It was clear that after 7 years of marriage, Jack and Jill still loved each other. But they way they solved problems, or rather, the way they didn’t solve problems, was destroying their marriage. The last argument ended in a physical altercation and a wrestling match that left them ashamed and humiliated. Neither had ever engaged in this manner before so the shock of how quickly they escalated took them by surprise.
Jack and Jill lived in an upper middle-class neighborhood with their two preschool kids. They came from stable families, had satisfying careers, and enjoyed spending time together as a family. But years of pent-up unresolved issues came bubbling to the surface over a minor dishwasher loading offense that resulted in broken dishes and a tumble on the floor.
Committed to never allow this to happen again, they willingly came into therapy. The first agreement was to establish new rules for engagement going forward. Instead of calling their disagreements ‘arguments’, they chose ‘engagements’ because it reminded them of their commitment to each other in a positive manner. ‘Argument’ is something that a person does with another person that they don’t like as it pits one person against the other and usually ends with one person winning over the other. Whereas ‘engagement’ is a commitment between two people, it is an agreement where two are drawn closer together by their mutual love and support. Here are the other 9 rules.
- Time the engagement. There is a time and place for everything, including when and where to discuss a problem. Jack had a tendency to wake Jill up in the middle of the night with something that was bothering him. Whereas Jill tended to confront right when Jack got home from work. Neither of these is advisable. Both parties need to be ready to discuss the issue and in a neutral environment such as a patio, study, or restaurant.
- Set reasonable boundaries. The most important boundary is an agreement to walk away instead of escalating. There is nothing wrong with taking a time-out in the middle of a discussion to keep it from getting heated. The second boundary is to agree to discuss only one topic at a time. Jack and Jill did this by writing that topic on a sheet of paper so they would focus on the one issue instead of the multitude.
- Listen with ears and eyes. Listening to another person is an art form. The words a person uses are not as important as the body language or the tone. An attitude of superiority, resentment, or passivity are all equally damaging and do come across in the manner of speech. To really listen to another person, you have to pay more attention to them then to self.
- Understand first. By seeking to understand the other person first, Jack and Jill showed love and concern for the other person and what they were thinking and feeling. Instead of trying to get their point across first, they took time to fully understand the other person. This is most effectively done when a person mirrors what the other person is saying.
- Share honestly and openly. When the previous four steps are done well, sharing honestly and openly comes naturally. The flow of conversation is relaxed even when there is no initial agreement. Jack and Jill also committed to assuming the best of intentions from each other. When a person assumes the worst possible meaning, this adds to the conflict. Instead, they assumed the best and asked for clarification when uncertain.
- Brainstorm solutions. The best solutions often come from discussion. One brainstorm solution from Jack and Jill’s dishwasher loading discussion was to do an experiment. They agreed to load the dishwasher Jack’s way with one set of dirty dishes and do it again loading it Jill’s way with another set. Then they would evaluate the cleanest dishes and do it that way going forward.
- Collaborate and negotiate. Jack and Jill agreed to pick the problem apart and not each other. To do this, they empathized with each other, let go of inconsequential things, asked for forgiveness when needed, and emoted without overreacting. Patience is needed during this step as it is often uncomfortable just before reaching a solution.
- Agree to an ending. There are three possibilities at the end of an engagement: agree, disagree, or agree to disagree. Jack and Jill worked towards an agreement but when they disagreed, they postponed the discussion for at least 24 hours before engaging again. Some issues they just agreed to disagree, respecting both points of view.
- Evaluate the process. At the end of the process, they evaluated the steps and asked: what worked, what didn’t, how can it be improved, and do we need a mediator? By doing this each time, they fine-tuned their process and found a rhythm that was uniquely theirs.
Resolving conflicts strengthens a relationship and binds two people closer together. This process is very time-consuming in the beginning but it well worth the investment.