Resolving Conflict Tenderly
Conflict is for me a sign of caring, as certain as if you are saying, you are worth it for me to be who I am, so I am not withholding myself. No one can be real if they keep themselves to themselves, so the greatest risk is not to risk. And the second greatest risk is not to let the person whose love you seek be themselves.
— Merle Shain, in Courage My Love
Our precious closeness depends on our being real with each other. It is sometimes tempting to withhold ourselves because of fear that conflict would create distance between us. We have each experienced that feeling. Ironically, taking that risk can enhance our closeness. The good news is that the risk of creating distance can be mostly eliminated by learning to resolve conflict tenderly.
We’ve already shared some of our early conflict history. Our conflict styles were incompatible and basically dysfunctional. Bob tended to avoid conflict, and Cheryl tended to pursue conflict issues in order to resolve them. We also had some attitude differences about right and wrong ways of behaving toward each other, so we created some very unsatisfying conflict outcomes. As a result, we ended up in counseling before the end of our first year together.
We gained some added perspective from Beyond The Power Struggle, by Susan Campbell. You would think, and we certainly did, that coming together at mid-life with similar self-help books on our respective shelves would mean that we were well beyond having to deal with power struggles between us.
Nope. So much for any advantage we might have had coming together at “mature” ages (40 + 42). According to Campbell, “the Power Struggle Stage is temporary but necessary in most relationships. It occurs as a way of testing and building trust.” It did help to learn that it wasn’t just us that got stuck in this rut.
Around the same time, Bob started a masters degree program in conflict resolution that became an MA in Sociology. It gave us an opportunity to collaborate on written assignments that analyzed our own conflict patterns. It also taught us to consider conflict as a normal result of our inevitable differences, and that there were effective ways to reframe it from a win-lose contest to an opportunity to respectfully meet the needs of both of us.
Eventually we came to listen more empathically to each other, which ultimately allowed us to recognize that each other’s feelings were more important than being right or not being wrong.
FROM RIGHT/WRONG TO RIGHT/RIGHT
Bob: Our worst fight was the day of my brother’s wedding. It took us weeks to get over it. I was sure Cheryl had deliberately maneuvered to ride with Don and me when we took our father home early from the reception. I had wanted my brother and I to have the opportunity to ride with our dad alone — a rare occurrence without our stepmother, who had chosen to stay home. It was going to be a chance for a more intimate conversation than usual.
When Cheryl showed up at the front door with her coat on as we were getting ready to leave, I was not happy about it, because I thought we had already agreed that she would stay behind. She said my brother invited her to go with us and she thought I had changed my mind. I asked why she didn’t tell him about our conversation.
Cheryl: I felt unjustly accused of manipulation and was hurt. In the moment I hadn’t thought to ask Don that question. I teared up and said I’d stay behind. At that point Bob said to come with them, which I did. Neither of us was happy, and our unhappiness grew into righteous victimhood during the silent ride with Bob’s father and brother. It should be noted that we had been at a wedding reception where the champagne was flowing and we had each had our share. We later decided that it had definitely contributed to this conflict.
With some encouragement from Don, we put our differences aside and went back to the celebration of this happy occasion. However, our sense of having been wronged by each other lingered, and it was a tender topic for a while. Feelings would flare, which only reinforced how wronged we each felt, each of us thinking about each other, “How could she/he feel this way?”
Us: We had fallen into a deep right/wrong pit, where the healing light of empathy was nowhere to be seen. Clearly someone was wrong in this dispute, and neither of us felt we were the one. It didn’t occur to us until several discussions about this that both of us could be wrong — about someone being wrong. It didn’t have to be an either/or situation.
In the right/wrong pit, our focus was on proving our position, and also defending our position. The defensiveness created an unwillingness to see each other’s point of view, and blocked our openness to truly understanding each other’s feelings.
It took a lot of listening with our defenses lowered to hear all the feelings that we each experienced that night. When we finally understood each other’s feelings fully, our positions made sense and they were no longer the point. We were each finally able to genuinely apologize for our behavior and for the pain we had caused each other.
The lessons we learned from that experience (and a few other early right/wrong disagreements) have stayed with us. Right and wrong have no place in our relationship. Our individual perspectives are unique based on our unique life experiences. Our point of view is valid from our own perspective. In the end it turns out that we’re both right from our own perspective. Our right/wrong caterpillar gradually morphed into a right/right butterfly.
We learned that when our feelings are empathically acknowledged and our point of view is respected as valid, we are much more ready to reach agreement with each other.
One other thing we learned from that experience was the value of repeated conversations about an unresolved conflict, especially where there are hurt feelings involved. Each time we sat down to discuss the topic, we listened less defensively and more empathically, and we learned more about each other’s feelings. Also, each time we were willing to engage each other in another discussion about the conflict, we were honoring and showing respect for each other’s concerns – and in turn, for each other.
THE EVOLUTION OF TENDER CONFLICT RESOLUTION
It greatly improves our ability to successfully resolve conflict when we honor each other’s feelings (STEP 1) and tame criticism, anger and blame (STEP 2). You can hopefully see how STEP 3 in A Couple’s Dance of Tenderness builds upon the first two, and how they each support the other steps. Learning to resolve conflicts tenderly makes it easier to safely share our feelings with each other. The more we are lovingly attuned to each other’s feelings, the more we become supporters of each other’s goals.
THE S.A.V.E. PROCESS
During Bob’s masters degree program we had an opportunity to take an intensive course in conflict resolution together at the same university. It earned each of us a Chancellor’s Certificate in Conflict Resolution. That felt like a big step forward to both of us after coming from such an unsatisfying conflict history together.
As we shared in an earlier chapter, our early conflict patterns were not only unsatisfying but also painful. Cheryl would raise her voice in order to feel heard and Bob would leave the room because he felt yelled at. Cheryl felt unheard and abandoned, and Bob felt abused. Our interest in cultivating tenderness grew out of that basic conflict.
The combination of our studies and our focus on tenderness as a couple led us to develop a conflict resolution process specifically aimed at helping couples resolve conflict tenderly. We sometimes call it “tender conflict resolution” because of the emphasis on the importance of feelings during the process.
The process has four steps that can be remembered by the acronym S.A.V.E. The letters stand for:
Share (responsibility for the conflict);
Acknowledge (all feelings);
Validate (each other’s point of view); and
Explore (multiple options to find a win-win solution).
We first presented the S.A.V.E. Process during our 1992 training to become a Leader Couple in Better Marriages. We have presented it numerous times since then in workshops at marriage enrichment conferences – most recently in July, 2015 at the Better Marriages Conference in St. Louis. We are including S.A.V.E. Process handouts at the end of this chapter.
The first step in the process is to remove blame from the discussion and SHARE responsibility for the conflict. Even if we feel less responsible for the conflict than the other person, we can usually acknowledge that we each contribute to the problem. It’s no ONE’s fault. Agreeing that we have a mutual problem to be solved together reminds us that we’re on the same team, as committed life partners who care deeply about each other’s happiness.
The “A” of S.A.V.E. is the key step: fully ACKNOWLEDGE each other’s feelings about the conflict, and our own as well. An empathic acknowledgement of each other’s feelings about a conflict often goes a long way in resolving it. That’s especially true if we’ve been honest about searching for and expressing our more vulnerable feelings, like hurt and fear, which helps create empathy. The goal is that each of us believes that our feelings have been fully heard and understood.
The third step is to respect and VALIDATE each other’s point of view. Each of us has a unique perspective based on our experience, and listening empathically can put us in each other’s shoes. We don’t have to agree with a different point of view to treat it as valid. The aim is to be able to say, “I can see how you would feel that way.”
Finally, when we are comfortable that we have shared responsibility, acknowledged all feelings and validated each other’s points of view, we’re ready to EXPLORE multiple options to find a solution that we both feel is positive. Sometimes, after completing the first three elements of the process, a mutually agreeable solution becomes clear as our feelings converge.
At other times it can help to do a brainstorming exercise together by writing down multiple options separately without judging them and then discussing what we wrote. The exploration can become a negotiation, producing trade offs and even expanding the possibilities – “If you’ll agree to this, I’ll agree to something you’d like to request.”
If we have succeeded in completing the process in a truly tender way, with each other’s feelings being the top consideration, we’re more likely to “gift” each other their preferences as a way of promoting our closeness and showing our love.
If we remain stuck after completing the process, we know that we can come back to the issue at a later time. Our experience tells us that the more we discuss an issue in a way that puts our feelings first, the more likely we will come to a resolution that will satisfy both of us.
That’s not to say we’ll each get everything we want out of a resolution. For example, there are times when the resolution is that one of us waits for something we want because we can’t agree on a spending vs. saving priority. In that case, we keep the goal alive and work toward achieving it in the future.
We should also say that there are fundamental conflicts that are not likely to be amenable to resolution through this process. There are times that couples need to agree to disagree about an issue. Even in that case, however, we’d like to suggest that using this process may help find ways to make the disagreement more comfortable.
PRELUDE TO A CONFLICT CONVERSATION: “OUR GOAL IS TO RESOLVE CONFLICT TENDERLY.”
“The most important marriage skill is listening to your partner in a way that they can’t possibly doubt that you love them.”
— Diane Sollee, founder and long time coordinator of Smart Marriages (smartmarriages.com)
The skill Diane refers to is especially important when a conflict has arisen between us that has the potential to create some distance. Our closeness is precious and worth every effort to preserve.
Recently we came up with a way of pre-framing a conflict conversation to reinforce the love and respect and commitments we share. We created a script in the nature of an affirmation that we feel is worth reading aloud together or to each other (or even silently) before beginning the conversation, particularly if it is likely to be a difficult one. It’s a one-page handout entitled “Our Goal Is To Resolve Conflict Tenderly,” and you’ll find it at the end of this chapter.
KNEE TO KNEE AND HAND IN HAND
One of the best ways to stay close during a conflict conversation is to use the recommended dialogue position we learned in Better Marriages. We sit opposite each other, “knee to knee.” Being on the same level reinforces our commitment to equality. We also hold hands. Holding hands is a reminder that we share a bond that is bigger and stronger than the conflict that has arisen between us.
The physical contact is also a way of helping bring our hearts into the conversation, and helps us focus on each other’s feelings — and our own. It contributes to our goal of having a conversation that is truly heart-to-heart.
CONFLICT IS AN OPPORTUNITY
Over time we have grown to accept conflict as the natural result of our differences, and have also come to see it as an opportunity to protect and enhance our closeness.
We now look at conflict as an opportunity in many ways:
To honor each other’s feelings and to give them primary consideration;
To show our respect for each other by truly learning each other’s point of view;
To acknowledge that we each have a valid point of view from our own perspective;
To honor our differences and our uniqueness;
To affirm our commitment that each other’s happiness is AS important as our own;
To tackle a challenge together and to creatively come up with an agreement that satisfies both of us;
To gift each other (keeping it balanced) when only mild preferences are involved; and ultimately,
To show our love for each other.
- OUR GOAL IS TO RESOLVE CONFLICT TENDERLY
- THE SAVE PROCESS SUMMARIZED
- THE SAVE PROCESS EXERCISE, PAGE 1
- THE SAVE PROCESS EXERCISE, PAGE 2