Learn to Disagree with Your Significant Other in Healthy and Productive Ways

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In his book, Out of the Doghouse: A Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating, Dr. Rob Weiss lists seven things that cheating men can do to help mend their damaged relationship. These seven tasks include:

  1. Develop empathy for your partner.
  2. Learn to disagree in healthy and productive ways.
  3. Instead of telling your partner you care, show it.
  4. Always keep the need to rebuild relationship trust in mind.
  5. Anticipate and deal with potential hazards before they happen.
  6. Don’t forget about self-care.
  7. Express gratitude to your partner.

In this post, we will examine task #2 on this list: learning to disagree in healthy and productive ways.

In any relationship, disagreements are inevitable. After the discovery of betrayal, this is doubly true. And this is not a bad thing. Believe it or not, arguments can evolve into relationship repair and deeper intimacy—as long as they’re conducted in a healthy and productive way. If you and your partner struggle to do this, we suggest that you read through and try to implement the following guidelines.

Respectful Conflict Agreement

The purpose of this agreement is to create a safe and intimate environment for conversations when we are in conflict—establishing respectful guidelines and boundaries that allow for the healthy expression of emotions, ensuring that both parties feel heard even if full agreement is not reached.

  • We agree that we are allies and on the same team.
  • We agree to review this agreement weekly and before attempting to resolve any conflict. We agree to do our utmost to uphold this agreement.
  • If either of us needs a time-out to cool off, we agree in advance that the first time-out will be for fifteen minutes. The person requiring the time-out agrees to say, “I need a time-out for fifteen minutes. I am not leaving the discussion or the relationship. I just need a short time-out.” That person then leaves the room, going for a short walk or having a brief phone conversation with a supportive friend—always returning on time to finish the discussion.
  • We agree to limit discussions of loaded topics to twenty minutes. A timer can be used if either of us wishes it. When the time is up, if the conflict is not resolved, we will agree to either continue the discussion for another twenty minutes or to schedule a later time to complete the conversation.
  • We agree to not discuss loaded topics before 9:00 am or after 9:00 pm. (This can be adjusted depending on the couple’s needs and lifestyle.)
  • We agree that we will not engage in name-calling, we will not use offensive language, and we will not be emotionally abusive.
  • We agree that we will not be physically abusive. This includes but is not limited to shoving, hitting, slamming doors, and breaking or throwing things. We also agree to not engage in threatening behavior that we know our partner fears, such as threats of abandonment or exile. If either of us is in fear of the other, we agree to be honest about our feelings.
  • We agree to identify the issue that needs to be discussed and to keep the conversation about that issue only. At the same time, we understand that the problem at hand may trigger, for one or both of us, a core issue from childhood or elsewhere in our past. When this occurs, we agree to differentiate between the present and the past as best we can.
  • We agree to not attempt conflict resolution while driving, while in bed, during the workday, at a place of employment, when hostile behavior may escalate (such as after a few drinks), or when one of us is feeling low, vulnerable, tired, hungry, or otherwise not up to the task.
  • We agree to not attempt conflict resolution in public or in the presence of family members (especially our kids). If conflict erupts at these times, we agree to acknowledge the upset feelings, and to set a time to discuss the issue.
  • We agree to close a conflict resolution conversation with a couple-affirming prayer. (If the couple does not wish to engage in prayer, I generally suggest a couple-centered affirmation, such as, “We love each other, and we know that our differences and disagreements are part of what makes us special.”)
  • We agree to ask for help if either of us feels unable to remain respectful in our attempt to resolve a particular disagreement.

The principles outlined above may seem logical, but they can still be hard to follow. Because of this, we always stress the first item on the list: We agree that we are allies and on the same team. This helps couples understand that they should be fighting the problem, whatever it happens to be, rather than each other. We find that when couples view themselves as members of the same team – the team that wants to make things better – it becomes much, much easier to work together toward the common goal of relationship repair.

If you and your partner are struggling to communicate and heal your relationship, you may want to read Out of the Doghouse and attend one of our weekend healing from betrayal workshops for couples.