The Best Way to Disagree with Your Spouse

The biggest conflicts — about how to spend money, where to live, how to raise the kids — can be solved with these surprising steps

Conflict can have damaging effects on a marriage. But the damage is not caused by husbands and wives disagreeing with each other. The damage is caused by how husbands and wives handle their disagreements.

At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers Aimee Gordon and Serena Chen collected data through seven different studies of romantically attached couples. Their research compared couples who frequently engage in conflict with those who rarely argue. They concluded that the feeling that one’s point of view is understood by the partner protects couples against the negative effects of their conflicts.

These couples are no less satisfied than couples who rarely wrestle with disagreements.

Many disagreements are small and can be easily resolved. For example, my wife and I can sometimes disagree on whether we need to mow the lawn today or tomorrow. I’ll say it’s still too wet. She’ll say it’s too long. We work it out without tensions rising more than a notch or two. These small disagreements don’t stir up strong emotions. One way or another, it will get done within the next few days.

Bigger disagreements tend to stir up a lot of negative emotion, such as disagreements about how to spend money, where to live, or how to raise children. When searching for our current home, my wife and I disagreed on where it should be located. We both agreed we wanted to move out of the suburbs into a rural setting. But she wanted our home to be nearer the suburbs than I did. As we looked at real estate listings, we frequently argued about whether a home was too close in or too far out.

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Sometimes we’d find ourselves gridlocked and have to table the discussion and come back to it after we’d calmed down. There were times before this when tensions rose high — and big arguments ended with one or both of us being angry. We didn’t know how to lower the tension.

Then we learned how to lower the emotional tension and acknowledge each other’s strongly held positions. While our disagreements temporarily raised the tension between us, we didn’t let it lower our relationship satisfaction. This is a trait common among many satisfied couples who run up against strong disagreements.

Related: What the Smartest Spouses Do 

This is how it’s done:

Discover each other’s dreams. Sit together. Consider holding hands or each other. Positive touch is physically soothing and can lower the tension between you.

Take turns telling each other what your world would look like if the disagreement were resolved. While each spouse takes their turn talking, the other listens. Express your dream in positive terms, telling your spouse what you want, rather than what you don’t want.

The listener’s goal is to understand the other’s dream. Be curious, and ask for more detail or explanations that may help you see the issue through your spouse’s eyes.

Once a spouse finishes sharing the dream, the listener’s task is to explain in his or her own words what he understood the dream to be. When doing this, avoid criticizing your spouse’s dream. Don’t get defensive when she expresses wishes you haven’t granted. And never say to each other, “You need to calm down.”

If the tension gets too uncomfortable, acknowledge your own need to calm down.

If the tension gets too uncomfortable, acknowledge your own need to calm down. Agree on a time out and make plans to pick up the discussion later, when you both have low levels of tension. Then give each other some space and do something physically soothing to let off some steam.

Support each other’s dreams. After each spouse has taken a turn telling each other their dreams, give support if you can. Consider these different levels of support:

Showing continued interest. After this initial discussion is over, continue to be curious about your spouse’s dream. Ask questions about it, and listen without judging, criticizing or getting defensive.

For example, when my wife and I were looking at properties, I’d ask my wife if she thought it was too far out of her comfort zone. She’d tell me if it was. When I was at my best, I’d just listen and acknowledge her concerns. Showing interest doesn’t mean you agree, but that you care.

Sponsor each other’s dream. In many situations, a spouse can support a husband or wife’s dream without taking part in it. This may be through verbal encouragement, financial support, or giving time and effort to make at least part of that dream come true.

Several years ago, I dreamed of taking my wife and daughter to Africa for a short-term mission experience. My wife refused to go. But one day she surprised me by telling me she wanted me and my daughter to go. She even researched and found an organization we could travel with to Kenya on a two-week service project.

Related: A Happier Marriage: Seven Surprising Secrets

Make the dream come true. Sometimes after a husband and wife understand each other’s dreams, love compels one or both to compromise. This involves trading part or all of your dream for your spouse’s happiness.

That’s what we did to finally settle on a location for our home. The home we chose isn’t as remote as I wanted — and it isn’t as close to town as my wife wanted. But, for both of us, it has become a happy place because we understood and respected each other’s dreams.

Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”

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