When I ask couples in their first session about how their arguments start, they usually say that they start over something small – a discovery that one has failed to pay a bill, feeling snapped at when asked about dinner, clothes left on the floor -- and then things snowball from there. Not surprisingly perhaps, these scraps often happen when they just get home from work, or late at night, or when one or both have been drinking -- times when everyone is stressed or checked out. While the content may change the pattern is the same: Emotion + stress = defensiveness + counterattack = increasing emotion = WWIII. Runaway emotions fueled by bad timing.
Once underway content is merely the medium for launching emotional grenades and problem-solving is quickly out the window. What I often suggest to clients to bypass these eruptions and increase the likelihood of problem-solving is to schedule a weekly business meeting. Here are the guidelines:
Set a good time. This is essential. Avoid the brain-dead times – after pulling a 14 hour work day, after staying up half the night with a sick child, when you're distracted by the upcoming work evaluation the next day. Be awake, be in a relatively good mood, don’t be rushed, hung-over, sleep deprived. Weekend mornings are often good candidates.
Have an agenda. Knowing you need an agenda allows you to sort and sift through the week's events to define what is and is not important, what was a stress-induced irritation and what is an ongoing problem that needs to be put to rest. Some couples use some of this time to map out logistics – work schedules for the coming week, coordinating child care – or the focus may be on one or two big topics – Billy’s school performance, budget, deciding on household tasks, frequency of sex. Come prepared, know what it is you want to specifically decide: Should we schedule a meeting with Billy’s teacher, do we need to change who / how we pay bills so neither one is frustrated, can we agree on putting dirty clothes in the hamper, can we both be responsible for initiating sex. Think specific, think problem-solving, have something concrete to propose.
Act professional. To help you adapt the right attitude and help keep emotions in check, pretend you are at work. Sit up straight, have your written agenda in front of you, take notes, stay on topic. No drama, no sniping, no sliding into Christmas 2010, again. Do your best to stay calm, collected, and your rational brain working.
Stop if it gets emotional. This is practice in being reasonable, not a planned argument. If emotions begin to flare, if you are falling back into old potholes and patterns, stop, take a break, reschedule for another time. Don't allow emotions to rule and ruin.
Keep it short. This is not a marathon session to solve all the world’s or relationship’s problems. Try half hour, an hour at most. If you need more time schedule a separate meeting – to work on budget or discuss sex or go over schedules. Quit while you’re ahead, not when you’re starting to get fatigued, confused, or irritable.
Pat each other on the back for doing a good job. Success, however small, needs to acknowledged and celebrated. Evaluate at the next meeting or later on how the meeting could be improved, what to do or not do next time.
The aim here is to break the destructive cycle of high emotion, to create experiences of working as a team, to solve problems in a sane, adult way to put them to rest. It’s about intention, about skills, about treating each other with respect. It’s about developing good relationship habits.
Give it a try.