Most people consider it self-evident that they want peace and harmony in their marriage or intimate relationship. Why then do we so often find ourselves in conflict with our partner? One place to start looking for an answer is to take an honest look at what we are truly committed to. We may come to see that the things we are most committed to often have us moving away from harmony.
Think about the last significant argument you had with your spouse. Try to recall the level of commitment you had to your position; how indignant you felt about something he or she was doing, saying, or believing; how wronged you felt. As the level of intensity of a conflict rises, usually the combatants’ commitment to being right grows proportionately. In other words, you become more committed to being right than to being in harmony or connection with your partner.
In the midst of intense argument, often the real commitment becomes some version of: (1) proving you’re right and the other is wrong; (2) getting the other to see how much of a jerk he’s being; or (3) trying to convince the other you have the right to have her change something about herself.
What is at stake here? Well, it could be your health, longevity, and overall level of satisfaction with life. There is currently solid, empirical evidence, gathered and analyzed over decades of research, that tends to show the single most significant predictor of health, happiness, and life satisfaction is—you guessed it—the quality of relationships a person has in his or her life. People who are able to form relatively solid, harmonious, supportive bonds with other people, especially in family and in marriage, are far more likely to be healthy, live longer, and experience greater overall happiness than people who cannot. See this article for more.
What does this mean for you? Perhaps, it means being in consistently solid connection with your partner might—just might—be more important to your well-being than getting her to admit that she spends too much time talking with her mother on the phone; or that his housekeeping habits reflect an attitude of an entitled child.
Does this mean we must stop voicing our desires and requests entirely? Absolutely not. What it means is, we have to get clear about what our most precious commitments are and keep them in mind in whatever we do in our marriage, from how we speak, to how we behave, to how we navigate conflict.
If your most dearly held commitment is to be close to your partner and to have an extraordinary relationship, it can inform all of the ways you speak and behave. Indeed, it can change the very way you think about your partner. Try noticing how often you find yourself thinking critically in any way of your partner. If it happens a lot, what do you think that does to the quality of your relationship? Then try taking on the practice of thinking positively of your partner, consciously, whenever you remember to do so. Give him the benefit of the doubt that he was doing the best he could when he did or said something. Consider practicing a simple commitment of cherishing her no matter what she is doing or saying in the moment.
See how this practice changes the way you start to feel toward your partner in general, and how much it lowers your level of conflict.
Does all of this mean you should try to avoid conflict at all costs? Again, absolutely not. Sometimes the most supportive thing you can do for your relationship is make an honest observation or request. But it does mean that you are acutely focused on how you behave when something in your marriage needs attention.
John and Julie Gottman have gathered thousands of hours of empirical data on what predicts successful and broken marriages. One of their findings is that couples who are basically civil to one another, even when arguing, are far more likely to stay together than those who express contempt or withdrawal in the face of conflict. Surprising? Of course not. But ask yourself how often you put this seemingly self-evident finding into practice when faced with conflict in your own marriage.
The problem is, when faced with escalating conflict, most of us are vulnerable to getting triggered. And when triggered, we often find ourselves, as two of my most respected mentors so nicely put it, with our “head up our ass”. In such a condition, even the most well-intentioned people find themselves speaking and behaving in ways that are far from their lofty principles.
Getting clear before this happens that your deepest commitment as a couple is to maintaining connection—i.e., being more committed to connection than to being right—can be an invaluable ally in minimizing the damage you might otherwise do when in a triggered state. At the very least making such a commitment clearly and strongly before you find yourself in conflict can help you to speak in a normal tone of voice (rather than yell, or speak contemptuously); or to simply realize that it’s better to withdrawal and cool off rather than unwisely engage with your partner while triggered.
How to put this into practice? Start by sitting down with your partner when you’re both feeling grounded and connected. Write down, together, your most important commitments. These are the kind of things you might put into your wedding vows:
To hold your partner in the highest regard, keeping in mind this is the person you chose to be your partner, ally, and friend in the challenging business of creating a life and family.
To treat your partner with the respect and dignity he or she deserves, as a human being and as the aforementioned person you chose to spend your life with.
To keep your eye on the prize, i.e., to hold as most precious the most precious things: being happy, being grounded, being close and connected.
To give this person you’ve chosen as your wing-mate the benefit of the doubt: that she is doing the best she can, that he ultimately has the best interests of you and your children in mind, even if her/his behavior seems to be distorting those values in the moment.
That you will prioritize connection over being right.
That you commit to being civil, even in conflict; i.e., you don’t use harsh language or yelling to try to get your needs met by your partner (hint: it doesn’t work).
Take your list and tape it to the refrigerator. Then, when you find yourself with your head up your you-know-what in a moment of conflict, step away and remind yourself of the commitments you’ve made. It’s amazing what this can do to turn a moment of seemingly-intractable conflict in a positive direction. And you might be amazed at how quickly you can deescalate a conflict that was heading toward a barn-burner by simply stepping back and demonstrating you’ve heard and understood the other person.
Chalk one up to staying true to your commitments. You’ve managed to be a bigger person in the moment, and your partner will love you for it. From this perspective, the winner of the fight is truly the one who relinquishes their position first!
One more thing. If you’re wondering: No, it’s not usually helpful to remind your partner of his or her commitments when she or he is triggered. Stick to the one person you have any real influence over in the moment: yourself.
There are many nuances to maintaining an extraordinary intimate relationship. We will be discussing more of those in blogs to come. But none of them will have much traction if the foundation of your way of relating to one another is not solid.
One way to start creating a solid foundation for your love bond is to get clear on your foundational commitments. Good luck!
Peter Fabish is a family attorney and relationship mediator/coach. Contact him here.