Managing Conflict

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Collaboration is key.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Jim Miller remembers well the day his live-in girlfriend, Jane Lewis, brought home a cashmere sweater for herself. It was a beautiful shade of burgundy. And the price tag was just as breathtaking: $175. He hoped it might have been on sale. "What did you pay for this?" he asked with apprehension.

"$175," she told him.

And so it began: The familiar and escalating argument over money between the saver and the spender. "Why did you buy this?" he'd typically ask, whether the purchase he saw as extravagant was an expensive sweater or a gourmet grocery item. "I think you're spending too much money."

The retort was typically quick and curt: "It's my money. I can spend it any way I want." His reply: "Yes, but we're not meeting our goals." Then she'd ask: "So what are our goals?"

Soon, someone would be going for a walk or slamming a door. "Nothing broke and no one ever got hurt," says Miller, 50, a Chicago financial consultant who has lived with Lewis, 48, a computer consultant, for two years. But the arguments -- usually about her spending or the differences in their styles of driving -- were wearing on their relationship.

That's when they went to counseling to learn how to argue productively. "We don't fight about money at all anymore," he says.

Arguments within romantic relationships aren't likely to disappear. Most couples tend to argue over and over about the same topics, therapists say, including money, sex, childrearing practices, how to spend free time, and how much time to spend with the in-laws.

Learning to argue productively, however, as Miller and Lewis (not their real names) have done, can have a positive impact on relationship satisfaction, according to a study published in the October 2000 issue of the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. It's not easy: Productive arguing means you have to squash the win-at-all-costs mentality. But the potential fringe benefits are many: no more temper tantrums, sulking or stomping off, plus a sense that you're growing closer and the relationship is more enriched.

Miller and Lewis learned to talk in detail about goals and to check in routinely on how they are doing. They've even become less snide in the car -- which can be difficult, he says, when she gives him directions to places they've driven to dozens of times.

The South African Study

In the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy study, psychologists from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa evaluated 57 couples that had been married for at least 10 years. Specifically, they were asked how they argued -- their "conflict management style" -- and how satisfied they were with their marriages. Among the five styles identified, they found that "collaboration," in which the partners are assertive but cooperative, confront disagreement, and then go on to solve problems, led to the most marital satisfaction.

Couples who followed a "competing" behavior style, with both partners bent only on winning, had the least marital satisfaction. The other styles -- all found inferior to collaboration -- were dubbed "compromising" (someone takes a middle ground), "avoiding" (both withdraw and refuse to argue), and "accommodating" (one person attempts to soothe the other).

While some of these styles (such as compromising) may be integral to good arguing, they're not the best bet as the main style of arguing, the researchers concluded.

In most of the couples studied, partners tended to have different styles of arguing. But those who tended to collaborate were likely to be married to someone who also collaborated.

The How-Tos

The South African research makes sense to other experts, who give the collaborating style of arguing a host of names, such as "model arguing" or "fair fighting." Everyone can learn to argue better, says Kate Wachs, PhD, a Chicago psychologist who taught Miller and Lewis to disagree more amicably.

She tells people to follow this plan: "Start with letting your partner vent. He or she is not yet ready to compromise. Agree with whatever you can. Try to use reflective listening ('I can see you would be upset about that')."

When the partner is done venting, it's your turn, Wachs says. Using assertive words, tell your partner your reaction. But avoid the "accusatory you" -- as in, "You always do such-and-such." Rather, tell your partner how you feel. And then look for a compromise to solve the problem.

It doesn't have to be an immediate solution, says Wachs, who describes other communication skills in her book, Dr. Kate's Love Secrets. If you're at loggerheads, "make a time to come back and rediscuss it in a week or two."

Florence Bienenfeld, PhD, MFT, of Pacific Palisades, Calif., says ideal arguing can be done in five steps, which she outlines in her book Do-It-Yourself Conflict Resolution for Couples. "First, I ask the couple to face each other and establish eye contact," she says. "That's difficult when people are angry." Next, they decide who will go first and tell each other how they perceive the issue under debate. They take turns proposing alternative solutions. Each tells what he or she will agree to. And finally, they decide how to settle the disagreement.

A Change of Attitude

Just following the steps isn't enough. A change of attitude is crucial, says Lew Richfield, PhD, MFT, a Brentwood, Calif., therapist who with his wife, Gloria, also a therapist, counsels couples with relationship problems.

He knows that firsthand. He and Gloria, married for a half century, argue very little, he says. Not so in the early years: "We'd fight to win." Now, "it's more on this track: 'I hear what you are saying. Let's see if we can work it out.'" This doesn't mean you roll over and play dead, he adds. His attitude, when arguing, is "I need to get something out of it, too."

Richfield can't remember the last big argument, but differences of opinion about which movie to see are fairly common. "Gloria would like to see most of the chick flicks," he says. "I'd like to see Arnold Schwarzenegger." He knows if he compromises and then expresses his wishes, after a chick flick or two he'll soon be seeing Arnold.

Choosing a Good Time and Place

Picking a good time to argue might sound silly, but Wachs says it can make a big difference in the outcome. She recalls a scene from the television show thirtysomething, in which Hope and Michael debate whether their infant should celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. They engage in heated debate as both are rushing to get dressed in the morning. They should have scheduled that discussion for late evening, after the baby was asleep.

"Another bad place to argue is in the car," she says. "It has the feeling of intimacy. But it is not a good place. One person is always thinking more than the other because one person is driving."

Taking the Long View

Eliminating disagreement and arguments isn't feasible, Wachs tells her couples. Besides, life wouldn't be as interesting without some differences of opinion.

And there are always some arguments that are easier to avoid than others. Miller and Lewis don't argue about money these days, but those differences of opinion about driving skills persist. He believes she drives too fast and doesn't pay enough attention. She seems to think he always needs to be reminded of the exit and other directions.

In the old days, when Lewis would say, "Remember, take the next exit," as Miller drove on an expressway he'd negotiated dozens of times, he would say something snide, such as suggesting she hop in the back seat and be a true backseat driver.

These days, he says, "Thanks, I do know how to get there." And more often than not, he also quells the urge to add something sarcastic, like: "I don't have Alzheimer's yet."

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based health journalist and former contributor to WebMD. Her work also appears in the Los Angeles Times, Shape, Modern Maturity, and other publications.

Originally published Feb. 5, 2001.

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD, July 30, 2002.

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