Every relationship has its share of arguments- money, in-laws, parties, concerts, playstation versus X-Box (that is not just a marriage buster but a family buster). The list goes on. Most of us never actually listen to what the other person is saying; we just wait to respond or more accurately, let them have a few words of their response and attack. Some of us don’t even actually listen to what we are saying ourselves. How do we expect to resolve anything if we are listening to only half of the conversation at best?
Arguments rarely resolve anything
They result in hurt feelings, resentments, and, in some form or another, a person we love being bullied into agreeing to something they don’t want or like.
We know the process doesn’t work, but we continue to have many of the same arguments over and over or new arguments in the same old style. We do this out of habit. We do this because it is familiar and comfortable. We do this because we do not know any other way. This is how our parents resolved disagreements. This is how we have resolved disagreements all our lives. For some of us, this results in us getting our way most of the time and for the others, it results in frustration and pain or a determination to win the next argument at any cost even if it is just about which show we watch live and which show watch on the DVR later.
Arguing and shouting usually just results in upsetting the household and possibly the neighbors. Arguments, most of the time, are when we let our inner child out to “play”. As Dave Ramsey says, “Children do what feels good. Adults devise a plan and stick to it.” Maybe it’s time we act like adults when we have disagreements.
Some people try to have discussions. This is better. If all parties involved are following the rules usually taught in premarital counseling, this means one person talks while the other actually listens and summarizes what they have heard from time to time. Neither party tries to anticipate what the other will say or how they will react. We do not engage in making baseless accusations and we compromise. The problem with this is that the more personally invested in an issue we are, the more quickly discussions degenerate into arguments.
So how can you discuss contentious subjects and still get somewhere?
You write it out. I use this personally as well as with my clients. This plan has a 100% success rate so far, each time it’s used. Admittedly, most clients do it once or twice and then revert back to old habits. I had one couple who managed it once a week. Want to guess which couple made the most progress?
The idea behind writing it out is multi-faceted. The first being, you think about what you want to say. When you write things down, you become both concise and precise. Ambiguousness tends to go away and you pay attention to what you are saying. The next idea is that in order to respond you have to read what is said by the other person or persons. Another great thing about this is that accountability is built in. Your words and your handwriting are there for all to see. No more “I didn’t say that” or “I don’t remember saying that.” And of course, by writing it out this gives you time process emotional responses and generally be more rational. It is amazing how different things look when we see them in writing and it is amazing how careful we are about what we agree to or promise when we are writing it down.
There are some simple rules for this process
1. Use a spiral notebook or pad of paper
This way the discussions stays in order and together. If necessary text or email can be done if you are apart when these discussions need to happen but pen and paper is best.
2. Distractions are minimized
Cell Phones are off or silenced and put away. Kids will almost always need something but they should be told to try not to interrupt if possible. Depending on the age and needs of the children involved you can determine when to schedule a discussion. However, just because your youngest is 15 doesn’t mean you will have a successful discussion anytime you try. If he has the stomach flu and is spewing like a fire hydrant from both ends, that is an “all-hands-on-deck” situation and a discussion will not be happening that night most likely. Pick your moments.
3. Label each discussion and stick to the topic
If we are having a discussion about the budget, comments about the pot roast being dryer than the Sahara or how controlling and/or interfering your spouse’s mother is, have no bearing on the discussion and do not belong (the Good Eats books by Alton Brown can help with the former and Boundaries by Drs. Cloud and Townsend can help with the latter), no matter how true they may be. Also, discussions about whether your child is going on the senior trip to Cancun do not belong here in a budget discussion. What belongs in a budget discussion is whether or not you can afford to send the child. A new discussion can be had about whether they go or not can be started after you finish the budget discussion and determine if you can afford to send them.
4. Each person uses a different color ink
I know some of you are thinking, “that’s ridiculous.” Experience has taught me this is important. A) it allows you to search one person’s comments for something rather quickly and B) these discussions can still get pretty lively and you would be amazed at how similar your handwriting can look when you are so…animated.
5. Discussions should go no longer than an hour
Unless a decision has to be reached that night, you table the discussion and pick it up at another time. You do not try to talk to your spouse about the issue outside the written discussion.
6. Breaks can be called
Sometimes, you get too emotionally involved and need a minute or two to cool off. So, you take a bathroom break. Get a drink. Make sure the kids are where they should be, et cetera. Maybe someone needs to go do some research to bring back to the discussion. Breaks should be no more than 10 to 15 minutes. And no that doesn’t count toward the hour.
7. Plan ahead
If you know a budget crunch will be coming, the time to talk about it and plan for it is well before hand, not when bills start coming due. Family trips are best planned at least 2 months before hand. Kids turning 16 and driving school, cars and car insurance are not unexpected events but most families treat them as if they are. Be as proactive as possible in your planning for discussions.
8. Money fights are dangerous to relationships
Depending on the studies you read, money and money fights are the number one or number two reason cited for divorce. Developing a budget (cash flow plan, or spending plan are often more acceptable terms for budget) can reduce or even eliminate these fights. A budget is not for controlling someone else with money. A budget is how people determine to spend their money. Once you agree upon goals how to move money through the budget becomes more academic than emotional.
There may be other rules you need to include. Other rules made for specific couples or families have included: creative thinking and problem solving must be tried, no repeating the same thing over and over, and everyone needs to be open to try doing things a different way. Being flexible and open to compromise is always a good when trying to successfully resolve a situation. The new solution may not work perfectly and will probably require a little tweaking. We don’t just give up on the new way and revert back to the old way which wasn’t working either, but is just more comfortable.
Remember that situations are fluid. Your children may be 4 and 6 now but in a few years, they will be able to help out with a multitude of chores. Start teaching them about sorting laundry now. There’s a time saver. As they get older, they will understand more and more about laundry and eventually will be able to do their own. Same with house cleaning. Yard work. Washing dishes. Cooking. Ever watch Masterchef Junior? My next article will be about the importance of kids contributing to the household with chores and…not being paid for it.
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.