When my husband Ted and I tied the knot, I hated conflict. As in, a lot.
I viewed it as an enemy. A villain of sorts. One that, if forced to face, would sabotage my personal comfort. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you’re not too fond of it either.
The truth is that conflict is uncomfortable. Resolving it well demands that we die to ourselves and our personal agendas. Sometimes a little. Other times a lot.
But what I’ve learned over the last eleven years of marriage is that conflict isn’t an enemy. Rather, when approached well, conflict can be an adventure.
Compare it to whitewater rafting. It takes teamwork to navigate safely through the turbulent waters. Once the raft is back on dry land, its passengers are stronger for having conquered the rapids … together.
The same is true in marriage. When Ted and I navigate conflict together with the goal of coming out stronger as team, it becomes an adventure. A feat we can face — and conquer — side-by-side, not back-to-back.
If you’re struggling with how to resolve conflict in your marriage, here are three communication tools that have proven helpful to Ted and me.
1. The Communication Sandwich
In my book Team Us, I share one of my favorite communication techniques. It’s called the communication sandwich. It means that when you have criticism to share with your spouse, you sandwich it between praise. Much like you’d place ham and Havarti between two slices of Wonder Bread. Say, for example, your spouse, like mine, sometimes loves sleep too much. You might offer something like this:
I appreciate how hard you work. I realize that sleeping in helps you relax. I know that’s important …
The thing is, I’ve been feeling like it’s getting in the way of our time together. Do you think we could reexamine your sleep schedule?…
I’m really looking forward to figuring out a good balance. I can’t wait to spend more time with you.
It’s much easier to get your spouse to be receptive if you “sandwich” your concerns between praise.
2. The “It’s Me” Approach
This may bring to mind the clichéd breakup line. You know, the “It’s not you, it’s me…” spiel. But it’s not. Rather, it focuses on how we phrase our feelings in the midst of conflict. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s helpful to verbally present an issue as about me and my feelings, not about what Ted may have done. Placing the emphasis on my feelings, rather than on my accusations, helps keep his defenses from rising. And vice versa.
Need an example? Look back at the communication sandwich. Notice that I didn’t say, “You’d rather sleep in then spend time with me.” Instead, I stated, “I’ve been feeling like…”
There’ve been times when I’ve assumed I understood what Ted was saying, only to find out later I was way off. Has that ever happened with your spouse? One way we’ve learned to avoid this is by using a technique called reflecting. It means we paraphrase back to each other what we’ve heard.
For example, after Ted shares his feelings over a particular offense, I may respond, “So what I hear you saying is…” This allows him to confirm that what I’ve heard matches what he actually intended; that there’s no misunderstanding between us. Reflecting can help an already-tense conflict from unnecessarily escalating.
The next time you and your spouse face conflict, give these three communication tools a try. I’ve found that these aren’t just pop psychology bumper sticker fads. They really work. And they may just help you view conflict as a kind of white water adventure too.
For more practical ways to cultivate and strengthen unity in your marriage, check out my new book, Team Us: Marriage Together. Also, download my free printable “10 Winning Strategies to Strengthen Your Team Us.”