation has become a shouting match. Describe your spouse’s behaviour and how it affects you. Then express your expectations as the conversation continues.
For example, if your spouse yells to make a point, overpowering you and dismissing your concerns, it’s important to respond appropriately. Here’s how that conversation might start: “Making that purchase not only disregards the agreement we made, but I feel disregarded, too. It’s a trust issue. We need to discuss this, and I ask you to speak respectfully, without shouting.”
Once the impact is explained and expectations for continuing the conversation are established, you’re ready to move ahead.
Ask questions to draw your spouse into dialogue
Asking yes-or-no questions of your spouse — “Do you recall our conversation about saving money? Did you commit to doing so?” — isn’t a great opener. It tends to eliminate discussion without inviting conversation.
Instead use open-ended questions starting with “how” or “what”; these questions draw your spouse into discussion. They welcome dialogue, and this is where discovery comes into play. When you invite your husband’s or wife’s ideas and thoughts — and then listen carefully — you may find a successful route to resolution you hadn’t considered.
Let go of the need to control your spouse’s behaviour and manage your own
Keep this rule in mind: This conversation is not about me controlling you. I’m here to control myself. Even if you never verbalise this, don’t forget it. Your hands are full managing your own behaviour. You can recalibrate the tone and direction of the conversation if you remember this principle.
If your spouse struggles with managing his or her emotions during conflict, you may be tempted to try to do it for him or her. Remember that your first priority is to give your spouse insight into how his or her behaviour affects you. It’s best done with an attitude that conveys, I’m here to give you helpful information about me and how this affected me. And I’m certain if you knew how this makes me feel, you’d never want me to experience that. This approach gives your spouse the benefit of the doubt, which limits perceived offences and moves the relationship forward.
Marriage is a continual work in progress. We can never say, “Well then, we’ve arrived.” Sharpened tools make the work possible. So next time there’s a dustup at your house, DEAL with it!