Pandemic have you bickering? How to fight fair
Tips for having a productive conversation when couples disagree
Some couples forced to stay at home together during the pandemic have found all that togetherness trying. Worry about safety from COVID-19, personal losses from the pandemic including illness and death of loved ones, home-schooling children, economic insecurity and a loss of routine that may include a change in diet and exercise can add up to unprecedented stress.
We are not talking about intimate partner violence. That has also seen an increase during the pandemic for some of the above reasons. This article is about verbal conflict resolution, not abuse.
There is no hard data in Canada yet to show a definitive increase in divorce, in part because some courts closed down, but some lawyers say interest in divorce has increased. For example Russell Alexander, a collaborative family divorce lawyer in Lindsay, Ont., says divorce filings at his practice were up 30 per cent in the last year.
"The pressure of the pandemic has made a lot of people very, very unhappy," says Jacinta Gallant, a divorce lawyer in Charlottetown who specializes in mediation to help couples build separation agreements. She's even written a couple of workbooks on the subject to help her clients prepare for mediation, and her firm's marketing tag line is "finding solutions when relationships matter."
"Their emotional reaction to the pressure they're under as individuals makes relationship pressure even harder," she said.
Gallant said her practice hasn't seen an increase in couples seeking divorce during the pandemic — "the divorce inquiries are always steady," she notes. "But I would say that our inquiries have a higher level of anxiety than normal. People seem more stressed and many tell us that they do not want to go to court. So when they see our website and the way we work with clients, they feel relieved to know that it is possible to work things out without court."
The busyness of life, particularly when parents are raising children, can often get in the way of what the couple needs as a couple.— Jacinta Gallant
Often, couples experience conflict over money or parenting styles. But Gallant said it's not the topic of the fight that usually matters — she points out there are often solutions — but rather the destructive way a couple fights that make it hard to heal the relationship.
Gallant maintains there are ways to successfully resolve conflict, with respect, patience, caring and listening — but no real way to "fight fair."
"Most people in an intimate relationship would realize that a fight often ends up with a winner and a loser, or both people feeling they equally have lost," she said. "And as a divorce lawyer and mediator, I can say that the word 'fair' means different things to different people.
"We think that the argument itself is a vehicle to get somewhere, and it's actually not," she said. Arguments don't usually result in what people want them to, she said, which is the other person seeing their point of view.
"It's all tied up in how do we learn to listen and understand one other, that's like a human need," she said.
Power of curiosity is key
Gallant said defusing conflict so that couples are able to seek resolution comes down to one word: curiosity.
"What I've been putting out as a mediator, as a lawyer and somebody who trains people to work in conflict, is the power of curiosity and how we can use it to defuse conflict and help people hear one another," she said.
Sincere curiosity shows a desire to understand your partner, and can de-escalate arguments by demonstrating caring, Gallant said.
She noted that even couples who know one another so well they finish each other's sentences can argue in times of stress because of built-up assumptions and the baggage of old conflicts.
"We forget that one thing that can really revitalize a relationship is learning something new about one another," she said.
When couples feel conflict begin to build in a discussion, she advises each of them to pause on their assumptions and take a moment to "be curious" about what is causing the other person's reaction, and to notice your own defensiveness when it comes up.
In moments of high emotion it can be hard to be curious, she said, because it can seem the other person doesn't care or isn't listening.
"I might have to work like hell if I'm not feeling it," Gallant said, but it works. "This is really, really challenging stuff."
To learn new things about one another, she advises couples set date nights, take a vacation, or even just plan to take 20 minutes daily to chat about one another's day. "The busyness of life, particularly when parents are raising children, can often get in the way of what the couple needs as a couple."
Notice when you get defensive
Gallant encourages couples to start with noticing when they get defensive.
"The first step to trying to clear up communication with your partner is to notice those moments when you yourself get defensive," Gallant said. Often one person getting defensive will cause the other person to do the same, and communication breaks down.
"We're too busy trying to prove that we were right, or we've been wronged," she said.
The only person in a fight that you have any control over is you, she points out, and simply repeating your point at increasing volume is not going to work because the other person will stop listening.
I think you can fight fair. You just have to take the fight out of it.— Jacinta Gallant
Make sure you are hearing your partner correctly, and confirm you understand what they mean, she advises — ask them calmly what they mean, because simple misunderstandings are at the root of many conflicts.
If the argument has become counterproductive and you decide it won't result in any understanding, agree to pause, calm down and come back in an agreed period of time.
This is not the same as avoiding conflict, Gallant said. However, knowing you and your partner's natural conflict style — such as avoiding conflict, accommodating the other person, problem-solving/collaborating, or competing to be right — can be very helpful in understanding your own dynamic and how to manage it, she said — not to win arguments, but to resolve conflicts with understanding and respect.
"You'd be surprised to learn how many lawyers are actually conflict avoiders! We'd rather avoid conflict in our personal lives, but we're happy to engage with it in a court battle," Gallant said.
Couples can heal
Gallant said sometimes, in the process of working out separation agreements, couples discover more about themselves and why they've been disagreeing, and decide to give their marriage another chance.
"Sometimes people come to the realization that what they were fighting about or all the things that led them to decide to separate, can be healed," Gallant said. "If you can open up people's minds to something new ... that's where curiosity shows up."
Simply the difference between extroverts who like to process by talking things through, and introverts who like to collect their thoughts before speaking, can lead couples to rub one another the wrong way, she said. Simply identifying this possible difference in a partner and understanding it can reduce misunderstanding.
"People tend to be less judgmental of one another when they realize it's a thing, it's the way we roll, the way we show up," she said. "We often expect our partners to be more like us and to want the same things that we want, so we think ... they're us. But they're not."
Sound like hard work? It is, Gallant said.
"I think you can fight fair. You just have to take the fight out of it," she said. If people are mismatched, sometimes they are able work through it and sometimes they choose to separate, she said.
She also points out Canada's new Divorce Act requires lawyers to tell clients there are family dispute resolution processes available to them instead of court, and that parents have a duty to explore that.
Get on the the same page at the beginning
Gallant has just developed a new workbook for clients at the beginning of their relationships called Designing Our Future Together. It provides exercises and questions couples can take home and answer together as they embark on a shared future, so they can decide whether they need a prenuptial or marriage contract.
"It's very practical," Gallant said. It asks couples about their values, trust, kids, money, and communication style. Do they want to travel? How much financial risk and debt can they tolerate?
Couples can come up with a plan for what they do when there is disruptive change, or they disagree. Something as simple as agreeing whether they want to talk in person, on the phone or via text messages is important, Gallant said.
"Consulting a lawyer at the beginning of your life together can seem pretty negative! So we want clients to look at their relationship, look at their goals," she said. "We're trying to build a whole positive vibe around that."
Gallant's previous two workbooks, Our Family in Two Homes and Our Family in a Few Homes, have been exported to eight countries and translated in to four languages so far.