Looking for ways to reduce conflict in your relationship? I'd say most of us are, especially since it can often seem like the fights we have with our partner repeat themselves over and over again. After all, there are particular things that make each of us tick.
Well, I'd like to introduce you to a great source of reliable advice: couples who have been married for years and resolving arguments for longer than some of you have been alive. My interviews with hundreds of people married for around a half century or more revealed invaluable "trade secrets" for keeping a simple disagreement from becoming a major fight.
The next time an argument threatens to get out of hand, try these three tips drawn from the real experts.
1. Choose the right time to talk.
All too often, the elders say, we decide that the right time to talk about an issue is the moment we want to talk about it. And that makes sense: conflict breeds anxiety, which makes it seem like the issue at hand is urgent, and needs to be solved ASAP.
Unfortunately, that can waylay our partners at precisely the wrong time for him or her. Instead, pay close attention to your partner's mood, level of energy, and degree of distraction before you initiate the discussion of a potentially contentious problem.
Leona, age 67, made this discovery, and the arguments she and her husband had were greatly reduced. During our interview, she explained the dynamic to me in simple terms, "I am an evening person. He is a morning person. So we asked ourselves, 'What time of day is a good time for us to have a disagreement about something that we need to discuss?'"
The result? Leona and her husband now regroup after work, before it gets too late. It seems so simple, but this is a profound (and practical) revelation.
2. Take a break from one another (even when you feel most intense about "talking it out").
It sounds so simple: when things aren't going well in a discussion, just back off. While many of the elders admit that this was a difficult lesson to learn, it seems obvious when you stop to think about it. Here, try it: is there a couple that hasn't experienced the following dialogue?
PARTNER ONE: "I don't want to talk about this anymore now. I need a break."
PARTNER TWO: "Oh no you don't! We're going to hash this out right now, so you stay right here!
It makes sense: when there's an issue with the person we love, we want to "fix" it. But this strategy exacerbates the situation when what you may actually need is a strategic retreat.
Jack, age 70, knows that when conflicts occur in the relationship, maintaining control over his anger can be a serious problem. His solution is stepping back from the situation before it escalates. He explained this to me with courageous self-awareness:
I've got a terrible temper. And I've learned that I need to keep my mouth shut. Because when I get mad, I say things that hurt people's feelings. So I just go outside and start piddling around in the garage and mess around with my lawn mower or some of my tools and stuff and let everything cool down. Then I come back and try and discuss it, when nobody's mad anymore. Walk off and cool down and then try and discuss it later. That's my advice.
Some couples even created their own "time out" phrase, like "Break time!" or "Let's zoom out!" Give it a try, but remember: the phrase does not mean "it's over." Instead, it's a consent to come back when the time is right.
3. Try a sandwich!
Here's a piece of advice I hadn't expected, but the minute I heard it from the elders, my first reaction was: Why didn't I ever think of that? It now seems obvious to me, but when looking for communication helpers, few of us think first of ... FOOD!
However, when asked how to prevent a major blow-up, a surprising number of long-married couples recommended offering your partner something to eat, or taking a break to have a snack. They say that arguments are most likely to get out of hand when one of you is hungry.
Maybe it's blood sugar levels or being tired. But whatever the reason, they suggest that when a big fight is looming, the immediate solution might be a sandwich ... or something else delicious!
Gloria, age 73, told me the following anecdote:
My son and his wife's first year of marriage was very difficult. But they learned a lot of interesting things along the way. For instance, whenever they start to fight, my daughter-in-law will make my son a sandwich. Nothing pleases him more. He had to say that to her. "I need a sandwich when I'm really tired because it's that I act like this when I'm hungry." And when she gets out of control, he has to offer her a cup of tea. Whenever they're with us, if I hear her offering him a sandwich or him offering her a cup of tea, I know that's their code for each other to say I need some help from you.
Sure, this suggestion isn't a cure-all. But why not give it a try? A piece of avocado toast or a bowl of granola not only costs less than marriage counseling, but it's probably more fun!
And there's a bigger lesson here: to pay attention to timing, even when it's being aware that it's time to eat. Above all, it's paying attention, mindfulness, that is the greatest conflict-buster. According to elder wisdom, what you say may not necessarily be as important as when you say it.