Healthy Marriage Habit #5: Caretaking in Conflict

Each day, in celebration of the release of my latest book, When Divorce Is Not An Option: How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love, I’ll look at one of the 8 habits that separates “marriage masters” from “marriage disasters.”  Last week, I summarized all 8 divorceoptionhabits and we’ve looked at the first four habits in greater detail already.   Today, I’ll describe the fifth habit, Caretaking in Conflict.  After a brief explanation, you’ll have a chance to take a quiz that can help you evaluate how healthy this habit is in your marriage.

Healthy Marriage Habit #5:  Caretaking in Conflict.Why is this Important?

            The most important thing in problem-solving is not, actually, solving the problem.  Rather, it’s how well you take care of each other as you work together to find solutions to the problem.  Think about it.  If you manage to find a solution to a particular challenge in your life or relationship, but walk away from your conversation with your spouse feeling demoralized, resentful, exhausted and out-of-synch, what good is it?  Solving problems is important, but how you solve those problems is even more important.

I shared earlier that couples in healthy marriages work to maintain a 20:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions  in their day-to-day relationship.  Subsequent research shows that these same couples exhibit 5 times as many positive exchanges as negative ones when they are dealing with problems together and even disagreeing with each other (Gottman, 1995).  You might ask, “What PLANET are these people on?”

The good news is that these happy couples have their feet planted firmly on planet earth and they are not that different from you.  Happy couples argue.  As I mentioned earlier, they argue just about as much as you do.  But they remember that to get through their arguments, they have to try hard to take care of each other in the argument and encourage each other toward solutions.  They do this in little ways.  With little glances, touches, and words that say, “Even though this is hard, I still love you”, praying together so that they check their own wills against God’s will, treading carefully around each other’s sore spots even when they are upset, trying hard to not pour fuel on the fire to make things worse than they need to be, and taking breaks to cool down–early and often.

This is not as crazy an idea as it seems.  In any high-stress environment, taking care of your partner is job #1.  A fireman might run into a burning building to save a baby, but his first job is making sure that his partner can make it back out alive.  A police officer might be charged with apprehending a dangerous and armed criminal, but her first job is watching her partner’s back so they both make it through in one piece.  A soldier might need to claim that hill from the enemy, but his first job is making sure that his comrades stick together.  The second any one of these professional, high-conflict, problem-solvers lose sight of this, their risk of failure and death escalates exponentially.  As American founding father, Patrick Henry, memorably put it, “United, we stand.  Divided, we fall.”  He might as well have been talking about marriage.    High stress situations call for a high level of commitment to partnership above all.   Healthy husbands and wives know this and they work hard to take care of each other no matter what the problem.  Unlike the fireman, the police officer, and the soldier, your house isn’t literally burning down and no one is shooting at you. Your life isn’t on the line (and if it is, put down this book and call 911).  If they can learn to take care of each other when the heat is on, you can too.  In challenging you to learn to take care of your partner in conflict, I am not asking you to learn a marriage skill so much as I am challenging you to develop if healthy life skill.

Dr. Daniel Seigel (2013) notes that people who are good at problem-solving tend to be kinder than people who are not good at problem-solving.  He notes that kindness–which happens to be one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22)–is more than simply being nice to one another, it is  actually a sign that our brain is working properly and able to focus on solutions.   The somewhat jarring conclusion we must draw from this is that anger is not the sign that our Solution-Friendly Brain has turned off.  Rather, unkindness is!   Think of how that changes your perspective on the way you and your spouse communicate.   My clients often struggle with the idea of being kind to their spouse when in conflict.  They often feel that their spouse doesn’t deserve it. However, when we view kindness, not as a gift we give to the other person but as a sign of our own integration, it becomes easier to see why kindness is essential in arguing and how kindness makes finding mutually-satisfying solutions possible.

This is probably the skill that most couples in difficult marriages lack.  Many people were not raised in homes that modeled this kind of problem-solving. No matter.  You can learn it.  In fact, you must if you wish to be happy in any area of your life, not just marriage.  For the Christian this is even more true, because our ability to be kind to others is, in large part, the measure by which we will be judged (Matt 25:31-46).

Take the QUIZ!

Answer the following questions.

T  F  1.  My spouse and I actively try to appreciate and know about each other’s hobbies and interests, even if we, personally, don’t enjoy those things.

T  F  2.  My spouse and I genuinely respect and value each other’s skills and areas of expertise.

T  F  3.  If my spouse knows more about something than I do, I am interested and willing to learn from him/her.

T  F  4.  If my spouse is more skilled at something than I am, I am willing to defer to his/her expertise.

T  F  5.  If my spouse tells me that I offended him/her,   I am good at quickly apologizing and correcting the offense even if I didn’t mean to offend him/her.

T  F   6.  I am interested in listening to and learning from my spouse’s opinion especially when it is different from my own.

T  F   7.  When my spouse is upset, I don’t try to tell him/her that (s)he shouldn’t feel that way.

T  F   8.  My spouse and I are usually good at taking to heart each other’s corrections & suggestions.

T  F   9.  I can learn a lot from my spouse about being a loving person.

T  F  10. When we have disagreements, I am interested in listening to  and learning from my spouse’s perspective on what needs to change.

Give yourself 1 point for each “T”

You scored ______ out of a possible 10 points.

A score of 8 or higher means that the degree of mutual respect is a real strength in your relationship.

A score of 4-7 means that your marriage would significantly improve by giving greater attention to increasing your ability to exhibit mutual respect in your marriage.

A score of 3 or lower indicates that this is a critical area for improvement in your relationship.

How’d you do?  Even if you feel like your marriage is, in general, in good shape, if you’d like to strengthen your ability to cultivate more Caretaking in Conflict in your marriage, check out When Divorce is Not An Option:  How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love.  Or, for more personalized assistance, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute (740-266-6461) to learn more about our Catholic-integrated tele-counseling practice for couples, families, and individuals.  Let us help you experience all the love God has in store for you!

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