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
The first thing to do is a pre-step and this tells your partner what they are doing wrong without saying "you, always, or never" and it's only 8-10 words. This helps them know what the rest of the complainer steps are about. Here are some examples, "This is about my opinion being overridden with parenting. This is about my need for physical intimacy being judged and dismissed. This is about me being interrupted frequently during conversation. This is about me doing more than my share of house chores."
You need to begin with how your partner has improved on the behavior you want to complain about. Consider how they have made progress in the last 6-12 months. Perhaps they've made some behavioral changes or they're more open to your feedback on the topic. If you can’t find any improvement, you may skip this step, but the reunite tool goes much better if you begin with appreciation because a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down. 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, “Thank you for improving by expressing interest in spending time with me. I’ve really appreciated your effort and I have noticed it."
2. Benefit of the doubt.
The next step is giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Most of the time our partner's hurtful behavior is more about mindlessness than malice. You may be assuming the worst in their motives and thinking they tried to hurt you purposely, which is 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 upbringing first and consider what they went through in their past that may have contributed to the development of their hurtful behavior, then ask if you're correct. "It makes sense that quality time in our relationship wouldn't be a top priority because it wasn't prioritized in your family growing up. Is that right? Anything else from your past?" Second, look at how their circumstances may have contributed to their hurtful behavior. "It makes sense with your brother being in town recently that quality time for us would have been more difficult. Is that right? Anything else from your circumstances?" It's helpful to ask if you're right and if there is anything else so your partner can speak into your comments to confirm or modify them.
The first thing to consider is what you did that may have contributed to your partner's hurtful behavior. For example, perhaps it hurt your feelings that your partner avoids quality time together but it’s partially because you have a tendency to be long-winded when you're together. If that's the case, you would say "I acknowledge that I have a tendency to be long-winded and I can see how that would demotivate you to spend quality time with me. Is that right? What else do I do?" Next, think about how your partner's hurtful behavior may be violating a value or tapping into a wound from your past. For example, perhaps you have a value from your past of feeling highly prioritized. If so, that may intensify your reaction to your partner not prioritizing you. Alternatively, you may have a wound growing up of never feeling prioritized. If so, that may intensify your reaction to your partner not prioritizing you. "I'm also bringing a sensitivity to this topic because I didn't feel prioritized by my family growing up." To clarify, even though your partner's behavior may be activating something from your past, it doesn't mean they've done nothing wrong. It just means your reaction to their behavior is probably stronger because of your past.
Now that you’ve covered steps one through three, you’re ready to say your complaint. If you skip these steps and start with the complaint, you can guarantee your partner will become defensive by saying how they have gotten better, how it wasn't their fault, and how it's actually your fault. Therefore, if you begin with these three items first, it will lower their defense walls and increase 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. The format to follow is "There's been a pattern of ___ and it makes me feel ___ and it taps into my core need for ___. Some common core needs in marriage conflict include wanting to feel heard, supported, connected, wanted, respected, etc. So, a complaint for the woman in our steps above could be, “There's been a pattern of me not feeling prioritized, and it makes me feel sad and lonely, and it taps into my core need to feel close and prioritized."
The Reunite Tool: listener steps
The first thing to do once your partner is done with their complaint is summarize what you heard them say to ensure you heard it correctly. You are only summarizing the complaint. This allows your partner to know you heard them and it gives them a chance to edit their complaint if needed. The husband in the previous example would summarize the complaint by saying “So you feel there's a pattern of me not prioritizing you, and it makes you feel sad and lonely, and it taps into your core need to feel close and prioritized. Is that right?" Next, spend time reflecting on the 50 percent rule. The 50 percent rule says you are not responsible for the entire complaint because of everything your partner already acknowledged about your past, your circumstances, their part, and their past. However, you probably also can't say you're zero percent to blame. Therefore, you're listening for the part of the complaint you know you're guilty of. Sometimes it may be 10%, other times 50%, and other times 90%. You're in control of that process and that decision. Once you've latched onto the piece you know you're guilty of without any excuses move onto number two.
“I own that I have a tendency to……” So, the husband who didn’t prioritize time with his wife could say “I own that I have a tendency to not prioritize quality time together.” 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. It's extremely healing to hear your partner say what they own without any excuses. This is also your opportunity to become refined. 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. Take advantage of it! Also, allow for a moment of silence after this step and after the next two to allow your powerful words to sink in. Similar to a rest note in piano music, allowing for a moment of silence will increase the impact of your words.
Next, provide empathy on how the part you’re owning made your partner feel. The phrase to use is "I can see how my tendency to ____ would make you feel ____." 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 how your partner is wired. 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 my tendency to not prioritize you would make you feel sad and lonely."
Now it’s time to make an apology. Making an apology is important because most people can't move on until they hear one. However, the apology is only on the part you're owning so it's sincere. The phrase to use is "I'm sorry for how my tendency to ____ makes you feel ____." So, the husband in the above example could say “I’m sorry that my tendency to not prioritize you makes you feel sad and lonely."
5. 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 different moving forward about the part you're owning. The best way to say sorry is changed behavior. However, it's important to only suggest ideas that would also work for you so it's sustainable. You also want to ask your partner what they would appreciate. The phrase to use is "Moving forward how about I ___. What do you think? What else would you appreciate?" So, the husband in the example above could say “Moving forward how about I stop working on Fridays around 4 pm so we can have a weekly date. What do you think? What else would you appreciate?"
Here's a chart to follow when using the reunite tool to ensure both you and your partner stay on track.
Pre-step- Say what they are doing wrong without saying "you, always, or never" in 8-10 words. Here's an example "This is about my need for emotional intimacy being dismissed." When you're ready, use this phrase “This is about ____.”
Compliment them on any progress they’ve made within the past 6-12 months on the behavior you want to complain about. “Thank you for improving by ____”
2-Benefit of the doubt.
A- Comment on how their past may have influenced their difficult behavior. “It makes sense that ____” Ask if you’re right and what else from their past may have contributed.
B- Comment on how their circumstances may have influenced their difficult behavior. “It makes sense that ____” Ask if you’re right and what else about their circumstances may have contributed.
A- Comment on how your behavior may have influenced their difficult behavior. “I acknowledge that I’ve ____” Ask if you’re right and how else have you contributed.
B- Comment on how their difficult behavior may be tapping into a wound or violating a value from your past. “I’m also bringing a sensitivity to this topic because it taps into ____”
“There’s been a pattern of ____, it makes me feel ____, and it taps into my core need for ____” (Can’t say you, always, or never)
A- Summarize their complaint “So you feel there’s been a pattern of ___ and it makes you feel ___ and it taps into your core need for ____, is that right?”
B- Apply the 50% rule by thinking about what part of the complaint you’re guilty of.
“I own I have a tendency to ____” (allow for a moment of silence so it feels more genuine)
“I can see how my tendency to ____ would make you feel ____” (allow for a moment of silence so it feels more genuine)
“I’m sorry for how my tendency to ____ makes you feel ____” (allow for a moment of silence so it feels more genuine)
Think about changes you can make moving forward on the part you’re owning that would also work for you. “Moving forward, how about I ____, what do you think? What else would you appreciate?”
If you both have resentment on the same topic go through the Reunite Tool twice by switching roles.
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Leave your questions below on the reunite tool for better conflict resolution in marriage.