The following ideas come from a workbook I use with many of my clients*. I have summarized the main points below:
While there are serious offenses that fracture relationships, such as lying, stealing, cheating, acting unilaterally, and of course physical violence, researchers* have discovered that the following disagreement-related offenses can seriously erode your relationship. They are surprisingly destructive when they go unaddressed.
These disagreement-related offenses are:
- concluding your partner is wrong when they aren't
- jumping to negative conclusions about your partner, or failing to give them the benefit of the doubt
- refusing to compromise
- putting them down or acting condescending or "better than" them
- blaming your partner instead of taking responsibility for standing up for yourself.
If you are honest with yourself, you are likely to see that you do some of these things, and when you do, you are ineffective at getting your partner to cooperate or treat you well.
You can start to disarm these relationship killers using the following six disagreement related habits :
- stop erroneous fault-finding
- find the understandable part (of their argument)
- identify the underlying values, needs or what's at stake for each of you
- offer reassurance
- offer and ask for equal regard
- stand up for yourself without making a big deal about having to.
1. Avoid erroneous fault finding
Even very compatible partners will have different preferences that influence what they each want in a given situation. Realize that your partner having a different viewpoint doesn't make them wrong. It can be hard to do this when you are on different sides of an argument, but it's when you most need practice this habit.
Trying to get someone on your side when you haven't understood theirs is a losing strategy. Your partner can sense when you are judging them. They will get defensive and become less able to be flexible and cooperative. You can and should be able to disagree with someone without communicating they are wrong to feel that way.
2. Find the understandable part
In disagreements, most people think their position is the more reasonable one. Until you can genuinely convey to your partner that you can see at least some part of their argument, you will not be able to gain their cooperation. Sometimes people mistakenly think if they back down, they will lose the whole debate. In reality, both people have legitimate points of view about things that matter to them. The only way to achieve a compromise is to acknowledge them both.
3. Identify the underlying needs, values, and concerns
When someone gets stuck in a position they can't abandon, it's because they think that strategy is the only or best to solve their problem. When you or your partner can identify what's bothering you, you can see more than one way to achieve your goal. More importantly, you can avoid getting sidetracked in arguments about strategies that may or may not work anyway.
4. Offer assurance
Assure your partner that want to repair any damage done by an argument between you, that you are not judging them, that you are willing to be flexible.
Sometimes your partner will feel misunderstood or hurt by you, whether or not you meant it. Face it; there are arguments between most couples where mean things get said. Being able to assure your partner you didn't intend to, and are sorry you did something to hurt them is crucial. It's even more vital to offer them your assurance you will work to make sure it doesn't keep happening. Letting your partner know you are willing to work with them frees your partner to be more open and flexible with you. Repairing damage done in past arguments is a great way to head off future ones.
Noticing when your partner seems upset and defensive, asking why and letting them know you are not judging them are peacekeeping habits all couples need. You may not always understand your partner, but your willingness to learn how they feel and what's important to them will make it easier.
5. Offer and ask for equal regard
One person, one vote. It works in democracies and relationships. There will be times when one or both of you want something the other doesn't. Neither of you should have to justify feeling or wanting something. You still have to take the other person into account. Successful couples are equal partners who treat their partner's interests like their own. That contract is part of what makes it safe, and desirable to be part of a couple.
Winning at your parter's expense is one of the surest, most short-sighted ways to lose them. If you want you partner to care about what's important to you, you must offer them the same care and concern. People fail at relationships when they fail to treat their partners as equals. When you can demonstrate to your partner you will act in good faith and ask the same of them you are on the way to a successful long-term relationship.
6. Stand up for yourself without making a big deal about having to
While the first five habits are important, #6 is essential. Giving up on something that's important to you, or worse, blaming your partner for being difficult will erode your relationship. Learning to stand up for yourself gracefully will vaccinate it, and you. Skillful people will stand for what they believe in without making their partner wrong.
When someone's needs go unmet, both parties contribute. Skillful partners take responsibility for themselves. They go back and resolve conflicts that are still bothering them, using the first five skills. They give their partner the benefit of the doubt, let them see what's at stake, ask them to work together.
Only if their partner won't listen, work with, or take them seriously do they refuse to continue to do business as usual. Then inform their partner they need to distance from them temporarily. Taking distance is not done in anger. It is not a threat. It firmly and quietly refusing to stay in a situation where you don't think they are treating you as an equal. It is showing you are willing to be open and flexible with your partner when they are willing to do the same with you. It is letting them know you don't want distance yourself from them, but you must take care of yourself if they are not willing to work with you.
Refusing to back down while refusing to accept aggression shows that you are sincere about giving and receiving respect. This habit helps keep both people stay calm. It saves them from wasting time and effort trying to persuade, cajole or override each other. It provides their partner time to consider their point of view without feeling pressured. It works because it preserves your dignity and theirs.
In the next post, I will describe the friendship habits, which solidify and protect relationships.
* Brent Atkinson, (author Developing Habits for Relationship Success)