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strategies for couples

Couples across America are currently confined to close quarters around the clock, and many are experiencing a surge of relationship stress. Health concerns, financial harm, and isolation from others are a potential recipe for marital disaster. Spouses need to be aware of ways to reduce conflict and support their relationship during these unprecedented times.

As professional divorce mediators, we understand that addressing tension early on can help prevent, process, and resolve spikes in marital conflict. The following practical approaches will help reduce conflict and potentially save your marriage.

Soft starts vs. harsh starts

According to Dr. John Gottman’s groundbreaking research — 94% of the time — how a discussion starts determines how it will end. Starting a conversation harshly makes it almost impossible for it to end well. When “harsh starts” become the norm, they create marital dynamics defined by criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — four proven predictors of divorce.

One spouse may abruptly say to the other, “You never take out the trash! Could you for once do something for me instead of only ever thinking about yourself?”

Instead, approach softly: “Hey, I know you’re tired, but I would really appreciate you taking out the trash. We agreed trash duty was all you.”

Harsh starts blame the other person. They are aggressive and usually start with the word “you” rather than “I.” Watch out for slinging extreme words like “always” and “never.” Most importantly, harsh starts make the other person feel attacked. When your spouse feels attacked, they will most likely become defensive.

Soft starts make a complaint, but protects your spouse from feeling attacked. Say the facts instead of injecting negative emotions and exaggerations. Describe how you genuinely feel and be specific in saying what you want. Be kind when expressing your needs, even when you are frustrated. Saying “please” or “I appreciate” can soften how your spouse hears you, and makes it more likely that they listen.

Make repair attempts

Disagreements are a natural part of relationships. For couples in quarantine, it is important to have a mutual willingness to repair the harm caused by an argument as soon as possible. Gottman describes a repair attempt as, “any statement or action — silly or otherwise — that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”

During an argument, one or both spouses may say things they don’t mean, and each storm off to different parts of the house. Time is of the essence for one of you to make a repair attempt, and the other to accept the repair attempt in order to recover from the argument and return to normalcy.

For minor arguments, you could use humor to repair. A simple apology might also work. Even a gentle touch or hug could calm the situation. Letting your spouse know that you understand their perspective can be successful too. Here’s the kicker: your spouse needs to accept your repair attempt for the repair to work. It always takes two.

For major arguments, you will need to clearly — no “but’s” about it — take responsibility for your behavior. Apologize sincerely. You might handwrite a note. Share that you love them, how much they mean to you, and that you didn’t mean to cause pain. Ask what they need from you to move forward.

Attack the disagreement, not each other

Disagreements between spouses given the ever changing pandemic conditions can be fast and furious. These disagreements may be related to finances, home schooling, social distancing, consumption of resources, and other issues.

Here’s a strategy to productively solve a conflict:

  • Working together, define the disagreement
  • Write the problem down
  • Put the disagreement on the kitchen table
  • Sit next to each other
  • Play a problem-solving game and attack the problem
  • When you both say “yes” to a proposed solution – you both win.

The winning plan of action is to find a compromise that gives your spouse enough of what is important to them, while also giving you enough of what is important to you.

Some key approaches:

  • Don’t attack the other person’s character or motivations. This only serves to repel you both further away from reaching an agreement.
  • Make proposals for how to solve the problem, instead of demands. Your partner prefers to be asked if they are willing to do something, rather than being told to do something.

Maintaining healthy communication can be challenging even under the best circumstances. Shelter-in-place can exacerbate problems in already troubled relationships. If conflict becomes intense, you can go outside, take a walk, and try to keep conflict low.

If all else fails, try to remember this: put on your gloves when you leave the house, but take them off when you come home.

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