It’s a matter of time before your partner upsets you. They won’t meet your needs, they’ll be insensitive, they’ll have annoying habits, and the list goes on and on. In addition, it’s a matter of time before you upset them for the same reasons. Therefore, learning what to do with negative feelings toward your spouse is imperative. Usually, there are two options. First, you can say nothing. However, if their upsetting behavior is significant, not saying anything will make you withdraw emotionally and physically, or you’ll become passive-aggressive by making rude or sarcastic remarks. Second, you can verbally assault them with criticism. However, that approach leads to them getting defensive and counter attacking. Also, criticism won’t motivate them to change, because they are too busy defending and counter attacking. It’s obvious we need a third approach to conflict resolution in marriage, and it’s called the reunite tool. The reunite tool is designed to help you constructively make a complaint in a way that will maximize your partner hearing your concerns and feel motivated to change. Marriage expert John Gottman points out the first few minutes of a conversation often dictate the rest of the conversation, underscoring the importance of de-flooding first before using the reunite tool.
Flooded means your heart rate is elevated, and you are in fight or flight. Some of us flare up and become verbally aggressive (fight), and others of us shut down and retreat (flight). Both are counterproductive. Usually, one spouse gets into fight mode and the other gets into flight mode, which creates a vicious cycle. The more the fighting spouse pursues, the more the flighting spouse retreats. The more the flighting spouse retreats, the more the fighting spouse pursues. Having a conversation when flooded makes everything worse because couples make harsh comments that are later regretted.
Instead, couples need to take a break to de-flood before continuing the conversation. Some common symptoms to know you’re flooded include increased heart rate, tingling, flush with heat, difficulty concentrating, sweaty palms, etc. It’s important to tune into your body for your signals so you can tell when you are flooded. It’s also important to tune into your partner’s signals. If either of you get flooded, say “flooded,” then take a break to relax before continuing the conversation. The break to de-flood should be no less than twenty minutes and no longer than twenty-four hours. How long you need to de-flood will vary depending on the intensity of the topic and your flooding pattern.
Not going over twenty-four hours before continuing the conversation is important so de-flooding doesn’t turn into an excuse to avoid the topic. The break shouldn’t be under twenty minutes because it usually takes at least that long to de-flood. During the de-flood time, intentionally do whatever will lower your heart rate, such as taking a nap, being in nature, listening to music, reading a book, etc. Also, during the de-flood time, be thinking through the complainer steps in the reunite tool covered next.
Conflict Resolution in Marriage
The Reunite Tool: complainer steps
- Comment on their improvement
You need to begin with how your partner has improved in the behavior you’re upset about. If they haven’t improved with the specific behavior, zoom out and consider how their overall attitude has improved toward your concerns. If you still can’t find any improvement, you may skip this step, but the reunite tool goes much better if you begin with appreciation and praise on how they have improved in the behavior you want to complain about. For example, I was working with a couple who had been married for ten years and were both in their late fifties. The husband had hurt his wife’s feelings because he seemed indifferent toward spending time with her. However, he had been getting better at it over the past several months, but the last week, he seemed to regress, which hurt her feelings. So, she would begin by saying, “I want to start off by acknowledging how much you have gotten better at expressing interest in spending time with me. I’ve really appreciated your effort and I have noticed it.”
- Comment on how they may be innocent
The next step is giving them the benefit of the doubt. You may be assuming the worst in their motives and thinking they tried to hurt you purposely, which is very unlikely. Therefore, you must pause and consider all the ways they may be innocent. This doesn’t mean they were completely innocent for their hurtful behavior, but it does mean they probably didn’t do it with malicious intent to hurt you. Look at their circumstances and upbringing to discern what may have contributed to their hurtful behavior. So, to continue with the example above, the wife could say, “I know this past week you’ve been consumed with the golf tournament and your brother coming into town and I know quality time wasn’t a value you were raised with.”
- Own your part
The first thing to consider is did you do anything that may have influenced your partner’s hurtful behavior. For example, perhaps it hurt your feelings that your partner avoided conversation but it’s partially because you have a tendency to be long-winded. Also, when we get upset with our partner, it usually says something about us. A great question to always ask yourself is “What does it say about me that I’m upset with them about that?” You may have a sensitivity toward your partner’s behavior because it rubs up against a value from your past. For example, if you have a value of feeling heard because growing up you felt heard frequently, you may get particularly upset when you don’t feel heard in your marriage because it rubs up against that value. Also, you may have a sensitivity toward your partner’s behavior because it rubs up against an emotional wound from your past. With the couple mentioned previously where the husband didn’t spend enough time with his wife, her dad never made time for her growing up, which created an emotional wound. Therefore, when her husband seems indifferent toward spending time with her, it activates that emotional wound from her upbringing, which intensifies her reaction. To clarify, even though it’s activating her previous wound, that doesn’t mean her husband hasn’t done anything wrong. It just means her reaction toward his behavior is probably stronger than it would be if she didn’t have that emotional wound. Therefore, she could say something like “I know my dad never spending time with me growing up is a wound, and it can intensify my reaction to you not spending time with me.”
- Say your complaint
Now that you’ve covered steps one through three, you’re ready to say your complaint. If you skip these steps and start out with a complaint, you can guarantee your partner will become defensive and comment on how they have gotten better, how it wasn’t their fault, and how it was actually your fault. Therefore, if you begin with those three items first, it will make them feel validated, which will optimize their receptivity to your complaint. Now, there are a few guidelines for making the complaint. First, you’re not allowed to say “you,” because it’s accusatory, and you can’t say “always or never,” because they are generalizations. Not being allowed to say “you” in a complaint can be tricky and may need some extra practice. For example, instead of saying “You never listen to me,” you could say, “I rarely feel listened to.” Or instead of saying “You never pick up after yourself,” you could say, “Things are left out frequently.” Also, the moment you say always or never, your partner will think back to the exact moment when what you’re saying wasn’t true.
Next, you must identify your tender underbelly under the anger. Anger is almost always a secondary emotion, and underneath it is something tender, such as hurt, sad, lonely, insecure, scared, etc. If you express anger, your spouse will feel attacked and become defensive, but if you express your tender underbelly, it will make them feel more empathetic. Last, identify what core need is getting stirred up for you under this conflict in your marriage. As mentioned previously, core needs can include wanting to feel heard, supported, connected, adored, prioritized, respected, etc. So, a complaint for the woman in our steps above could be, “This past week, I felt sad and lonely because spending time with me didn’t feel like a priority, and it tapped into my core needs of wanting to feel connected and prioritized.”
To put it all together, the woman in the example above could say, “I want to start off by acknowledging how much you have gotten better at expressing interest in spending time with me. I’ve really appreciated your effort, and I have noticed it. I know this past week you’ve been consumed with the golf tournament and your brother coming into town and I know quality time wasn’t a value you were raised with. I also know my dad never spending time with me growing up is an emotional wound and can intensify my reaction to not feeling prioritized. But this past week I felt sad and lonely because spending time with me didn’t feel like a priority, and it tapped into my core needs of wanting to feel connected and prioritized.”
The complainer steps provide a constructive way to express your complaint, while maximizing the chances of your partner hearing you and feeling motivated to change. Now, this doesn’t mean you should start making daily complaints, because then you will appear hypercritical and like nothing is ever good enough. However, one to two complaints per week using the complainer steps is reasonable.
The Reunite Tool: listener steps
- 50 percent rule
The first thing to do once your partner is done with their complaint is summarize what you heard to be sure you understood it correctly. If you don’t have the complaint correct, the rest of the steps on how to respond well won’t be effective. So, the husband in the previous example would summarize the complaint by saying “Overall you felt sad and lonely last week because you didn’t feel like I made you a priority and that tapped into your need to feel connected and prioritized, is that right?” Next, spend time reflecting on the 50 percent rule. The 50 percent rule says you probably can’t take 100 percent ownership for your partner’s complaint because they may be projecting some of their issues onto you plus you probably had some valid reasons for your behavior that wasn’t your fault. However, you probably also can’t take zero responsibility for their complaint. Therefore, you’re searching for the 50 percent, give or take, you can take ownership for.
Once you’ve identified the kernel of truth in the complaint you can own without excuses, begin by making an ownership statement that starts with “I own that I ……” So, the husband who didn’t prioritize time with his wife could say “I own that I’ve had a tendency to not prioritize quality time together and I own that I could have checked in with you more last week.” Watch out for the temptation to add the reasons for your behavior you’re owning. Doing so will sound defensive and water down the power of your ownership. There’s something extremely healing to hear your partner say what they own without excuses. This is also your opportunity to become refined as discussed in Marriage Step #1. Your partner’s complaint is probably highlighting a blind spot or growth area for you that if addressed, could make you into a better person and partner.
Next, provide empathy on how the part you’re owning probably made your partner feel. A great empathy statement is “I can see how my behavior of ____ would have made you feel ____.” As a recap, empathy is seeing the situation from your partner’s perspective. You may personally disagree with how your behavior made your partner feel, but you must consider the emotional wounds and values from their upbringing, their temperament, insecurities, stressors, current values, and marital needs. When considering all those variables, you’ll begin to see how your behavior made them feel a certain way, and that’s where true empathy comes from. Responding with empathy is like rubbing salve on their emotional wound. If you get defensive, it’s like throwing salt in it. So, the husband in the previous example could say “I can see how me not prioritizing our quality time and not checking in with you last week would have made you feel sad and lonely.”
After you’ve provided ownership and empathy, it’s time to make an apology. The apology is only on the kernel of truth in the complaint you’re owning so that it’s sincere. It can be hard to forgive your partner until you hear them say they are sorry. However, it can be hard to make an apology for something you don’t feel like you did. Therefore, it’s important to only focus on the part of their complaint you’re fully owning and that’s what you apologize for. So, the husband in the above example could say “I’m sorry that I’ve had a tendency to not prioritize our quality time and I’m sorry I didn’t check in with you more last week.”
- Make amends
Now that you’ve taken ownership for your part, provided empathy, and given an apology, it’s time to make amends. Making amends is where you suggest what you could do to make your partner feel better. The goal is to provide emotionally corrective experiences to help your partner heal from your hurtful behavior. So, the husband in the example we’ve been using could say “How about I stop work early tomorrow and plan a special evening for us together, how would that be?” You also want to ask your partner if they have any other suggestions they would prefer. So, the husband would end with “What else would you like for me to do?”
To put it all together it would sound like this, “Your complaint is I hurt your feelings last week by not spending enough time with you and it made you sad and lonely and tapped into your core needs of wanting to feel prioritized and connected. Is that right?” (She says yes then he takes a few moments or longer to reflect on the 50 percent rule to discern what part of the complaint he can own). Then he says “I own that I’ve tended to not prioritize quality time in our relationship and I own that I could have checked in with you more last week. I can see how my behavior of not prioritizing quality time and not checking in with you would have made you feel sad and lonely. I’m sorry I’ve had a tendency to not prioritize quality time and I’m sorry for not checking in with you last week. How about I end work early tomorrow and plan a special evening for us? How would that be? What else would you like me to do?”
Once you have finished the listener steps, if you have a complaint to make in response do it using the complainer steps while your partner responds with the listener steps. Keep doing this back and forth until you both are finished. If either of you become flooded at any time during the steps take a break to relax then come back when you both are calm and ready to continue.
Leave a comment below on how this approach could transform conflict resolution in marriage.