Marriage brings us no shortage of opportunities to have difficult conversations. When you bring two people together who have their own lives, ideas, dreams, and imperfections, sooner or later there will be friction or conflict. You won’t always see things from the same vantage point and that’s perfectly okay. The goal in marriage isn’t to always agree or to feel the same about things, but to be able to communicate openly and honestly about anything. And you want that communication to leave you both feeling heard, valued, understood and acknowledged. So, it takes a lot of practice and intentionality to have conversations that leave you both feeling supported, but there are some rules to consider to make sure those mature conversations don’t escalate into messy arguments.
Remember you’re on the same team
I’m not an athletic person by any means, but I do know that during games, there are players on the same team and then there are players on the opposing team. Your marriage is a team and you’re both on it…the same team. That means that when you’re having a difficult conversation, you must remember that your spouse is for you. That also means that you must engage in a way that lets your spouse know that you are for them. Difficult conversations are uncomfortable enough. There’s no need to add to the discomfort by putting yourselves against one another. That means to assume the best, give the benefit of the doubt and look for the good in each other.
Help each other if one is struggling to communicate their ideas in a way that is clear and healthy. You’re not competing against each other and if you’re approaching a conversation with the intention to win, then you’ve already lost. Team members don’t play against each other, and if they do, they risk losing. Therefore, as a married couple, strive to work towards a common goal of a happy and healthy marriage. And that doesn’t mean you avoid difficult conversations in an effort to keep the peace, especially if you’re the type that likes to avoid confrontation. In fact, it means the exact opposite. It means you have the conversation, but you do so in love; in a way that you and your spouse recognize that you’re on the same team.
And another way to do this is to own your feelings, decisions, and behaviors. Take responsibility for yourself and be quick to apologize and fix anything you’ve done that causes harm. If a team member accidentally tripped another team member during a game and that team member fell, we’d hope that she would help her up and apologize too. It’s the same in our marriage. If we’ve caused harm, we can help our spouse recover from it and we can do so by first acknowledging our actions and apologizing because you’re on the same team.
Focus on resolution; not blame
If you and your spouse need to discuss something difficult, such as how your work schedule is too demanding on the family and that something needs to change, then the best way to approach this conversation is with the intention of resolution. Sure, you could spend a lot of time and energy on blaming one another for everything, but where will that lead you? You’ll only be more upset and you’ll likely have new things to be upset about. And you still will have the unresolved issue. Now there is a difference between owning responsibility so that change can occur and simply blaming one another. When we own responsibility or assign responsibility we acknowledge the role that each person is playing in the current situation in an effort to figure out how to make improvements. Blame just points fingers to alleviate and remove pressure from yourself, but it never leads to resolution.
So, when we focus on the resolution we are focusing on ways to improve the situation in real practical ways. For example, if you’re working too much and it’s putting a strain on your marriage one of the practical resolutions to this would be to create systems in your business so you spend less time on tasks. Or it may mean streamlining your marketing so you’re not trying to do too many things. It may mean saying “no” to certain projects so you can honor your business hours. When you’ve acknowledged that you’re on the same team and that resolution is your focus, you can get a lot more creative in settling the difficult conversation.
Set a time limit
In our marriage, we call it a “marathon response” – when someone goes on and on for too long in a difficult conversation. While we don’t have specific time frames, we do have an idea of how long is too long when it comes to explaining your perspective. We also work this the other way when it comes to being silent because the passive-aggressive tendency of reverting to the “silent treatment” is just as bad as the “marathon response”. That means, if you need a break from the conversation, you can have a break, but that break can’t go on indefinitely, because that leads to passive aggression. The point of this is to set a framework for your conversations that you can honor during those heated or difficult discussions.
These rules only work when you agree to the rules and agree to apply them. It won’t be perfect and sometimes you’ll want to throw out the rules altogether. But you’ll likely regret it because you just may find yourself at the end of a messy argument that neither of you feels proud of contributing to. So, do yourself and your marriage a favor, and create some rules of engagement so you have healthy difficult conversations. You can do this!