Here we go again! Every time we need to discuss something, we have trouble doing it without fighting. Help!
Having effective discussions and reaching peaceful, workable agreements often challenges married couples. Increasing your skillfulness in this area will help your marriage mature in a healthy way and stay strong and happy.
Try to pause if your discussion escalates into conflict. Wise married couples develop the sensitivity to recognize when emotions rise to a point that closes off calm discussion. Before you get to that point, call a time out. You may have to revisit the topic until you reach agreement together. Try to keep this advice from the Baha’i teachings in mind:
Would it add to the progress and advancement of the family if decisions should arise among its members, all fighting, pillaging each other, jealous and revengeful of injury, seeking selfish advantages? Nay, this would be the cause of the effacement of progress and advancement. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 100.
While normal, healthy people often have different perspectives, couples need to learn how to reconcile them. John M. Gottman, PhD, and his team at the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle, Washington, have discovered a number of dysfunctional communication behaviors that conflicted couples often exhibit (The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work). Summarized here, the warning signs are:
Starting interactions negatively and harshly
Criticizing your partner’s character (character attack)
Showing contempt for your partner (sneering, mocking, being superior)
Reacting defensively to your partner (a form of blame)
Shutting your partner out and avoiding communication (stonewalling)
Experiencing a flood of strong physical responses to your partner’s negativity, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, or sweating.
The first principle when making decisions as a couple is equal partnership. You both must deeply respect each other. This helps you have equal voices in making consultative decisions that affect both of you and your family. This then raises a challenge—with two people, a majority vote isn’t possible. To handle this challenge, you must both be willing to share your thoughts and feelings fully about the matter under discussion. Calm consultation and honesty will always achieve the best decision:
…consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion, for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide. A spark is produced when flint and steel come together. Man should weigh his opinions with the utmost serenity, calmness and composure. Before expressing his own views he should carefully consider the views already advanced by others. If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not willfully hold to an opinion of his own. By this excellent method he endeavors to arrive at unity and truth. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 72.
For a couple to reach decisions without conflict, try these new practices:
Remind yourselves of the importance of love, harmony, and unity between you. Take a pause break or a connection moment as needed throughout the discussion if your unity is at risk.
Pray together before starting a serious discussion.
Focus on a common goal. Agree on the problem or issue, so you don’t try to solve multiple problems at once or work at cross-purposes by trying to address different issues.
Avoid attachment to a particular outcome, by determining to discover the truth together. Avoid stating something as absolute fact. Contribute thoughts towards building consensus and watch for when your perspectives coincide.
Carefully monitor and modify your attitude and tone of voice. If your tone conveys criticism, disrespect, or sarcasm, your spouse will hear it, even when your words are positive.
Find ways to express what’s on your minds and hearts freely. Either withholding your input or dominating the conversation will negatively affect the outcome. If one of you tends to be more dominant in speaking, that person will need to use self-discipline to give the other an opportunity to speak. The less dominant of you may also need to practice assertiveness. Free expression happens when both partners listen patiently to one another and don’t interrupt.
Before you start a discussion, ensure the purity of your motives and intentions. If either of you has a hidden agenda—an unspoken intention or goal—or you want to manipulate one another, the couple consultation will start out on a weak foundation. Be very aware if you have developed the habit of manipulation, particularly toward those of the opposite gender, as a method to get your own way. Try to help one another change this pattern, or it will have a consistent negative effect on your relationship.
In some instances, if no unified decision emerges from your consultation, you may need to defer to the choice that one of you favors, and try it out. Don’t make this mutual decision a resentful action of letting someone “have their way.” Fighting will keep the truth hidden. Only by being united can you quickly evaluate the decision and determine whether it is wise or not.
If you experience serious conflict in your marriage, and find that you’re unable to build new skills on your own, please consider seeking professional help from a counselor.
Most couples, however, can decide to try new ways of interacting and make positive changes to reduce or eliminate fighting or serious disagreements. Think about how you feel when disunity arises between you, and make a determined effort to find new ways of reaching harmonious decisions.
Marriage strengthening through an online course “Creating a Fortress for Well-Being and Salvation” is available through the Wilmette Institute for couples in the early years of marriage. Read more information on the course’s webpage. The discount code is BT20. It will give people a 20% discount when they pay.