Every relationship has explosive conflicts. Tor Constantino shares tips from 20 years of marriage to help defuse them before they erupt.
Anytime two people commit to each other, there will inevitably be disagreements—sometimes those fights can be downright explosive.
Partners and spouses fight with words about all kinds of things—you probably had a spat yesterday or last week—but such conflicts are primarily driven by each person’s differing expectations or wants as well as unmet needs.
When your actions disappoint your partner’s expectations, or you fail to meet important needs, conflict ensues, and unless you know how to handle that conflict, conflagration—another word for raging fire—is likely.
My wife and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary in three months.
Before we were married, we dated another five years—for a grand total of 25 years together.
Like every couple, we’ve had more than our fair share of conflicts and disagreements. But early on we decided to mutually accept certain rules of engagement to ensure we protected our single most valuable shared asset—our relationship.
We came up with this idea because we realized that most conflict-oriented competition—from team sports to business—has rules that protect participants and the integrity of the activity.
Whether it’s mixed martial arts, hockey, boxing, football or Scottish leg wrestling there are rules and agreed-upon conduct for all engaged participants of those activities. And there are rules in business, too, for what you can and cannot do to your competitors.
So, my wife and I adopted our own six rules for “marital conflict,” which have helped us stay together all these years.
1. Do not use universal language.
Universal language means framing things as absolutes. This occurs when a minor habit by either individual happens to annoy the other individual. Over time a specific reoccurrence of that habit gets magnified into a gross overgeneralization.
This exaggeration is frequently associated with language such as “always,” “never,” “every time,” “all the time” … etc. Specific examples of universal language might include, “You always leave the toilet seat up,” “You never close the cap on the toothpaste,” “Why do you always leave only a swig of milk in the carton …”
The truth is that nobody engages in any specific behavior all the time. It’s a loaded accusation that nearly “always” escalates a fight. You may not “always” be able to avoid using universal language, but you can become conscious of it and stop yourself most of the time.
2. Do not let issues reach “last straw” status.
If you have a problem with your mate, address it early and as unemotionally as possible. Do all you can to avoid the point where one of you shouts, “That’s the last straw—I can’t take anymore of this.”
Early intervention in this regard might be analogous to a demolition expert who must defuse a bomb before the timer goes off.
As a committed couple, it’s up to both of you to learn how to disarm your personal incendiary devices before all that bottled frustration explodes, inflicting collateral damage to the relationship.
3. Do not use coarse language, personal attacks, or name-calling.
The old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones …” is a bunch of garbage—hurtful, harmful words from a loved one can be devastating and have lasting consequences on your relationship as they may never be forgotten.
This type of language quickly spirals down into negative exchanges that will unavoidably result in a truly hurtful comment that can cause a deep wound, which is especially hard to heal since it was inflicted by your soul mate. Try to focus on the issue at hand, not the faults of the other person.
If you’re not careful, arguments can devolve into name calling, where you’re focusing on your partner’s faults (real or perceived) instead of trying to resolve an issue with the person you love. Specifically, if you attack or belittle a physical trait of your mate that they can’t change, you may unintentionally strike a death blow to the relationship.
Once something like that is said, it’s like a permanent stain that becomes impossible for the other person to remove from their psyche.
4. Do not bring up past issues that have been resolved.
Bringing up past issues is like picking a scab—only pain, delayed healing, bleeding, and infection can result. Nobody wants that, so once an issue has been resolved and dropped, don’t pick it up again.
5. Do not use physical force.
Unless you’re defending yourself or protecting a child from violence, threat or abuse—physical force has no place in an emotionally-charged situation with your loved one. Period.
6. Do not assign false motive.
This is the biggest problem for me personally. When my wife asks if I’ve paid the bills for the month, it’s easy for me to get rankled and assume she’s insulting my ability to provide for our family.
That’s obviously a fiction I’ve created in my mind, but I need to assume the best intentions of my mate—not the worst. Realizing when you’re just being asked a question, and not subjected to an attack, is a critical component of maintaining a loving relationship.
Obviously you don’t have to be married to benefit from these guidelines, they’re applicable to any relationship—at home, at work, and in the community.
However, both of you have to agree on these rules in advance, which means during a firefight you both must be ready to concede your respective points if you break one or more of these rules.
Additionally, these rules should be in effect at all times in your relationship—there are no holidays or vacations from them, and they apply to disagreements big and small.
Of course, you can’t stop an actual volcano from erupting if it’s due. Similarly, these tips won’t prevent every fight. But I can tell you with certainty after nearly two decades of firsthand experience, that they will help you be more mindful of your mate during the heat of the argument and give you some tools to return your relationship to a cooler, calmer temperature.
This post is republished on Medium.
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