Filed under: Communication
You often hear it said you should just walk away from a fight. But when it comes to your personal relationships, it’s better to learn the communication skills you need to work through your differences, with both of you coming out as the victor. Happy couples fall into three types depending on the way they handle conflicts: validators, volatiles, and avoiders.
Validators are couples who are great at communicating their feelings and opinions and talking through their problems. There is often a lot of mutual respect and compromise for these couples.
Volatile couples tend to be explosive and heated when dealing with conflict, expressing both negative and positive emotions passionately. The key to success in such relationships is that the positive has to greatly outweigh (by five times) the negative in these exchanges.
Avoiders are couples who play down their problems and avoid disagreements. They focus on the positive aspects of their relationship and can ignore any negative parts or agree to disagree.
One style isn’t better than the other, but your conflict style needs to work for both of you. This is easiest when each person’s individual conflict style matches the other’s. But sometimes they don’t. Watch for our upcoming article about what do when this happens.
Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably engaged in “triangulation,” and not just as a kid when you ran to Mom because Dad just said “no” (or vice versa). Similar triangles can also happen with leadership or any work group, committee, or organization (including military) where two people talk about a third.
On the surface, triangulation can look pretty harmless. You vent out of frustration because someone is not acting the way you’d like. Depending on where you are in the triangle, you either receive sympathy or provide it, possibly exerting any power you have to fix the situation. These triangles tend to consist of a “victim,” a “villain,” and a “rescuer.”
Because people are often uncomfortable with conflict, they figure out ways to maintain the status quo, even if it’s a bad one, instead of addressing what the core issue is. Triangulation is one way to avoid facing things, and it can feel like a fix, but it’s temporary at best. The rescuer provides a sympathetic ear so that the victim doesn’t feel a need to take action, or tries to take charge of the situation, but inevitably, the same problems pop up between the original two people.
Next time you feel like a victim and consider going to another person with your conflict, first be clear about your goals. Do you want to be rescued, or do you want to be coached? Before reaching out, ask yourself if you can possibly self-coach your way through whatever is popping up. Prepare yourself for whatever criticism might come your way if the “villain’s” defenses get triggered. And “preparing” does not mean bracing yourself or getting ammunition ready to fire back at that person. It means getting ready to really listen and validate how the other person feels, even if you don’t agree with the content of what that person says. If that person feels listened to, he/she will become more receptive to your position.
When a triangle does occur, the best scenario for the third person (the potential rescuer) is to be a good coach. Coaches don’t play the game for their players; they help them become more self-sufficient. Similarly, good leaders ask challenging questions of the people under their command, helping them to think through situations and become better equipped to face conflict directly. If you’re the potential rescuer, resist your own impulses to fix things and instead work on enabling the victim to fix the situation directly. Know that if you dive into this triangle, any other solution is probably temporary at best.
These strategies may seem simple, but they take practice. Try letting go of triangles and use some of the same kinds of communication strategies that work for couples.
Reconnecting with your family when you return from deployment presents unique challenges, especially with young children. Depending on how long you were deployed—a few months to a year or more—a lot could have happened in your child’s life while you were away. If you’re finding it hard to reconnect with your child, you’re not alone. Military Parenting’s website has tip sheets that describe typical behaviors for different stages: infant, toddler, preschooler, school-aged, and teen. Just knowing what’s typical for you child’s age can help you reestablish your relationship.
Reconnection can occur in small, everyday moments when you respond to your children’s needs and provide them with support and nurturing, such as holding them when they cry, playing games or sports together, being silly and laughing, taking a walk together, or eating dinner together and talking about your day.
For more tips on reconnecting, check out “Reestablishing Your Parental Role,” also from Military Parenting, a website devoted to parenting resources for Warfighters. For more tips on returning home, check out “Building Family Resilience...During and Following Deployment.”
Listening is half of communication. The other half is what you say and how you say it. The best way to express yourself is to be assertive. Assertive communication feels neither aggressive nor passive. It’s a balance between issuing a directive and being overly cooperative.
Communication between siblings can provide some good examples. Here’s the super directive approach: “You need to call me too. Don’t make me do all the work to keep up our relationship.” That may make sense, but the other person may not take it in because it triggers defensiveness. And here’s the overly cooperative approach: When your sibling says, “I hope you don’t mind that I never call,” you reply, “No, it’s okay, whatever you want is fine” (even if it isn’t). An assertive approach would be: “I’d really like to talk with you on the phone more, and I know you’re busy. What can we do to stay in better contact?”
The approach is basically a combination of “This is what I need” and “Can you join my team in figuring out a solution?” It’s straightforward and mutually empowering, opening the door for real communication. And for the other half of the communication equation, read last week’s article about how to be a good listener.
If you find yourself at odds with those around you more than you’d like, think about bolstering your communication skills. Communication is a key skill in all relationships, and half of this skill is knowing how to listen. “Active listening” lets your loved one, friends, and associates know that you heard them and understand their perspective. Active listening happens when the listener—you—takes part in the conversation, not just listens. Here’s how you do it:
- Repeat back to the other person the gist of what he or she just said.
- Reflect the other person’s feelings; that is, recognize out loud that you understand how he or she feels
- If you need clarification, ask for it in a gentle way.
- Show interest and curiosity in what the other person is saying.
To see what this might look like, watch this video from the Kansas National Guard about active and constructive communication. FOCUS has a handout on “Effective Communication Skills” that further describes this skill.
Deployment can be a challenge for couples, but it can also be a time of potential growth for a relationship. Questions invariably arise such as, “How much should I share with my partner? How often can we talk?” Some couples easily develop a dynamic that works for them; for others, the feeling of closeness is hard to hold on to when one partner is far away. Whether it’s your first deployment or you’re a seasoned veteran, here are some tips you can add to your deployment arsenal:
- Balance talk of "everyday" things with more-intimate conversations about deeper feelings and meaning.
- When there’s a lull in communication, whether it’s a day or a few weeks (due to mission requirements), think about creative ways to stay feeling connected such as journaling, burning video-diary messages on a DVD, or writing cards or letters.
- Communicate marriage-related emotions that come up during deployment; don’t put them off for later.
- If you’ve been through deployments before, think and talk about what worked for each of you and what you would like to do next time. Sometimes couples want the same things, but more often each person has different or even opposing wants. When this happens, it’s a good time to practice problem solving to find compromises that address each person’s desires as much as possible.
- Take good care of yourself and use your favorite stress-management techniques. Stress can increase the likelihood of getting into fights with your loved ones!
- Finally, don’t forget to weave appreciation for your partner into your conversations; read "Thankful for you?" to learn why appreciation is important for couples.
But most important: Figure out what works best for you. For more ideas on strengthening relationships check out HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section.
More than likely you’ve learned some great and helpful relationship skills through the years to keep your relationships strong. It can often be helpful to add some more to your tool belt to keep things going well (or to get them back on track). Check out HPRC’s “Keeping Strong Family Relationships for Military Life” for some strategies.
How we interpret events or interactions has a big impact on how we react to them. We all fall victim to “thinking traps” from time to time, and HPRC’s recent article identifies common traps and suggests strategies for dealing with them. Your personal relationships are particularly prone to thinking traps that can lead you to draw false conclusions. For example, let’s say you’ve been married for some time now and recently find yourself thinking your partner doesn’t love you any more because she/he no longer says so.
One way to address this kind of thinking trap is to ask yourself—or have a friend ask you—questions that make you think about the reasoning or evidence behind what you’re thinking. Some examples are:
- What specifically makes you think that he/she doesn’t love you any more?
- What did he/she do in the past that made you feel loved?
- Are there any other possible explanations that might explain your partner’s behavior, such as job stress, an ailing parent, children acting out, or recent return from deployment?
- When you think back to the beginning of your relationship, how could you tell he/she loved you? Was it something (s)he said? Or what (s)he did?
- Has your behavior toward him/her changed recently?
Such questions can get you to start thinking logically by taking a close look at what’s behind what you’re thinking—the real evidence and surroundings of the situation. Sometimes it can help you gain perspective to write down the answers to these questions. Once you’ve gone through this self-questioning process, it’s possible you’ll find a different interpretation of your partner’s behavior. Maybe you were just caught up in a thinking trap.
For more ideas on strengthening your relationship, check out HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section. And for specific strategies on changing your relationship dynamic, check out HPRC’s Performance Strategy on Couples Communication.
Do you ever feel that you and your partner talk about the same issues over and over again? You’re not alone: Only 30% or so of the problems couples struggle with can actually be solved, leading to discussions that keep coming up about the other 70%. Solving the issues that can be solved is great, but learning how to interact in a positive manner about the “perpetual problems” is a good skill in any relationship.
One way to do this is to go through a structured problem-solving strategy such as this:
- Specifically state the issue.
- Briefly state why the issue is important.
- Brainstorm and discuss possible solutions to the issue.
- Have everyone involved agree on a realistic “solution”—even if it’s just a game plan for how each person is going to respond about the topic.
- Pick a specific amount of time to try the solution.
- Then give the solution a try.
Remember, the “solution” doesn’t have to mean a resolution to the problem; it can just be about new ways to approach the issue. For example, if you fight over one of you being late frequently, discuss ahead of time how you each would like the other person to respond. Maybe the latecomer needs to call or text if running late, or the punctual person calls ahead to find out if the other will be on time. And maybe you need to set a window of time rather than something exact.
When you find yourself in an argument with a loved one, it’s important to be able to move on afterwards without being burdened by negative feelings. But sometimes the negativity can hang on after the argument itself is over, and can make interacting with the other person difficult. It’s important to work out those negative feelings so that they don’t fester and wreak more havoc in your relationships.
Here’s how: When you find yourself in the middle of an argument, take a time-out before you become too worked up. It’s easier to shake off negativity at this stage. Stay levelheaded enough to stop the argument, walk away, focus on something else, and make yourself focus on positive thoughts about yourself, something else, or your loved one. While you are doing this, also engage in some stress-management techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation; you can learn about them in the Mind-Body Skills section of HPRC’s website. By refocusing your thoughts and letting go of stress in your body, you’re more likely to feel calmer, slow your heart rate, and be less reactive to the other person. Once you’re calmer, you’ll probably find it easier to interact more positively with the other person and do or say things that can enhance your relationship.
For more ideas on strengthening your relationships, check out HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section or this article on “Basic Training for Couples Communication.” And for more information on handling stress, check out HPRC’s Stress Management section.