(UPDATED November 2, 2017)
You walk in the front door after running some errands in the afternoon. Your wife asks if you remembered to pick up some bread at the store. “I was supposed to go to the store?” you ask. Your wife gives you a frustrated look, sighs, and says “you don’t ever listen to me anymore”. You respond defensively and the communication goes downhill from there.
Ever had an experience like this? An argument that seems to come from nowhere or de-escalates really quickly? Poor communication may be the most common complaint in my office. By the time many arrive in my office, there’s been unresolved conflict for a while. When it goes on too long, it can result in feelings of bitterness and deep resentment.
Typically when couples want to improve their communication, they’re referring to the way they talk to each other, but that’s only part of the battle.
I suggest that there are actually two strategies important to relationship health. These can be described as offensive and defensive strategies.
Defensive strategies are reactive and involve ways in which you handle adversity together. Do you fight fairly and respectfully? Do you focus on problem-solving? Are you aware of the other person’s perspective, whether you agree or not? Do you address the problem at all?
These are crucial skills, as anyone who has gotten into a nasty argument can attest. These strategies do not necessarily build up a relationship, but poor defensive strategies can erode feelings of goodwill and security. Poor defense turns partners into adversaries.
Conflict in relationships is normal and healthy. For conflict to be effective, two components are necessary. First, use words that are constructive and affirmative. You can disagree without being hurtful. You can demonstrate and talk about feelings without cutting down your partner. Second, take responsibility for your part of the problem. Be willing to hear your partner’s complaints and act on them. Ultimately, you want any resolution to be mutually beneficial instead of one-sided.
Offensive strategies include what happens in between times of adversity. It’s how you relate to each other on a daily basis. These interactions are proactive and intentional. They occur regularly and demonstrate thoughtfulness. What do you do to demonstrate love, care, thoughtfulness, respect, etc.? These are often referred to as “the little things”, such as a hug, compliment, help with something around the house, spending some time together, or buying a favorite ice cream at the store. These help build feelings of partnership, love, and security.
Think of these offensive strategies as investments in the relationship. Make small deposits regularly and goodwill in the relationship will grow. These consistent words and actions are more beneficial than irregular, bigger actions like an expensive gift or surprise vacation. As the “account” grows, it becomes easier to manage conflict in healthy ways. You’ll be more likely to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, focus on personal responsibility, and disagree without personal attacks and accusations.
Use Both Strategies
It’s important to remember that both approaches are crucial in healthy relationships. They impact one another. When you choose to be regularly invest in your relationship, conflict is likely less destructive. Think about it – who are you more likely to be collaborative with, a partner or an adversary? You will see and trust the good intentions of your partner, even in conflict. Likewise, respectful problem-solving often encourages more positive interaction with each other. When you’re not carrying anger, bitterness, or resentment you’re motivated to show love and affection.
So the question is – are you focusing on both approaches? How do you speak respectfully? How do you acknowledge the other’s point of view? How are you being consistently intentional? What are some ways that you regularly show you are thinking of your partner? Are you confident they notice your efforts?
We are all “wired” a bit differently, so it’s important to understand what feels loving and thoughtful to your partner. If you’re not sure, ask. Satisfying relationships are built and maintained through both intentional daily effort and effective communication. Equal attention to both strategies will help you avoid potential for resentment and bitterness down the road.