Handling conflict is tough for most couples. On a recent (and wonderful) trip to Vietnam, I learned a new way to think about it. Saigon’s nonstop stream of roaring motorcycles and cars is risky enough to scare even your average jaywalking New Yorker: virtually no traffic lights, lanes or Walk/Don’t Walk signals in a city of 10 million people, with maybe half of them riding motorbikes. But stepping off the curb with simple instructions from a local guide, I got home safely. So can you and your partner next time you disagree. Borrowing from my guide’s advice on crossing Saigon streets, here are 3 simple rules for fighting well:
- Walk forward slowly. You and your spouse know exactly which topics set you off, right? So you worry that no matter how you parse your words, the conversation will end up hurtful or hostile, just as surely as any Saigon pedestrian would surely get flattened by stepping into the oncoming traffic. Slow and steady. Getting where you want to go will take courage and commitment. Don’t give up or clam up or you’ll end up resentful. Keep breathing, remind yourself that you love this person and are trying to build a stronger connection, and move ahead one step at a time.
- Don’t run. Like a Vietnamese pedestrian facing the engines’ roar, you’re bound to find it challenging to stay calm when your spouse gives you the frown, the negative comment, or the silent treatment you know all too well. Your lizard brain really wants to take over. But when you lose it or get mean or push to persuade your partner, you’re giving into fear. You’re like the Saigon walker who breaks into a run halfway across a street of speeding motorbikes and cars, a move guaranteed to end in an accident. Take it easy. Instead of escalating the argument, take a breath. Give yourself and your partner time to think, listen to each other, and reflect. Count to ten. Choose your words. Instead of assuming the worst, ask a clarifying question (“Is this what you mean?”). See #1.
- Maintain eye contact. Westerners like to describe crossing a Saigon street as a solitary act of courage or insanity: you step in front of speeding vehicles, fingers crossed, and hope for the best. What’s really happening, though, is a responsiveness between driver and walker. You thread your way through the motorbikes and cars as the drivers and riders swerve to avoid you. Lacking traffic lights to control the flow, everything depends on that connection. Same goes for a tough conversation with your spouse. No matter how obvious or important or urgent your own point of view, holding on tight to your connection with your partner is the only way for the two of you to cross to safety. Not only will you avert disaster that way, but you’ll end up feeling proud: together you’ve faced a challenge and come out on the other side.