Addressing underlying issues instead of bickering solves conflicts

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Marty and Sue always seem to be at odds. Usually it’s over small stuff like taking out the trash.

Sue feels that she has to nag Marty to get him to do anything around the house. For his part, Marty feels resentful that his wife is frequently treating him like a child — telling him what to do and when to do it.

Their constant friction has slowly ground down their good feelings, leaving them both feeling frustrated and lonely.

Sue’s aware that her nagging antagonizes her husband. But she feels that it’s grossly unfair that she has to do all of the household chores when they both work full time. She’s tried not saying anything, but her anger builds until she finally blows up.

Marty is frustrated because he feels Sue’s very demanding and is far too critical of him. He tries to avoid her in an attempt to lessen the conflict; however, that seems to infuriate her even more. Marty’s under a lot of pressure at work these days, and he’s outraged at Sue’s lack of appreciation for all of the good things that he is doing to support the family.

Marty and Sue are typical of couples who bicker, but never really address the underlying issues. They eventually settle who’ll take out the trash, but the bad feelings linger, killing any loving connection. When the next conflict arises, they bring a whole bunch of stored-up negative emotions into the debate.

All couples have conflicts. The only difference is in how they handle them. Some couples try to avoid dealing with their differences, but that means they never resolve problems. If you don’t ever address issues, they become a cancer that gradually eats away your ability to meet one another’s needs.

On the other end of the continuum are couples who have raging battles in which horrible, hateful accusations are hurled at one another. The pain that’s inflicted by someone you love saying you are a bad person causes wounds that are very hard to heal.

When caught up in conflicts, couples often have trouble dealing with their emotions. Sometimes they try to suppress their feelings by sticking to rational arguments, other times they lose their cool completely.

The key is to learn to manage the multitude of emotions that accompany problems in a way that keeps your negative feelings from flooding you.

The best method for managing conflicts, according to Harvard University psychologist Dr. Daniel Shapiro, is to focus on the core concerns that accompany the problem at hand.

There are five core concerns that Shapiro’s research has identified that can be addressed in order to shift emotions from negative to positive, which in turn produces a more productive dialogue.

Appreciation is the most important core concern to keep in mind when dealing with a disagreement.

The underlying issue in many conflicts is a person’s desire to be valued and have their point of view understood. Disputes can usually be resolved by expressing a genuine interest in learning what’s important to one another and showing a willingness to meet each other’s needs.

Ask “what would it look like if this worked out well for you?”

Affiliation is the second core issue that can be addressed to prevent problems from escalating.

Instead of a “me against you” attitude that creates antagonism, affiliation is reflected in “we” statements. Break the tension by saying “we can work together to figure out a solution that’s mutually satisfying.”

Status is a core issue that can be negative or positive. If you typically think that you’re most knowledgeable and should have the final say, you’ll often get into trouble. On the other hand, if you ask the other person for their opinion first, you’re showing respect and will likely have the favor returned.

Autonomy — feeling that you were a part of the decision-making process — is another core issue.

Couples become resistant and resentful if they don’t feel they have any input into issues that affect them. Tell your partner what you want, and then ask “what are your thoughts about that proposal?”

Role identification is the final core issue, as in “What approach will resolve this situation in a loving way?”

You may be the boss at work, but assuming that role with your spouse will be a disaster. Useful roles for couples include best friend, biggest fan, sympathetic listener, and business partner.

Ask, “What have I done in the past that’s helped us to find a mutually satisfying solution?”