“It seems like the minute I walk in the door, I can’t do enough. I barely say hello and you are shouting demands at me. I know it’s a crazy time of day, but could you at least give me a moment to breathe before jumping all over me?”
Sound familiar? We all get into with our partners. The question is, when you do, can you stay nice during an argument? You relationship might just depend on it.
When emotions run high, one of the most important things you can do is respond in a loving and soothing manner. Couples who do this usually have high trust in each other and can calm each other down. Then, they are able to have a somewhat constructive conversation.
The key is to lower the emotion that is about to boil over. When partners feel overwhelmed with emotions, conflict doesn’t go well. They get what we call flooded–unable to think and make relationship repair.
One way to lower emotion is not to criticize. Resist that temptation to let loose and try to stick with the facts.
“Honey, I need help with the kids when you come home. I feel overwhelmed and need you to take them out of my hair for about an hour” Notice, I left out, “Is that asking too much?”
Make your request and then assume your partner will be responsive. If he is not, then try to get his perspective before flying off the handle. Try to stay as neutral as possible and state your need. The partner needs to resist the temptation to become defensive. Maybe pause, breathe, and focus on staying calm. Once calm, try a little negotiation.
“I’m happy to help but I need about 10 minutes just to unwind, change clothes and take a breath. Does that work for you? I promise I’ll get to it and get the kids out of your way.”
Notice that this response is not critical. Both partners stay nice during the conflict. They still are emotional, frustration is felt, but they keep that frustration from escalating and turning into criticism. They focus on their needs and try to present them in a way that doesn’t cause defensiveness.
So next time a conflict arises, remember to stay nice. Keep yourself calm, present your request in terms of what you need. Have a little faith that your partner might respond and then negotiate.
Kim and Jack have worked together now for the past five years. Sometimes, in a joke, Jack refers to her as his “work wife.” They spend most of their day together, work on projects and go to lunch everyday. They know each other very well and lately have shared intimate talk about their marriages. Even they admit, they are probably closer to each other than their spouses.
In fact, last weekend, at a work barbecue, Kim talked to Jack’s wife about their kids. Jack’s wife was a little taken aback that Kim knew such intimate details of their family life. She confronted Jack on the closeness.
When Jack and his wife came for marital therapy, Jack was very defensive, insisting he had not betrayed his wife and she was making a big deal over nothing, that is…until I asked this question.
Is there anything you are telling Kim, or doing with Kim, that would make your wife uncomfortable to watch or know?
Jack stopped. He knew there were moments with Kim that would make his wife uncomfortable. He kept those from her because the closeness was becoming dangerous in terms of an affair. The barbecue conversation brought this closeness out of secrecy.
Jack was having a nonsexual affair with Kim. Instead of turning to his wife for emotional support, Jack had his work wife, Kim.
How do you know when a relationship turns from friendship to a sexless affair? Ask yourself these questions:
1) Do you share your friend conversations with your intimate partner?
2) Have you tried to pull back from that friendship only to find it difficult?
3) Has your spouse asked you to pull back and you have not?
4) Do you fantasize what could be in the friend relationship when things are difficult with your partner?
If you answer YES to any of these questions, time to pull back from the friendship. The two of you have crossed the line and have created an intimacy that is hurting your marriage.
The last child has now left the nest. The house is quiet. You look at that person you’ve been married to for so many years and yet, he/she feels like a stranger. There isn’t much to talk about except to catch up on news of the kids.
You spend the night reading. He’s watching TV. You get up before him and are out the door. He sleeps in and misses you for breakfast. Suddenly you realize that your lives were all involved with the kids. As a couple, you’ve lost touch and no longer talk or do things together. You feel alone and begin to think about divorce.
This scenario speaks to the “Gray Divorce Revolution” we see that is on the rise by empty nesters. Many don’t see it coming because it isn’t prompted by some big fall out, explosive event or trauma. It creeps up in a couple’s relationship because they’ve become emotionally distant with one another. And emotional distance is a major predictor of divorce.
Through the years, raising children, it is easy to revolve your lives around the kids and ignore the warning signs of losing touch with one another. Family time and hobbies can fill the gap and child-rearing, friendships and elderly care can occupy time. When the kids are gone, the lack of connection stares you in the face. You’ve lost the romance and your relationship is built on roles of mother and father, not husband and wife.
So what can do–divorce? I hope not. Instead, it is time to reconnect and build that marital friendship once again.
One solution I read about was for a husband and wife to live apart and see each other often. Stay married, but create their own lives and see each other regularly. This is ridiculous. If you stay married, then work on the relationship and be all in and honor the covenant you made.
Talk about the sadness you may feel with the kids gone. Simply sharing your emotions can bring you closer together. Then learn about your partner’s inner world. What does he or she like to do? How can you do some of those things together? What kind of life would you like to build together? Share dreams, ideas about the future. Come up with new things to try–a cooking class, a new hobby or engage in things you used to find fun.
This is a time you can turn towards each other and build a satisfying relationship, but you have to approach it in a positive way. Instead of being empty without the kids, there is time for yourself, time to contribute in ministry and time to enjoy each other and be together. Something drew you to that person initially. See if you can find that again.
The key is to turn towards each other not away. To see your partner as a person to get to know on a more intimate basis now that you have the time and no distractions from daily parenting. This can be a good thing and doesn’t have to result in Gray Divorce and giving up on that person you once thought you loved.
Faith Radio and I talked this week about disagreements and arguments. What are the secrets to keeping things calm and actually coming up with solutions. Listen to the 20 minute interview. Click here.