Aug 072018 2 Responses

When You Fight, Look For This

The more complex a system, the more likely it is to fail. It’s why modern appliances aren’t as reliable and long-lasting as those built years ago. All the modern systems and complexities of today’s appliances make them more likely to break.

No system is as complex as marriage. The meshing together of two intricate individuals with differing backgrounds, experiences, expectations, and desires is not a simple process. Add to the differences we bring into marriage the number of demands and responsibilities of living life and raising a family, and a modern marriage involves a million different data points. The potential for something to break isn’t just high; it’s guaranteed.

Every marriage breaks. On a regular basis, something happens which causes the intimacy between two people to be tested. While we can make decisions which diminish the number of failures we experience on a weekly basis there is nothing we can do to eliminate all breaks. A certainty in marriage is having things go wrong. Motives are misunderstood, words are misheard, things are misspoken, mistakes occur. These are certain.

Since we can’t eliminate breaks, we must become skilled at repairing them.

On my phone is a series of phone numbers. The numbers are to friends and business whose specialty is fixing things. If my dishwasher breaks, I know who to call. When my air conditioning isn’t functioning, the receptionist recognizes my voice. I have the plumber on speed dial. My house is complex and I know things will break. Because of this, I am prepared for when it happens and know who to call in order to get it fixed.

In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman calls repair attempts the secret weapon of emotionally healthy couples. The moment one of them feels frustration escalating or negativity rising, a husband or wife should attempt to get the conversation or situation back on track. They should make a repair attempt. This repair minimizes the negativity and injects positivity back into the moment. It allows the couple to navigate choppy waters with the stability of a close connection. Without repair attempts, negativity increases, frustrations grow, and skepticism develops between husband and wife. The difficult conversation or situation creates a divide in the relationship.

Give and Recieve

Healthy couples have a double skill.

1. They are quick to notice the need to lighten the situation.

2. They are quick to recognize their spouse’s attempt to lessen the negativity.

Both skills are necessary. If we can’t notice the need and make an attempt to get back on track, we are destined to allow negativity to control us. We have to see the need and act on it. We must find ways to put the tension in context and remind one another we are on the same side. Yet even if we are able to do that, if we aren’t able to recognize when our spouse is trying to make things better, we will increase the negative emotions. Failure to see our spouse’s repair attempts makes things worse. One spouse is trying to lessen the tension and when the other spouse fails to see their intent, things escalate. The one trying to repair feels unseen, unheard, and misunderstood. While the one blind to their spouse’s good attempt often takes the repair attempt as a failure to take things seriously.

Identifying and implementing repair attempts is vital for a healthy relationship. It’s especially important when tension is high.

Types of Repair

There are a variety of ways in which we attempt to stop the negativity and get back on track with our spouse.

Laughter. Humor is a powerful tool. It must be used carefully. Many husbands and wives wrongly use humor. Recognizing the need to lessen tension, they attempt to implement humor. However, the type of humor they use is making fun of the other. This only makes things worse. Instead of humor at the expense of the other, we must use humor that draws us together. Self-depreciating humor or finding a common point of hilarity can reverse the trend of negativity. (See: Stop Making Fun of Your Wife)

Step Out and Step Back In. If you are going down the wrong path, a great method is to step out of the conflict and then step back into it. This is done when you pause the issue at hand and remind each other of the bigger picture. “We disagree on this and we need to find a resolution, but let’s first remember that we love each other. We will get through this. Now, what were you saying about _____?” You step out and state some important big picture truths and then step back in to discuss the specific issue.

Physical Touch. A simple touch can go a long way. Holding hands or placing a hand on a shoulder can communicate connection. We tend to ease our tone when touching. Very few couples can fight while holding hands. The physical touch reminds us of our togetherness even if the issue being discussed is tense. If your spouse reaches for you, notice it.

Take Personal Responsibility. Oftentimes fights continue to escalate as a charge is reciprocated with another charge. Instead of taking responsibility for what we have said or done, we continually blame one another. By accepting and owning our mistakes, we show our spouse that we are going to play fair. It builds trust and creates space for them to take responsibility for their actions. Taking responsibility often requires a sincere apology and request for forgiveness. (See: But He Said ‘I’m Sorry’)

Start Over. When things are headed the wrong direction, one easy repair attempt is to simply start over. Go back to whatever was said or done which began the escalation and choose a different path. When either spouse feels the tension rising, they can ask “Can I start over?” Instead of blaming your spouse or starting with a harsh tone or accusing your spouse, find a better start. Be gentle, kind, and thoughtful. Ask rather than accusing. Sometimes we just need a restart.

Marriage is complex and complex things are guaranteed to break. Happy couples don’t have the ability to avoid failure. They simply have an uncanny ability to recognize it and do something about. It’s the continual repair of their relationship which empowers them to succeed in marriage.

(For more, read section one of Friends, Partners & Lovers as repairing is a key ingredient of a meaningful friendship.)

2 Responses to When You Fight, Look For This

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