There’s a new book out, Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During a Pandemic, released yesterday on Amazon. The brainchild of Michael Lang and Peter Nicholson, the book features conflict resolution advice for couples and families from over 70 mediators and related professionals from 10 countries. Here’s my contribution and more details about the collective wisdom in the book.
Couples can have big fights, frequent conflict, and bicker, yet still have healthy, fulfilling relationships. We know that conflict can damage a relationship, so why do some relationships with frequent conflict nevertheless weather the storms, survive — and even thrive?
Research suggests that these three conditions help protect couples from the negative effects of conflict:
- How well you think your partner understands your thoughts, feelings, and point of view, even if they don’t agree with you. This “perceived understanding” seems to buffer a relationship from the downsides of conflict, helping couples recover better from arguments and view conflict as a healthy part of a normal relationship.
- Being able to “psychologically distance” yourself in the heat of an argument. Psychological distancing is just a trick of the mind to help you look at the argument from the outside in. Psychological distancing has been shown to help with self-control and problem solving, key factors for conflict resolution.
- Avoiding rumination. Rumination is dwelling on hurt and angry feelings. This kind of “self-immersive” behavior after a fight can fuel ongoing anger and cause displaced aggression (such as lashing out at your child, who innocently wanders into the room at the wrong time).
You can use this information if you’re still together and want to keep your relationship healthy, and you can use this information if you’re separated and want to minimize the frustration of conflict. Here are five ways to use it:
Agree in advance on a “pause” word or phrase. Anyone in the conversation may use the pause word to signal they believe the argument is escalating and they want to call a timeout. When one of you uses the pause phrase, the discussion ends for now; even a few minutes’ break can help. A pause word or phrase might be, “I’m calling pause” or, more humorously, “Ok, let’s fight about it!”
Mentally distance yourself in time. Use the pause to picture yourself a year from now, looking back on this argument. Silently describe to yourself how you feel about the argument, as you look back at it. This quick mental trick, called “prospection,” is helpful for regaining emotional self-control, improving relationship well-being, and boosting insight.
Acknowledge even when you don’t agree. Acknowledging doesn’t mean you agree, just that you understand. When you acknowledge their point and feelings, you help build the kind of “perceived understanding” that makes relationships more resilient during stressful times.
Give back the last word. Even if you’re separated or divorced, if you have children together, it’s better for everyone not to damage the relationship more. If you’ve got to have the last word, try to make it one that conveys you “get” your conversation partner.
Replace ruminating with this thought exercise. If you find yourself dwelling on hurt feelings and angry thoughts after an argument, redirect your mind to consider the argument from the perspective of an impartial observer who wants the best for you both. How would they describe what happened? What would they suggest you do differently next time? What positive aspect would they have noticed in the argument? It can be helpful to do this exercise in writing if you can.
About the book
Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During a Pandemic offers guidance for couples in three types of situations:
- Couples who are living together, not contemplating separation or divorce, who find themselves increasingly stressed by 24/7 togetherness and/or financial uncertainty.
- Couples who are sheltering in place together while one or both are thinking about or already in the process of separation and divorce.
- Couples who are already divorced or separated, no longer living together, with shared parenting or ongoing financial ties, and trying to adjust to conditions caused by the pandemic.
The intentionally short essays in the book are meant as bite-sized, practical guidance for easing tension and managing life at home during these difficult times. I’ve had a chance to read the entire book and it’s just chock full of smart, do-able ideas and wisdom. Those of us who contributed — mediators, financial experts, mental health experts, child experts, lawyers, and more — are united in a commitment to use our knowledge and experience to help make life just a bit better for families during the pandemic.