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Improving Communication and Conflict in Marriage

Healthy communication

Relationship Experts Share 12 Solutions for Healthy Communication and Fair Fighting!


A message we frequently here from couples seeking counseling with us goes something like this:

Help! Our marriage is falling apart. All we seem to do is fight. We start talking about a topic and before we know it, we’re fighting about how we’re fighting. And, we’re no longer even talking about the initial topic! Our fight style highjacked what we were originally trying to talk about. We are both exhausted. One of us is withdrawn and the other is constantly complaining. Neither one of us feel heard. We are building resentments. We hardly talk anymore. If we do, it’s about what needs to be done like bills or household chores or taking care of the kids. We’re more like roommates then lovers. We miss each other but we don’t know how to find our way back. We need help with our communication!

A high percentage of the clients we work with inform us in one way or another that improving communication with their husband or wife (or boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé, life partner, etc.) is a high priority. The desire and hope for smoother conversations and improved conflict (AKA fair fighting!) is often what inspires them to make the call to seek therapy. Broken communication and unhealthy conflict erode the foundation of love that led you to be in a relationship in the first place. If this sounds familiar at all, you are not alone. In fact, research supports that if couples could learn how to have healthy conflict, the divorce rates would decrease by 50%. That’s huge! Unhealthy communication patterns can be so destructive! The good news is that couples CAN learn new ways of communicating that increases their ability to successfully navigate conflict. When done well, conflict can even be a bridge to deeper understanding and relational intimacy!

To begin your journey to healthier communication in your marriage/relationship, check out the below tips. Some of these suggested solutions may seem basic and easy- that’s great! Check in with yourself and process if you’re doing them on a consistent basis. Some may seem super hard or even impossible. That’s ok too. Start somewhere. And, if you need help, reach out for support. There are many therapists that specialize in working with couples- including us! Elevating Relationships supports couples who reside in Florida who are seeking to improve communication skills and have healthier conflict utilizing an elite “couple to couple” approach. Shout out to all of our Florida couples- we are here for you!

Change needs to start somewhere so choose one of these tips to start today…

Tip #1: Think & Speak more on what you WANT in the relationship.

We often talk with our couples about their “preferred outcome” or “request”. Meaning, always consider what you want most when bringing up a complaint. In fact, we typically encourage couples to not speak of the complaint until they know exactly what they are asking for. Complaints in relationships are natural! However, a complaint for the purpose of demeaning, venting, or putting someone in their place is not very useful. And, a complaint without a proposed solution can just sound like the awful word that most couples hate- “nagging”.

Think about a proposed solution and make sure that request is highlighted in your communication. When you have a complaint (we can’t emphasize this enough- you WILL have complaints in your relationships!), think and speak on WHAT you WANT (verses what is wrong). This technique is a subtle yet powerful shift that invites the speaker to take ownership of their request and the listener to feel less attacked which helps reduce defensive responses. Ex. “I hate how you never want to go anywhere anymore” becomes “It would mean so much to me if we can plan some special time this weekend to hang out somewhere new“.

Tip #2: How you start will typically be how you end!

If you are coming in hot, chances are, the conversation is just going to escalate from there. The healthiest of couples struggle when a complaint is registered with heat (loud tone, demonstrative body language, criticism, blaming, shaming, etc.). We encourage couples to share their complaint in a way that can be heard! Usually, this means being intentional about using a softer tone and body language that invites solution and connection verses withdrawing, defending, and disconnecting. If that means you need to take several deep breaths or a walk around the block before you speak, do it! Being intentional about tone and body language can be a game changer with transforming your conflict cycle. Trust us: Yelling at your spouse during a disagreement is the surest way to guarantee you won’t be heard! And, so is going back and forth about tone. Many couples get derailed by tone- you end up fighting about tone instead of the initial issue (“I’m just passionate!”, “I’m NOT yelling!”, or “You raised your voice first!”). The key idea is to recognize IF you are heated and if so, try to regulate through deep breaths or taking a quick break. If you’re not heated, see if you can lean in and be receptive to your partner’s request about tone. And, it’s not always about yelling. One couple we are friends with struggled with what the husband called “her teacher voice”. The back and forth arguing of whether she was indeed using the “teacher voice” hijacked their arguments until they were able to hear each other regarding what the “teacher voice” represented and sounded like. Sometimes, tone can be a trigger due to past trauma. Sometimes, it can feel unsafe or simply unsettling which can make it difficult for the other partner to stay present. So, ask yourself- do I rather jump into a back and forth on tone or see what tone will feel comfortable for my partner. Which pathway is going to get you to your preferred outcome?

Tip #3: Let’s talk about feelings!

A major shift we practice with couples is moving from blaming each other to taking responsibility for one’s own experience. This means getting in touch with your emotional world. We usually ask our clients questions that touch on the following four areas related to a complaint- feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and requests. We explore what feelings are present when things are going well and what feelings are present when things are not going well. Also, how the individual tends to act when things are going well and how they act when things are not going well. We ask about the complaint in a way that helps reveal their truest heart including understanding their values connected to it. And, finally, we explore their requests (hopes, dreams, boundaries, expectations, etc.). These questions help to build self-awareness around the story of the complaint, and it helps get to the heart of what you are truly seeking. Here’s an example of what that shift might look like in real life:

Old way:

OH MY GOSH! I can’t believe you are on the phone again. It seems like all you ever do when you come home is sit on the couch looking at social media. How much Instagram can one person take in a day? You don’t think I want a break? I’m tired too! I’ve been working all day too! And, the kids aren’t going to feed themselves. Is your help button broken? It’d be nice if you could help for once in your life!

New way:

I’m feeling extra overwhelmed and exhausted today and I’d really like to have a peaceful evening. I think if we can tag team a few things, we both will be able to rest quicker- maybe even together. It would be helpful if you can get the kids ready for dinner while I finish preparing the meal. Would you be able to rally in about 5 minutes?

The new way honors each person’s world, it’s respectful, and it ushers in resolution much easier then the critical and sarcastic version.

Tip #4: Feelings on FIRE? Put the fire out first!

Emotions are powerful forces that can come in giant waves of intensity. When it’s emotions like LOVE and JOY, it feels wonderful and our subsequent actions are typically mirror that- we’re usually more kind, lighthearted, generous and fun! But, what about emotions like ANGER, FEAR, or SADNESS? Conflict in marriage What then? For some, this equals WW3 but it doesn’t have to! Think about it… a situation occurs that triggers these emotions and there is a momentary PAUSE so small that sometimes it’s barely noticeable-but it’s there. And that’s the moment of POWER because it offers the beautiful opportunity to MAKE A CHOICE in how you REACT as the wave hits you. Yes, you can CHOOSE your REACTION. Take that moment to feel your emotions, to honor the experience, and to breathe through it. Explore your needs and wants and then CHOOSE what you want to do with it. Do you want to share? Do you need to process and gain insight about what triggered you? Do you need to take a break to collect yourself before you make matters worse? Do you need to take responsibility for your emotions- meaning own it? Do you need to set a boundary? Do you need to compromise? Do you need a thought adjustment (view situation differently)? Or, do you just need to be still for a bit? Too often, couples’ communication falls apart because they don’t master how to manage intense emotions and their subsequent actions do more damage. For example, we tend to want our partners to fix our emotions. We think, “If he or she did____then I would feel ____”). And the way this is communicated is unproductive- critical, sarcastic, demanding, whining, etc. However, if you start to be more mindful about your emotions and manage them effectively, then your emotions can become PRODUCTIVE MESSENGERS and TOOLS to elevate communication and action. But, first, you need to CHOOSE the best REACTION and that often starts with putting the fire out before speaking on it.

Tip #5: Timing is everything!

We’ve lost count of how many couples attempt to engage in healthy conflict at the WORST times- when first waking up (before coffee!), when first arriving home, when trying to feed the kids, when exhausted from a long day, when hungry, while working, etc. We get that time is precious and it’s hard to find the “right” time every time. We have a friend who is a master at “tabling” conflict and her relationship thrives as a result. She does not bury her head in the sand- that’s different. She waits until the environment is conducive to having a heart to heart. Yes, it takes discipline. And, when done right, it helps set the stage for healthy communication and healthy conflict. The right environment is different for every couple. Some couples find success is having a weekly conversation that’s scheduled. The conversation can include things that are going well and areas that need work. Having a scheduled conversation that’s reliable and predictable helps reduce the anxiety of conflict and encourages less conflict throughout the week as complaints are tabled for the planned conversation. For some couples, a simple heads up works well. Something like, “I have a few things I wanted to process with ya- can we plan to talk later today?” Some general rules to follow when considering timing is to delay discussing conflict when hungry, tired, distracted/multitasking, or emotions are super heated. Being thoughtful and intentional about timing helps to reduce some of the variables that contribute to making conflict worse!

Tip #6: Saying something nice is the cherry on top!

While studying couples, researcher Dr. John Gottman found that “the capacity to express some positivity while discussing an area of conflict not only predicted whether a couple would be together at the end of a 6 year study, but also whether they would still be happy”. (From Book: What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal). Quick lesson: During conflict, seek moments to be kind, gentle, patient, nice, understanding, and complimentary. Positivity works- it’s a POWERFUL relationship tool that can cool the fire of conflict to a manageable temperature.

Tip #7: “My Bad” is VERY GOOD

“We can melt away hurt and anger when we acknowledge our own human frailties and foibles and agree to try harder next time”- Drs. John and Julie Gottman

Disagreements happen. One way to reduce the sting of the battle is for each partner to admit his or her role and to make a point to look for one thing to do different next time. When each person can own their part by naming it and expressing an intention to do different next time, it helps both feel more secure in each other and more confident in their ability to navigate conflict well.

Tip #8: Balance is necessary!

“Take time to smell the roses”- it’s a phrase often used to highlight a need to slow down and experience the beauty around you- to really breathe it in and appreciate it. It’s NOT about ignoring things you don’t like or want to change. It IS about creating balance and being able to see and experience the good too. How about today you choose to really focus on what you LIKE, LOVE, & APPRECIATE about your partner. Notice all the good. Be an investigator of what you like! If you’re feeling adventurous, how about taking it one step further and say it out loud. Love in relationships Research indicates that if you notice and speak your appreciations, the overall positive perspective in your relationship goes up. And, when that happens, conflict is easier to navigate. It’s much harder to navigate conflict when the couple is knee deep in “negative sentiment override” (coined by Dr. Gottman, this is a destructive zone where the relationship is mostly seen or experienced through a filter of negativity). The 5 to 1 ratio rule is one we teach clients all the time. This essentially says that you need 5 positive interactions to neutralize the damaging effects of 1 negative interaction. Speaking life into the relationship on a consistent basis helps avoid sending the relationship over the cliff into negative sentiment override. Noticing and speaking on what you like is sort of like bringing those roses right into the relationship and keeping the positive sentiment at a healthy level!

Tip # 9:”My Way or The Highway” isn’t always the “Best Way”!

Being able to “accept influence” is one of the pillars of a happy and healthy relationship. At the core of this Gottman inspired principle is the notion that BOTH individuals have DECISION MAKING INFLUENCE within the relationship. Each partner feels listened to, respected, and validated. There’s room for both perspectives during decisions- from where we are eating to family planning. Healthy communication and conflict creates room for BOTH perspectives to exists. In fact, the research on healthy conflict indicates that the best path to compromise is for BOTH partners to feel truly heard. Basic, right? Sure- but in the heat of the moment when emotions are intense and the conversation turns into conflict, it’s easy to forget. The temptation is to become so focused on data dumping and telling all the reasons why my position is best. We get exceptionally talented at defending a preferred position. A shift in the goal would be to seek to deepen understanding of both perspectives instead of categorizing 1 person as wrong and 1 person as right. We suggest trying to “describe” rather than “defend”- the major difference here is you are seeking to be understood instead of convincing the other side of your preferred outcome. How do you do this? Be specific about talking about your hopes, dreams, beliefs, values, and fears connected to the preferred outcome. In other words…get to the heart of the message. And, ask questions about your partner’s perspective. Doing this helps both sides to feel heard, understood and validated. Try this tip the next time you and your significant other disagree in order to increase understanding and decrease tension. Each partner needs space to share which leads to healthier compromise!

Tip #10: Don’t rub it in.

“ADMIT when you’re WRONG. SHUT UP when you’re RIGHT!” is another golden quote from Dr. Gottman. If you are in the “I did it right” position, humility and grace goes a long way. No need to emphasize it and usher in all the “I told you so” moments. This can lead to many unhealthy things such as power imbalances, one partner feeling like they can’t ever get it right, feeling undervalued, and resentments.

Tip #11: Chickity check yoself before you wreck yoself

“Do-overs” are really just in theory only. You can’t always “take back” the terrible things said during anger. Yes, there is grace and forgiveness. But before that is SELF-AWARENESS and SELF-CONTROL. If you’re struggling with wrecking ball words during conflict, seek support! There’s a ton of tools available to effectively calm down and have productive conflict- even when angry! Criticism is one of the nastiest of unhealthy fighting tools. It’s right up there with contempt, demeaning, bullying, and sarcasm. None of which have a place in healthy communication.

Tip #12: Shhhhhh…

We saw recently that “listen” and “silent” are spelled with the same letters. They truly go hand in hand! Listening in silence doesn’t simply mean “not speaking”. It also means silencing your own internal narrative and focusing solely on what the other individual is saying. AKA not forming your response. Try listening in silence today! Amazing listening skills helps you to better acknowledge what you’re hearing which is a pathway to deeper communication and connection.

BONUS TIP: Don’t wait to seek support! Too many couples wait until they are drowning in negative sentiment override and so much damage has been done. A large part of couples therapy includes looking at your unique strengths and areas for growth and then exploring strategies to reach your relationship goals.

Still have questions? Reach out- we’re here to support your relationship!

By: Lori and Rashawn Brewster