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By Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D. and Rosemary Lichtman, Ph. D.

All couples get angry and have arguments, so know that you‘re not alone. But remember, when resolving conflict, to keep your words sweet - you may have to eat them.  

When in conflict, you can minimize emotional overload by focusing only on the issue at hand. And try not to blame your partner or be defensive. Research conducted by relationship experts indicates that one of the most effective ways to have control over the outcome of disagreements is to assume some personal responsibility and, in the end, be willing to negotiate a compromise. Fights don’t have as much fallout if you and your partner have accumulated a shared positive reserve in your emotional bank account. That is, the more positive interactions and feelings, the less damage.

It seemed to Sybil that her parents were always angry with each other. She hoped they would get a divorce but they stayed together and just kept on fighting. She vowed that her marriage would be different. “I couldn't wait to move out. Over the years I broke off several relationships that could have worked, but I was too afraid of ending up just like my parents. At the age of 42, after years of therapy, I finally felt secure enough to take the plunge. Every day, for the past seven years, I wake up and make a conscious decision to focus on the positives in my marriage. And if I have to fight, I try to fight fair.”  

        

Feeling flooded or overcome by emotion can lead to the ‘fight or flight’ response. In a relationship, this process is activated when tensions are high and communication stalls. It becomes difficult to listen, to think clearly and, certainly, to resolve disagreements.
If you stay and ‘fight,’ you may release pent up feelings but will make comments you may later regret. This kind of a catharsis can have detrimental and long ranging effects. Even though using ‘flight’ as a defense is self-protective and less emotionally damaging, in the end it resolves nothing.  

Developing skills to soothe yourself and calm down your partner can help to minimize the buildup of negative feelings and resentments. You know yourself best, so incorporate the following strategies that will work for you and your relationship:

1.Agree to stop arguing and postpone a difficult conversation until you are both feeling less upset. Or step away and put some distance between you and the situation. Take a short break and wait until you both are relaxed enough to return and listen to each other.

2.While spending time apart, settle down by thinking more constructive thoughts, such as, his anger isn't all about me, we really do love each other, she’s under a lot of pressure at work, this too shall pass, I'm upset now but I know we're right for each other.

3.Get into a comfortable position, close your eyes and breathe in deeply several times through your nose. Hold your breath for five seconds and release it through your mouth. Ignore any intruding and negative feelings. Notice how focusing only on your breathing makes you feel more refreshed.

4.Throw yourself into an activity that gives you some immediate release - call a good friend and talk about how you‘re feeling, read the next chapter of an engaging book, take a run in the park or listen to relaxing music.

5.Distraction is a powerful tool and can be in whatever form best suits the character of your relationship. Try humor, be playful or turn the controversy at hand into a game of debate. As a result of developing these kinds of adaptive defenses, you and your partner will be able to enjoy deeper and more meaningful discussions.  

Familiarize yourself with these techniques so they‘re accessible when you need them most. Rehearsing and having strategies at your disposal makes a difference in the outcome of your disagreements. As Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once said, “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.”      

© Her Mentor Center, 2008

                

Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D. & Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. are co-founders of www.HerMentorCenter.com, a website for midlife women and www.NourishingRelationships.Blogspot.com, a Blog for the Sandwich Generation. They are authors of a forthcoming book about Baby Boomers’ family relationships and publish a free newsletter, Stepping Stones, through their website. As psychotherapists, they have over 40 years of collective private practice experience.



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