"What can I give you to help you give me what I want?"
That's the question therapist Terrence Real recommends that couples ask each other in his book, The New Rules of Marriage.
And if that sounds like bartering to get your needs met, you get the idea.
Consider how this approach might work when it comes to settling arguments about the routine tasks that comprise maintaining the house and the family.
Maria and Jorge sat in my office frustrated and resentful over their division of labor.
"When I ask you to do the trash or pick up some of the kid's toys, you tell me that you will do it later but later never comes while you sit for hours in front of the computer,'' Maria told Jorge. "When do I get to watch TV or do something for myself?"
Jorge groaned and told Maria how much she reminded him of his mother.
"You're always nagging me to do something else around the house, never letting me take a break when I first get home from work." Further, he informed her that she could do these chores when she's home with the kids all day.
It was clear to me that in this relationship, nobody was giving and nobody was getting.
These types of arguments are all too common, especially among couples with young children. Divvying up the tasks that support family life can be very challenging.
Chronic arguments with no conclusion — it's tough to get far with "you're lazy'' and "you're a nag'' — can chip away at the health of any relationship.
So what's the solution?
Complete task equity may not be achievable, but it may not be necessary, either. As Real writes, "Interpersonal conflicts are not resolved by eradicating differences, but by learning how to manage them."
I often remind couples that healthy relationships are not conflict-free. In fact, there can be more conflict in a healthy relationship, but it gets expressed constructively, by two people who remain committed to listening and finding a compromise that works.
Try some of these strategies the next time the two of you feel stuck arguing about the same old topic:
1. Practice the art of active listening. That means quieting the chatter inside your head and directing all your focus, effort and patience toward your partner. Becoming a better listener benefits all relationships — personally and professionally.
2. Next, observe what emerges inside of you as your partner shares. Maybe you feel anger, frustration or even fear. Breathe deeply and know that you do not have to act on any of these reactions. Simply be aware as you open up to learning from them.
3. When the time is right — when you feel you can discuss it calmly — share what you experienced with your partner. Healthy relationships make room for this degree of self disclosure. Partners are often surprised at the emotions their words trigger in each other. Understanding the impact they have will separate the issue from its emotional charge.
4. Take a cooling off period whenever the discussion becomes too intense. Resolution and closure are integral components of conflict. The goal is to feel heard and respected, allowing the relationship to grow and mature.
Maria and Jorge continued to vent over the course of several sessions, refusing to listen or take responsibility. They each remained so invested in being right that they were left with no room for emotional intimacy and compassion for each other.
I finally suggested that they return only when they feel ready to truly hear each other. For that's the gift each of them needed to give in order to get back the connection both said they wanted.
Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. Petersburg and can be reached at (727) 418-7882, firstname.lastname@example.org or barbararhode.com.