Couples in Conflict

In any long term relationship there is ebb and flow, times of hurt and pain along with times of contentment, joy, and pleasure. We have had very difficult times in our relationship, especially year one and then again years five through seven after being married. During those times we kept remembering a piece of advice that was given to us early on: Talk to any long-term married couple and they will tell you how they had times where divorce seemed like a viable option. But they will also tell you what they did to get through it to the other side. Hanging through the pain brought them closer and made the relationship stronger and more intimate. We kept that advice close to our hearts and found it to be true. We were also told marriage is the hardest work we will ever do. Awe (colorful expletive), is that ever true!!!

For the past couple years, many marriage experts were getting excited because the divorce rate had been dropping. They took this information to mean couples were more committed than ever to staying together. But law enforcement, especially those that routinely respond to domestic abuse calls, began to notice a new reality; they knew the rate was lower because many couples in dying relationships could not afford to file for divorce, nor could they sell their home and physically part ways, with the downturn in the economy. Now that the banks are more willing to lend money the divorce rate is starting to climb again. With law enforcement the rate has traditionally been around 75% and for everyone else around 50%.

Being that we are a very public couple we often become known as Mike & Althea everywhere we go. This is true where we volunteer, where we get our massages, and in our neighborhood. Our friends comment on how easily we get along and how we seem to have a strong friendship and partnership. We also run a business together (More Than A Cop), co-author articles, and co-teach in police trainings. We do more together than the average couple and this creates unique challenges in our marriage, especially in how we navigate conflict. Yet, somehow, we manage to make it work. So we are going to share some of our secrets that have kept us focused on keeping our forever relationship out of divorce court, and also some of the lessons we have learned working with and helping other couples.

Embrace Healthy Debate & Accept Differences

Being able to have a healthy debate is an advanced skill in relationships because it requires freedom to exchange thoughts, ideas, dreams, needs, and wants without the fear of the being rejected, called names, put down, or marginalized. Most would think the healthy exchange of information would be a no-brainer, but it is the demise of many couples. In a country that values freedom, especially freedom of speech and thought, it is often not a valued trait in relationships (or in the work place, but that is a different article on morale). For some reason, many are threatened by someone who is not similar to them, even in the most miniscule details of life, including but not limited to: How to squeeze a tube of toothpaste, fold a bath towel, load a dishwasher (something about which Mike believes he is the ultimate authority!), or one of the many other facets of life that are a personal opinion but not an absolute truth. There are many ways to squeeze a tube of toothpaste. In the end it only matters that the toothpaste ends up in the mouth and the teeth/gums are brushed for good oral hygiene and health. Still, couples will fight over who is right and be so focused on winning that fight that they lose the biggest prize of all, the relationship, because the other person gets tired and hurt from always hearing they are wrong.

We have an innate need to be loved, accepted, and liked. If we do not feel our opinions are valued and heard by our partner, we will no longer want to be in the relationship. We made mistakes in years five to seven by trying to mold each other into who we thought the other person should be; that only gave us heartache, strife, and broken trust in each other. Instead, learning to accept each others' differences has made for a much happier home.

The Rules of Engagement

Having rules about how you engage in conflict are very important. Some people/couples tend to launch impulsively into conflict after one of them experiences anger or frustration with the other. If this is okay with both of you - you are just get it off your chest types - and it works, then maybe that is the rule for how you do conflict. Others prefer to move more cautiously, setting up a time to meet and discuss differences only after fully thinking about the issue thoroughly. Again, if this happens to be the way you both like it, great! You have one of your rules right there!

Of course, relationships are rarely so simple and yellers often marry calm discussers with disastrous results, especially when one decides to bend or bully the other to their way of doing things. The rules of engagement for how you do conflict have the primary goal of creating emotional safety for both of you. Being an emotionally safe person to have conflict with means taking personal responsibility for your partner's feelings even when angry or frustrated with them and putting the best interest of the relationship ahead of self-interest.

A few of the rules of engagement we have adopted are:

  • No yelling. Raising your voice in anger, frustration, or fear is a natural reaction but it is important to understand what it is (an evolutionary adaptation) and why we do it (to intimidate, scare off, or establish dominance over another). Yelling is very effective at driving off or intimidating those who anger us, but it can do terrible things to those we love.
  • No name-calling. Anger often makes us to want to lash out and hurt the person angering us, but the hurt - and harm - it causes lasts long after the anger is gone. Name calling, insults, derogatory comments, or dredging up the past hurts both the recipient of the words and the one delivering them. Sharp words are the cruelest blade.
  • Ask first. Human impulse, when upset, is to strike while the iron (or our anger) is hot. Sometimes that may be necessary, but usually not. Blindsiding each other or confronting conflict when one of us is tired, busy, or preoccupied, never goes well. Instead, making sure the time is good to confront conflict, or even making a date to do so on the future, improves the odds for respectful and productive conflict.
  • Honor the 10 O'clock Rule. Very simply, if it is after 10 pm, let it slide till morning. Picking a fight just before bed never plays out as well as you hope!

Choose your words with care

What you say, and how you say it, means all the difference in how the conflict will be resolved. Not only is hurting the one you love with cutting words a tendency a temptation to avoid, but being clear and direct, and avoiding distracting rabbit trails that pull you away from the original conflict and only create more before one is resolved, are important skills to be developed.

Interestingly, as people become more articulate and skilled at verbally addressing conflicts, their incidence often begins to decrease! Becoming skilled at conflict resolution actually pays off in reducing the need for it.

Those are a few of the tips that have aided us in having a marriage and partnership we value and enjoy. We love coming home to each other at the end of the day and we are also not afraid to address difficult topics. Learning to resolve and negotiate conflict takes years of practice and a willingness to commit to the relationship. We are not done learning and know that there will be more hard times in front of us, but having a thriving relationship is worth the personal sacrifices we make for the good of the relationship.