We are sure to disagree with our spouses often, be it about the way they do or don’t do things, the words they use or don’t use, or their decisions and expectations. Consequently we may feel angry, upset, irritated or hurt. And often our first reaction is to retaliate in kind. You shout, I shout louder; you call names, I call worse names; you ignore, I ignore and give you the silent treatment! Even with the best intentions of wanting to be the kind, sensitive spouse we end up in a situation of conflict – becoming the exact opposite. And the casualties are our own health, our marriage, our children and even our work and colleagues.
We often begin to fear conflicts and see them as evil. But conflicts are a sign that there are two unique and thinking individuals in the relationship. However, it is the way conflicts are handled that can bring about either distress or intimacy. Conflicts can lead to intimacy and health in our relationships only if we stop retaliating and stretch out a hand of reconciliation.
When you have been disappointed, let down, hurt or offended, your first response may be retaliation because it is a way of self-protection, a reaction of our ego or pride, our desire to win the battle here and now. So we deliver killing blows through words and looks, and enjoy the harm our blows have caused even if for a moment. “You hated your Dad! Well, congrats, you are just like him” or “you will never come close to my mother – she managed our home and us kids singlehandedly and you complain with nothing to do”.
Retaliation does have its benefits and kicks but building a healthier marriage is not one of them. Rather, it destroys the very fabric of respect, trust and intimacy, and replaces it with bitterness, hardness of heart and distance that is hard to diminish.
So what is the alternative? If you love your spouse and this marital relationship is important to you then you will have to rein in your instinct to go for the kill and instead be willing to extend a graceful hand of reconciliation.
Pathway to reconciliation
1. It begins with being willing to choose “us winning” over “I win, you lose”. Once your focus is changed from me to us, you will be willing to take the next step. The purpose of reconciliation is restoration of intimacy, respect and trust in your marriage.
2. The second step is to take the initiative to make peace. Do not wait for your spouse to come and say sorry or even start the conversation so you can apologize. Seize the initiative. Go, make the first move. It does not mean you are weak or helpless. Rather, it shows you’ve been courageous to make the first move. Don’t let pride stand in the way of resolution. Many couples have lived isolated lives under the same roof because both were too proud to make the first move. Pride is the downfall of a marriage.
“Ok, I am sorry. Let’s forget it and get on with life.” “Fine, I forgive you. Don’t do it again.” That kind of first move isn’t going to accomplish much. You are not here to say the final word or quickly swallow the bitter pill and head out but to be open and honest and have a loving dialogue that heals hurts and builds intimacy.
3. Therefore, the third step is to sympathize with your spouse’s feelings and seek to understand their perspective. You need not agree with their point of view, but it is important to understand and acknowledge it. This can be done by listening without interrupting with your point of view. Avoid trying to justify yourself. When it is your turn to speak, steer clear of: “You did this …”, “because of you …” and other such accusatory statements. Rephrase it with “I feel” statements: “I felt hurt when I heard myself being called …” “I felt angry when I was let down in front of my friends.”
4. Fourthly, take responsibility for your part in the conflict. In relationships, it is not usually “I am right” and “you are totally wrong”. If we are honest there will always be something we could have done better. Taking responsibility for your part in the conflict will set the other person free from the need to defend themselves and they too will be open to acknowledge their weaknesses. When discussing the issue, the golden rule is to “never attack the person”. You both are on the same team tackling the problem and winning the trophy of a stronger relationship. Name-calling and labelling can destroy your spouses’ self-esteem and her/his love for you.
5. Finally, your objective is not to resolve the issue but to reconcile with your spouse. This is not a meeting to find solutions, decide who did wrong and what needs to be corrected. It is an intimacy-building exercise to help you draw closer in spite of your differences. Solutions will always be found in a healthy and loving relationship, but rarely in one marred by turf wars and a need to be right.
When relationships are on the reconciliation journey, trust will be built, respect and love rediscovered, and intimacy ignited. When this happens, many issues that we fight constantly over will wilt away into insignificance. When our marriage is a safe place where we are accepted for who we are and loved in spite of our shortcomings, we will not lose sleep over the wet towel on the bed and the hair in the sink.
You and your spouse are worth giving up the temporary high of retaliation for the nurturing joy of reconciliation!
Published in the January 2015 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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