In 1974, Dr. Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire was interested in testing the prevalent theory of the time that said “venting” works to let off emotional steam when someone is angry. Surveying over 300 college students about aggression in their homes, he found that as couples were more verbally aggressive, the amount of domestic violence increased. Surprised, he went ahead with the first national survey on this topic, interviewing 2,143 couples. Again, he got the astonishing conclusion that the higher the verbal aggression, the higher the physical aggression. It looked like venting anger is a bad idea.
Dr. Straus then thought that perhaps this was because when people argue, they don’t really listen and are not trying to reason. In such an atmosphere, it really is no surprise after all, that physical aggression increases: People are frustrated and their arguments get nowhere, so they escalate. He therefore wanted to explore the idea that people who try to reason and negotiate might reduce the physical violence. Nevertheless, in analyzing the data, he found the high reasoners “are the most violent couples in the sample.”
The least violent people, it turned out, took a breather when they were upset and then went and calmed down.
That’s all very good, you might want to say, but how do you get there? How do you get to calmness when you and your beloved are in the middle of something far from it? The answer has several components. The first key is great listening skills.
1. If You’re Willing to Listen, You’ll Get Listened to
If you know you’re right and your spouse is wrong, just forget the whole thing; don’t try to discuss it or expect resolution because connection cannot blossom in soil like that. An attitude that is open to hearing what your spouse didn’t like about your behavior, on the other hand, is a great starting point.
You can see that the key here is the difference between being listened to and listening.
We all want to be listened to, but, paradoxically, to get listened to, we’ve got to become listeners. And to become listeners, we’ve got to get it out of our heads that we are the one that is right and our partner is wrong. That’s arrogant, shortsighted, and doomed to cause the kind of fight that Straus was researching, the ones that get worse, not better.
What if you already are a willing listener but your spouse is not? Then what? That’s when the next component comes in.
2. Setting Boundaries to Avoid Turning Discussions into Fights
This one is difficult but necessary. No matter how nice you are and want to be, you need to be able to – nicely – say, “I can’t continue this” when your spouse wants to argue rather than pursue a real meeting of the minds. It takes a huge amount of strength to stop an argument that seems to be gaining momentum but it will be easier in the end than to deal with the aftermath of one that got out of hand.
One way to handle this is to let your partner know, at a time when you are not having an awful discussion, that you really want peace between you and will ask him or her next time to stop engaging in something that is going awry. If it is said in an agreeable and pleasant way, you might even get consent that that is the way to go.
This way, when something starts to go wrong and you say, “I can’t continue this; it’s turning into an argument,” your spouse just might agree. The two of you can then go cool off for a while.
So perhaps the first person you must set clear boundaries with is yourself, no matter how much of a boundary violator you think your spouse is. Make a commitment to yourself that you will not “lose it” in anger or tears. Recognize that there is a problem and it can only be addressed from a place of inner calm. Take a time out before you lose it.
3. Benefit of the Doubt
This is a key attitude piece that is hardest to grasp for many people but will make the difference between achieving a peaceful home or not. Even if you do believe you are right and the other person is wrong, make a real effort to figure out a positive reason for your spouse’s behavior or actions. This step applies to any relationship.
Let me tell you a story that just happened to me two days ago. I had the pleasure to be interviewed on the radio a few months ago by a host in Washington, D. C. And it was during the afternoon drive, no less. What was really terrific was that we both seemed to enjoy the back-and-forth and she phoned me after the show, suggesting that perhaps I could be a monthly regular on her show. I was so excited!
I was going away for a holiday but she just told me to contact her when I returned. I emailed her immediately when I got back – and I heard nothing. I waited almost a week with no answer. Finally I emailed her again and gave her my cell number, praising her show and saying I hoped I would hear from her. Indeed I got an odd response: It was an email with just a phone number in it. Where was the warmth of our initial contact? Had she lost interest? Should I feel rejected? How would you feel if this happened to you?
Giving the benefit of the doubt requires figuring out positive explanations for this. Maybe she was super busy. Maybe my email got lost the first time. If you have a lot of trouble coming up with positive explanations, you can at least keep an open mind and go into the situation with curiosity.
I immediately called her and here is what she said: “I can’t talk; I’m in too much pain. I was in a car accident.”
Are there times when you couldn’t help but think the worst of someone only to learn something that completely reversed your opinion? I would love to hear your benefit of the doubt stories.
4 More Things to Do to Keep Your Conversation Peaceful
In addition to the attitudes of not assuming you’re right, being a good listener, giving the benefit of the doubt and keeping boundaries, here are some other guidelines which will make conversations pleasant:
- Never, ever interrupt.
- Take some deep breaths when you feel yourself getting tense. If that’s not enough, take a time out.
- Usually, when people are stressed, they speak rapidly and say too much. Do the opposite: Slow down and say less.
- Make positive comments to the person to whom you’re speaking. Find something to agree about – it will go a long way toward connecting.
My father used to say that the effort put out in a marriage is not 50/50; it’s 100/100. Each person must give 100%. It’s lots of work, but the results are worth it.