Kelly loves Valentine’s Day: It’s this colorful holiday right smack in the middle of the dreariest part of winter that brings splashes of pink, red and purple to an otherwise white, brown and gray landscape.
It’s also a great time to reflect on our most important relationships. As a couple, we’ve learned that a good gauge of our relationship is how we handle conflict.
Our first domestic squabble occurred in the tiny kitchen of our very tiny apartment a few weeks after we were married. Things were going swimmingly until we decided to cook eggs for breakfast one Saturday morning. After giving her process careful scrutiny, Alan informed Kelly she was using the wrong spatula in the wrong pan for eggs. What sent Kelly’s blood boiling was when Alan said, “You’re doing it all wrong. That’s not the way my mother cooked eggs.”
It seems petty now, but at the time an issue as small as how to cook a little, bitty egg grew to the size of a whole flock of chickens. But we managed to sit down and resolve the issue like adults. Once Alan realized he had touched a nerve, he apologized. We talked not only about the right to cook eggs as we please, but, also, more importantly, how to choose our battles wisely.
One key to coping with conflict in romantic relationships is to really listen to what your partner is saying. Coming from a large, raucous Italian family, Kelly was brought up knowing how to hold her own in an argument. So, Kelly developed a bad habit from a very early age: She listened to what someone else said with the sole intent of figuring out how to counter it.
This, she now realizes, was an unfair tactic, considering she married a nice, unsuspecting boy from the rural Mountain West whose family used humor to smooth over bad feelings and rarely argued or even confronted one another if they disagreed.
To find a healthier style of fighting, Kelly knew she needed to learn to listen in order to understand where Alan was coming from. Author and motivational speaker Stephen R. Covey writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood. ...Understanding comes through listening. ... Most people listen with the intent to respond instead of listening with the intent to understand.”
Another point to consider: Avoid using dirty fighting tactics. Such tactics are very easy to adopt but can prove hard to break. Many of these nasty habits have been packed in our emotional baggage long ago, lugged with us from our families of origin.
Some common dirty fighting tactics include hurling insults or using sarcasm to intentionally hurt the other person. Such strategies are often employed as an attempt to feel stronger and more powerful than your partner. Whoever penned the adage about “sticks and stones” was dead wrong. Words do hurt and can injure, although often we may not see the wounds.
Also, withdrawing, acting aloof or giving the silent treatment are not helpful tactics. Giving yourself a little time to cool off if things get heated and emotions run high is OK, but waging a cold war against someone you love is not.
When we were engaged, we made a pact never to ignore each other or practice silence as a weapon in our relationship. Even though tension might be thick at times in the Taylor household, we still speak civilly to one another, and it has helped us maintain our relationship no matter what our differences of opinion may be.
Kelly once received a helpful bit of advice: The best gift you can give your children is to love and show respect for your spouse. Lisa Gorman of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University, writes, “The quality of the relationship between a husband and wife affects their children’s cognitive and social competence.”
Children learn what they see. If children see parents striving to work out their differences in respectful ways, they will learn to do likewise in their own relationships. Effective conflict resolution takes work, practice and compromise, but in the end a healthy marriage and a more harmonious home are ample reward for the effort.
Alan and Kelly Taylor live in Liverpool with their five children. Kelly holds a master’s degree in family studies; Alan is an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s Department of Child and Family Studies. Write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.