If you haven’t once clashed with your spouse or ever raised your voice at your kids during quarantine, you probably live alone. We’re all a couple of months into isolation, and while places are beginning to reopen, family togetherness is still very much a thing. But you don’t have to live in a state of discord. We talked to Jan Holmes, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor who practices in Trophy Club, for her insights on resolving conflict.
Is the quarantine situation apt to cause more friction between couples and in families, since we’re all in close quarters more of the time? That really depends on the couple or family. Some families were so busy that they could hardly keep up with it all. For those couples or families, this slowdown has been an opportunity to reassess situations, goals and to reconnect.
On the other hand, for those relationships that were already having major issues, this type of slowdown has only made it worse. I know this situation can be tiring and even scary—but the reality is that we probably won’t get this type of opportunity again. I would recommend trying to use this time to your advantage.
Some level of conflict between spouses is inevitable. What’s the best way to handle it? Conflict is certainly normal in relationships. It is in our most intimate relationships that people have the hardest time keeping good boundaries. More often than not, what you are fighting about is not the problem—it’s a symptom. In my opinion, almost all arguments are actually power struggles.
This is a great time for couples to talk about their issues and what’s keeping them from connecting with each other. Fixing the issue at hand usually isn’t hard, but often we get into a place where we fight for what we believe is “right,” then we spend more of our time trying to change the other person’s belief, feeling, intent or behavior instead of working on the issue. Ask yourself, Why are the two of us fighting instead of collaborating?
Honestly, there’s no reason to fight with someone you care about. With fighting, you’re saying it can only be one way. You get so involved in the problem that you’re not able to connect or see the bigger picture.
When you do fight, it’s important to remember that little to no progress will be made when you’re angry, frustrated or disgusted. So you have to learn to “hold on to yourself.”
That means learning how to calm your own nerves. One of my favorite assignments for couples and families is time outs. Take a time out for 20–30 minutes and not a minute longer. We always time out for ourselves, and the person who calls the time out is the one who comes back first. If you need more time, you should check in and ask for another 30 minutes.
I suggest that people separate in the house. When you come back, start where you left off but approach it differently. You could say, “I heard you say this; it sounded like you were being disrespectful. Can you say it in a different way?” or “I find myself offended when you …” That starts a deeper conversation. Your partner may say “Well, I’m offended when you …” And you may need another time out.
If it’s late and time is short, you can always say, “We’re not getting anywhere on this. Let’s sleep on it and get up 30 minutes early in the morning and see if we can figure it out.”
Finding the right words to say in the moment can be hard. Take breaks as often as you need to, until you can get into a place where you can talk and discuss the problem and not try to change the other person.
How should parents handle it when their kids witness a fight? What you should be trying to do is to teach your kids how to handle disagreements. You shouldn’t be arguing, but it won’t kill the kids to see bickering. What they really need to see is resolution. That means they see you make up, find a solution and cooperate with each other.
Kids are always watching parents. You think they’re asleep and don’t hear you arguing? They hear you. They’re learning from you in ways that no one else can teach them. They believe you have all the answers.
Whatever you can’t fix in your relationship and in your world, you’ll see those difficulties and behaviors in your adult kids. If you fight and fight and there’s no resolution, your kids will believe that’s normal. It’s good to think, What do I need to do here that shows them the best way to handle this situation?
How can people keep their spouse’s habits and idiosyncrasies from getting on their nerves? Talk to your partner about it. “For some reason this really bothers me; I wish you would not do that.” But keep in mind, there are couple issues and individual issues. If you make a request and your spouse says “Hey, that’s your problem,” they’ve decided it’s not a couple’s issue. If the other person isn’t going to help you, then you have to deal with it. Maybe you move into another room.
But if you’re truly connecting with your spouse, you’ll figure out the little things. It’s surprising how many different ways there are to fix a problem when we are cooperating with one another. What I find is that people will argue when their connection isn’t there. Sometimes people will push each other’s buttons just to feel that there is some type of connection.
Right now, there’s bound to be some parental frustration from having the kids 24/7. What are your recommendations for parents who feel like they’re at the end of their rope and are snapping at their kids more than usual? It’s great if you have a two-parent household; you can switch off with the kids. But when you’re a single parent, obviously you don’t have that option. If your child is arguing with you, you could say, “Let’s take a time out, breathe a minute. Maybe I’m not hearing everything, and we’re frustrating each other.”
Not power struggling with your kids is really important.
One of the best things you can do as a parent is to identify and [say out loud] the emotion the child is experiencing. “I know you don’t want to go to bed. I’m sad it’s time for bed, too. I know you don’t want to end this day, but we have tomorrow.” Keep in mind, it’s not always going to work. You try everything, and none of it works all the time. Some of it works some of the time.
Parenting can be very challenging at times. But kids need to learn that disappointment is part of life.
In my opinion, it’s great to sit down as a family and talk about what you want this time to look like. We’ll probably never get this time again, and kids have ideas too. Parents set up the structure, but once it’s in place, let kids make some decisions. Do some brainstorming: When we don’t have structured time, what’s something to look forward to?
Regular family meetings are good. You can talk about what you liked and what you didn’t and come up with more ideas. This time will be easier for parents if everything isn’t on their shoulders.
If a couple or family is still struggling, what can counseling or therapy offer them? I can speak only for myself. When I see couples and families, I try to create a safe place so everyone can honestly express their viewpoint. Sometimes, when in a difficult situation, we lose a larger perspective.
I try to view the situation from all sides and help everyone understand their part of the problem and give everyone some tools that they can use to fix their part of the issue. My job is to help people connect in their intimate relationships. I try to help couples and families see a bigger picture with more options and solutions.
Image courtesy of iStock.