"Is this the local train or the express?" my husband Ted asked, his face etched with urgency and concern.
We were visiting New York City from Atlanta and had just boarded a crowded subway car.
"It's the blue A line," I responded, not sure what the issue was. The two maps I'd consulted hadn't noted that there was more than one A train.
"But you do know there's a difference between the local and the express, right?" His urgency was now marked by clear frustration. "If this is the express, it may not include our stop."
"Um ... I read the maps," came my flustered reply. "It said the A line in the blue circle. This is the A line in the blue circle."
It wasn't the first time in our marriage that we'd ridden public transportation together. It was, however, the first time we'd gotten into a heated argument while navigating it.
It was an argument that would continue after we got off and result in raised voices, tears, and the desire to walk away.
Have you ever experienced a similar conflict in your marriage?
Maybe you too have had an argument that started over something small, yet grew so big that it left you at a loss on how to reconcile.
The good news is, if you and your spouse are committed to working together as a united team, it doesn’t require much to resolve these small marital conflicts that feel big. Here are a few strategies.
1. Implement a Break Room
If you’re having trouble resolving conflict, take some space to individually process. Then come back and work through the conflict.
What does this look like?
First, tell your spouse, "I need some time by myself to think about this. Let's give each other a little room. After that, let's continue this discussion."
Be careful not to use this as an excuse to avoid dealing with an issue. A break room in marriage should always be used with the intention of coming back together to work through the conflict in a way that benefits your relationship.
Remember, cooler heads prevail. Implementing a break room helps facilitate those cooler heads.
2. Identify If a Communication Miss Has Occurred
When conflict in marriage happens, it's best to determine whether it stems from a legitimate issue or if a "communication miss" has occurred.
What is a communication miss?
Imagine that your words are arrows and the target is your spouse. The objective is that your words and their intended meaning hit the bull's-eye. You want your spouse not only to hear what you've said, but also to fully understand exactly what you meant to convey.
Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen. Our words can be misheard, misinterpreted, and misunderstood. When this occurs, we have what’s called a communication miss.
How can you recover from one?
While in your break room, evaluate what really happened. Look at the timing and delivery, as well as the situation and surrounding environment. Perhaps the where and when of how you communicated worked against clear understanding.
Also, ask yourself questions that give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, even if you really don’t feel like doing so.
- Did I say what I wanted to say clearly?
- Could there have been a misunderstanding?
- Is it possible that my spouse misinterpreted my meaning and I need to explain?
If you start to believe you've suffered a communication miss, then it's time to rejoin your spouse. Once you do, take some time to practice one of my favorite communicate techniques: reflecting.
Reflecting requires that you take the time in a conversation to paraphrase back what you've heard. This gives the other person the opportunity to either verify that you've correctly understood their meaning, or to clarify. When you engage in the active listening of reflecting, it can prevent an already tense conflict in marriage from unnecessarily escalating.
3. Serve Your Spouse a Sandwich
If you determine that your conflict isn’t the result of a communication miss, then what? That’s when you can use the Communication Sandwich.
In my book Team Us, I explain that this simple technique allows you to share criticism with your spouse in a way that helps keep defenses from further escalating. With it, you sandwich your criticism between praise, much like you’d place liverwurst between two slices of Wonder Bread.
It can be difficult to come up with praise when tempers are strong and feelings are hurt. But, if you use the Break Room, it allows you time to calm and formulate a sandwich.
Ted and I eventually determined that our argument on the subway was a Communication Miss. If we hadn’t, though, I may have served him a sandwich such as this:
I appreciate your desire to confirm we were on the correct train. Since I’m new at this, It’s always good to have a second set of eyes to check the schedule ….
But I feel like you didn’t trust me or believe I was smart enough to navigate the subway system without your help. That really hurt my feelings ….
It’s exciting that we are in New York together. I would love to be able to resolve this and enjoy the rest of our time here.
Try to carefully phrase your feelings. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s helpful to verbally present an issue as about me and my feelings, not about what Ted’s done. Placing the emphasis on my feelings, rather than on my accusations, keep defenses from rising. For example, notice in my sandwich that I didn’t say, “You don’t trust me and think I’m dumb.” Instead, I stated, “I feel like ….”
It doesn’t take much to resolve those small marital conflicts that feel big. You and your spouse simply need to be committed to working through them together in a relationship-building way. These three strategies can help.