As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, June 14, 2007

“And they lived happily ever after.” If only life were that simple. Unfortunately, Cinderella and Prince Charming probably had trouble working through their inevitable differences–Cinderella’s early years with her wicked stepmother and Prince Charming’s perfect childhood were no doubt poor training grounds for conflict resolution.

The boring truth about relationships is that they are held together for the longterm more by friendship than passion. The feeling of being truly known by another–and loved anyway–is magnetic. The most serious threat to such a relationship is how the couple handles conflict.

By their very definition, couples are a team. However, many couples unwittingly end their partnership (even as their relationship continues) when differences arise. One common way couples do this is by either ignoring or steering clear of the differences between them even as they continue to function well in their day-to-day routine. After many years, the emotional distance increases until there is little left to connect them. Other couples turn their partnership into a rivalry, repeatedly attacking each other when problems arise. Over time, the cohesiveness that once pulled them back together wears away, leaving mostly hostility.

Couples who manage conflict more successfully not only remain a team through each difficult situation, but they become stronger for having done so. They respect their relationship as a precious bond that is paradoxically both strong and fragile. Its strength is in the love and respect they feel for each other. They are secure in the knowledge that their partner will forgive them their faults and blunders. However, they are also aware that this strength relies on their ability to nurture and protect the relationship. They face threats to their bond – times when they feel at odds–as a team. They approach each other and each situation with a desire to be understood and to understand.

If you think that tension or distance characterizes your relationship, then it’s time to make some changes. These changes will hopefully include having more enjoyable conversations and doing more fun things together. However, you will probably also need to work through some problems or concerns. In fact, in my experience, couples who harbor a lot of anger really need to begin by dealing with the problems– just trying to be happy together seems to aggravate the situation. You can effectively address issues and strengthen your bond by incorporating the following five guidelines into your relationship.

Focus on the goal of being understood, not winning the argument. Although it can be easy to forget, marriage is about making it through life together. This means that even as you address differences between you, it is important to respect each other and want the best for both of you. If either of you ends a “conversation” feeling like a loser, then the partnership has also suffered a loss.

Start positive and be appreciative. Addressing conflict can be very uncomfortable and put people on the defensive. However, you can ease the tension by beginning with what you appreciate about your partner. This puts difficult issues in a broader, more positive context. So, for instance, if you want your husband to spend some time with you in the evening, say, “I like when you talk with me after the kids go to sleep. I’d like to do more of that.” In lengthier conversations, occasionally return to things you appreciate about your partner–it will provide both of you with some balance as you tackle difficult issues.

State the facts without judgment. The quickest way to turn a conversation into an argument is by blaming. By sticking to the facts, you are presenting a situation for discussion rather than a fight to be won or lost. So, “You spend too much time on the computer” would be better received as “We spend most evenings apart, with you on the computer and me doing something else.”

In addition to simply sticking to the facts, it is important to pick one point and be concise. If you go on and on with lots of details and different points, your partner might become confused about what you are trying to say. Instead, briefly explain the situation and give only one or two examples.

If you find yourself presenting a dissertation on what’s upsetting you, you are probably trying to win the argument. Note how you are approaching your partner as a rival rather than a teammate. Step back. Refocus on your partner as someone you want to understand you.

State how you feel. The best way to do this is by starting what you say with “I” and talking about your experience, not your partner’s faults. Only refer to your partner as part of stating the facts of the situation. For instance, you might say, “When you go off to watch TV at night, I feel alone and miss your company.” By focusing more on what you are feeling, you are inviting your partner to understand you rather than defend himself.

Vulnerable emotions, such as sadness, generally elicit sympathy. In contrast, emotions related to anger often make people more defensive. If you are angry, see if you can also identify the vulnerable emotions behind it. For example, you might be feeling hurt, abandoned, sad, disappointed, or afraid. By focusing on these emotions, you will have a better chance of having him really listen to you.

Clearly state what you would like your partner to do. Nothing could be simpler than this. You are most likely to get what you want if you clearly ask for it. “Can you please spend some time talking with me tonight?” puts what you want right out there. In contrast, “I’m feeling lonely” might get you the response, “Why don’t you call Jane?”

By coping effectively with conflict when it occurs, you do not give anger or distance time to grow. This is the required work to keep any committed relationship strong. If you accept this work, you can enjoy a fairytale ending in your relationship. In fact, if you ask me, the hard-working seven dwarfs (with the right women) had a better chance for a “happily ever after” marriage than Cinderella and Prince Charming.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ