Fighting with your spouse today? Stop and think about the future
August 09 2016
By Lauren Pelley
If you’re at odds with your wife about family chores, or are having a spat with your boyfriend over who feeds the cat, stop and ask yourself, “Will this fight matter a year from now?” — and you might still be together then.
A new Canadian study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggests the ticket to overcoming relationship conflicts is adopting a future-oriented perspective, instead of focusing on the present.
That means in the heat of the moment when tempers are flaring, people should take a step back and ask themselves how a conflict will affect them down the line, says lead author Alex Huynh, a doctoral candidate in the University of Waterloo’s department of psychology.
“It allows them to be more forgiving of their partners and close friends, and in the end, that changes how they think about their relationship and their relationship well-being,” he says. “They think the relationship will get better, and (think) of the conflict as a learning experience.”
The researchers conducted two studies — one on undergraduate students in Chicago, and another on a broader age range of Americans found through a crowdsourcing website. All participants were asked to reflect on a recent conflict with a romantic partner or a close friend, with one group tasked with describing how they felt about it in the moment, and a second group describing how they’d feel about the conflict in a year.
In both studies, those thinking about the future reported more positivity about their relationships. They also showed more forgiveness and saw the fight in a more reasoned, positive light.
“People get caught up in their feelings, and use it as fuel and end up hurting their relationships,” says Huynh. “But as humans . . . we can take a step back and think about our conflicts differently. By this simple way of doing that, your relationship is going to be better.”
The findings come as no surprise to psychologists and relationship counsellors, who’ve seen it all when it comes to sparring couples.
“Even basic stresses in life, when we take a moment to say, ‘Will this matter a year from now?’ I find it makes my clients calm down,” says Nicole McCance, a Toronto-based psychologist and relationship expert who has been working with couples for around a decade.
“It makes absolute sense,” says registered professional counsellor Edel Walsh, founder of Love Done Well, a Vancouver-based love, life and relationship-counselling service.
We’re all hard-wired with a primitive “fight or flight” response, she says, and it’s nonsensical to try and solve a conflict in that state of mind. “What generally leads to an escalation in an argument with couples is that they both want to be heard at the same time — but you can’t.”
When we’re arguing with someone, there are actually physiological changes in our body, says McCance. “Our blood pressure increases and goes away from our brain, into our legs and arms,” she says.
In other words, your brain isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders when you’re mad.
“The best thing to do is walk away and take a break,” McCance adds. “It takes 20 minutes for your blood to go back to your brain.”
And after hitting the pause button, you might as well take some time to think about the future, too.
Keeping the peace
Aside from adopting a future-oriented perspective, there are a few other things couples can do to get through conflicts and maintain a happy, loving relationship.
Make your relationship a priority. It’s easy to get caught up in your own needs, but you have to focus on your relationship as a whole. “I have many people come into my office unhappy,” says McCance. “I look at their life, and their priority is getting that promotion or keeping fit at the gym . . . if you actually look at how much of their investment of energy and time goes into their relationship, it’s quite low.” Ask yourself: Are you fulfilling your partner’s needs? Are you asking them how their day went? Are you focusing on the things you love about them? To figure out your partner’s specific needs, pay attention to the things they’re complaining about. “A woman who tells her husband, ‘You never compliment me,’ she absolutely needs more compliments,” says McCance.
Plan for conflict in advance. It sounds unromantic and pessimistic to plan for a fight, but Walsh says that’s a key way couples can avoid the blow-ups sparked by our primitive “fight or flight” response. (And let’s face it: Fighting with a partner is inevitable.) During a calm conversation, talk to your partner about how you want to handle conflict and make an agreement to hit the pause button before things escalate. That way, in the heat of the moment, you can say, “We said we weren’t going to do this — let’s stop and talk about it tomorrow,” Walsh says.
Don’t play the blame game. Finger-pointing in a fight will just lead to bitterness, but it’s often how people react. “Instead of partner blame, there has to be personal blame,” says Walsh. “You have to say, ‘Here’s what I did, here’s what I said, here’s my mistake.’ ” That personal accountability can be even more important than apologizing, she adds. “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t mean anything — people say it all the time — but there has to be a change in the behaviour,” Walsh explains. So be specific when you own up to your shortcomings and try to do better next time . . . and be patient when your partner does the same.
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