This month I'd like to share a few simple strategies that have work for me and my husband in our 34-year marriage…
Getting married is the most remarkable, significant, meaningful commitment most human beings ever make. Many young people dream of their wedding day their whole lives. That's very troubling to me as a marriage counselor. The wedding is a very expensive, beautiful, heartwarming, and nerve-wracking day...but it's only an event. If couples put as much time preparing for their marriage as they do their five- to eight-hour event, the divorce statistics would be immensely reduced. The wedding is a wonderful event, but the marriage is a challenging lifelong journey.
My husband, Jim, and I will celebrate 35 years of marriage on July 4th of this year. Our marriage is far from perfect and we do not have it all together. Come out to dinner with us sometime and you'll see for yourselves and probably have quite a few laughs in the process.
However, we do have a few effective strategies for making marriage work. They are a result of high ownership of the character flaws we each bring to the relationship. High ownership means truly accepting that which we do that hurts the relationship. Low ownership or no ownership occurs when we view our behaviors as reactions to you and your behavior.
The Power of Humor
The most powerful skill in our marital conflict toolbox is the ability to laugh at ourselves. << Click to Tweet
My husband has taught me a great deal about how humor lightens tense moments and how to laugh at myself. As a newlywed many years ago, I absolutely took myself too seriously. I hated being teased, but now I have become pretty good at it myself. One of the best things about humor is that it diffuses defensiveness. When I'm laughing at myself it's pretty difficult to hold a grudge. If my husband is pointing out something about my character deficits and I am able to say, "Frankly, I resemble that!" then the argument is over and peace is restored.
Sometimes we have one of those ridiculous miscommunications, one where we discover we're having an "Emily Litella" moment. Emily Litella was a hard-of-hearing fictional character invented by the late comedienne Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live. She would get into a frenzy over some controversial topic like "limiting violins on TV" for example, only to discover that the topic was actually ”limiting violence on TV.”
My husband and I do some of that at times. Just last night, my husband said that the character on a program we were watching had a British accent. I thought, Are you kidding me? He has as much of a British accent as I do. We are really losing it. I couldn't believe we were disagreeing about this. Anyway it turned out he meant the actor that plays the character is British. Ah yes, that was my Emily Litella moment. As Emily would say in these situations in her high squeaky voice, "Never mind."
Ways to De-escalate Conflict
Conflict is the result of people being autonomous adults, individuals with varying tastes, backgrounds, experiences, preferences, and hard wiring. If you do not experience any conflict in the relationship, maybe one of you is not necessary. Adults that have a developed sense of self will also have areas of differing opinions and needs and that is the nitty-gritty basis of all conflicts: Will you meet my needs? Will you respect my opinion?
The best strategy we have in conflict comes from the awareness that "there is no innocent party" and "it isn't always the other guy!" Consequently, knowing we each bring something to the dance of conflict, we can each take ownership of what we're bringing and back off! That's what my husband and I do now after 34 years of marriage. After approximately three sentences to three paragraphs of conversation that's going somewhere unsafe, we are able to redirect ourselves or just drop it...in the middle of a sentence sometimes. We have a spoken agreement that this is just not worth it and the importance of the topic is insignificant to the point that we won't remember it tomorrow.
Just now, before I started writing this, we got into an argument because we were discussing something important...something that we needed to be in one accord about; it had to do with financial matters and adult kids. The discussion turned into an emotional disagreement within 5-10 minutes. I was impatient and he was getting heated; we were both getting mad quickly.
In conflict, it may be necessary to take a break, own our personality issues, and start over. <<Click to Tweet
In this kind of high-ownership dynamic, no one gets to be superior or pull any kind of rank. It boils down to respectfully hearing each other out. Our conflict ended well, with no final decision, but a consensus that we needed to pray further about it. Being quick to forgive and making sure neither of us gets "touchy, fretful, or resentful" is essential. The ability to agree to disagree has taken us decades to master...literally!
The willingness to agree to disagree diverts all manner and type of ridiculous and important conflicts while the need to be right escalates conflict and destroys marital harmony. We've all been there…It's NEVER worth it!
The key is to stop conflict before it intensifies to an emotional/neural hijacking! An emotional/neural hijacking occurs when the thinking part of our brain (neocortex) is overtaken by the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) and an explosion of emotion takes place.
Once this happens, we are no different than our two-year-olds having a tantrum. Gone, baby, gone! Then the issue becomes damage control and the original conflict is left unsolved. That's how hot buttons are developed. Couples know that certain topics will turn into a heated exchange so they avoid those topics. Hot buttons and hot topics...a lengthy subject for another time.
Next month I'll talk about the maximizer/minimizer dynamic present in most marriages.
Susanne Ciancio, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Christian Counselor. She has been serving the Christian community as a professional Christian counselor in Essex county and the surrounding area since 1986. Beyond her private practice in West Orange, NJ she is involved in teaching, consulting, and pastoral supervision in various churches in the area. Click here for Susanne's website.
EDITORS NOTE: While Susanne can’t answer specific counseling-related questions, she welcomes your thoughts, comments, and suggestions about what kinds of topics you’d like to see addressed here at Circles of Faith.Click here to contact us.