War and Peace on the Home Front
Every nation remembers the sacrifice of their war veterans with a Memorial Day. Thinking about your marriage: is it more of a battlefield than the safe harbour it is intended to be?
Through our work with couples, we often encounter those in embattled relationships. They’ve become trapped in a fractious pattern where almost every interaction is plagued with misunderstanding and hostility.
Husband and wife treat each other with suspicion and conversations become an exchange of verbal grenades. They dig into their positions and stubbornly defend them. They’re defensive, expecting trouble rather than peace.
It’s action and reaction – tit for tat. It’s the marital version of a battlefield and no one can sustain this level of conflict for long. It’s exhausting and if the pattern is not disrupted, eventually the battle-weary spouses will walk away from the marriage.
De-escalation and Disarmament
How can embattled couples disarm and reset a combative relationship?
Sometimes, we get to talk with both spouses and other times it’s just the one. Typically each think that they can’t do anything to improve their situation without the full cooperation of the other.
While it’s always preferable to work with both spouses, it is simply not true that a marriage can’t be improved with only one spouse.
Marriage is like a dance. If one person changes their steps, that redirects the dance. The trick to moving from battlefield to dance floor is to learn some ‘dance steps’ that reset the relationship dynamic.
Here are our three top tips to de-escalate the conflict and stop that negative spiral of action and reaction.
1: Foster curiosity
So often, we assume that we know the other’s thoughts and intentions. We jump to conclusions about what they intended by a certain comment or a particular action.
When we are hurt with each other, these assumptions are almost always negative towards the other. Subconsciously we are looking for the other to ‘do it again’, and so we hear what we expect to hear rather than what was said or intended.
Make a mental shift from rapid-fire condemnation to curiosity. When something is said or done that you are inclined to interpret negatively… Pause. Might there be an alternative explanation?
Perhaps she didn’t mean to brush you off, she’s just exhausted. Maybe he didn’t’ intend to ignore you, he’s just stressed and distracted.
Suspend your judgment and consciously restrain yourself from negative assumptions. Ask open, curious questions (not loaded ones!). Allow space for the truth of your spouse’s intention to be articulated.
Practicing curiosity predisposes us to a more open interpretation avoiding unnecessary hurt. It can go a long way to diffusing a relationship ready to explode.
2: The ‘Ouch’ rule
When something is said or done that hurts or offends, don’t immediately react with your own return serve. Rather, simply (and gently) say: “Ouch! That hurt…What I heard you say was…” Or “What I think about when you do that is…”.
This does two important things: Firstly, it shifts the focus away from the conflict and onto the impact on you. It signals to the other that you’re hurt. Even if you appear angry, beneath that anger is a tender wound.
Secondly, it gives the other to the opportunity to correct your interpretation if you misunderstood – which in our case is most of the time! The Ouch Rule prevents the argument escalating unnecessarily and even more hurt accumulating.
The Ouch Rule has helped us many times when we’ve been in a combative season and felt like we were walking through a minefield. Each of us was so sensitive and wired, that the slightest provocation could set us off.
It’s amazing how effective something as simple as the Ouch Rule can be. Usually, after calling out the first three or four ‘ouches’, we realised that we really had been over-reactive, and we were able to dial down the defensiveness.
When we’re in a combative relationship, our threat radar goes into overdrive. We find ourselves on the alert, looking for evidence to sustain our indignation. Before we know it, we’re constantly surveillant for fault in the other.
If all we ever look for is fault, chances are we’ll find plenty of it.
It really is exhausting to be in a constant state of defensiveness and negativity. It drains our energy and our joy. It erodes our health and undermines our peace.
On the other hand, if we turn it around and look for virtue – for evidence of care, generosity, kindness, diligence etc – we’ll also find plenty of that in the other.
The practice of gratitude has been found to alleviate depression and anxiety. It helps us reframe our situation from hopeless (which it rarely is) to hopeful.
Make the decision to look on the brighter side of the other’s character, and focus on that rather than the deficits. If nothing else, it will help you feel more optimistic about your relationship.
Disarming the defences
Is it time for you to lay down your arms? If you don’t think you can singlehandedly shift a marriage, try these simple tools for a couple of months and see if you can detect a shift.
Marriages don’t typically repair overnight, but nor do they collapse in a day. It’s the daily trending that sets its course and these are three simple ways to get some positive trending into your marriage.