“Larry and I get along OK a lot of the time, but whenever we talk about who’s doing what or how we’re spending money, the fights can get really intense, sometimes even scary, and they never seem to settle anything.”

Disagreements and grievances are normal in any relationship, whether it’s between two parents, or between two nations or peoples. All too often, though, they get out of hand, leading to hurt feelings, anger, and lashing out.

Your best chance of resolving a quarrel is to do the four things below, even if you just do them yourself. If your partner participates, all the better! But waiting for the other person to do the right thing only leads to gridlock – so your best bet is to take steps yourself, unilaterally if necessary, because that is the best way to evoke good behavior from the other person, take their issues with you off the table, and let you take your stand on the high moral ground.

  1. Protect yourself – Anticipate situations in which you are likely to be let down by the other person, and try to avoid them by developing more support from elsewhere, like other parents. Eliminate abusive or inflammatory language by not using it yourself; instead, try to stay calm, be civil, and speak with good intent. Ask your partner to do the same, and if necessary, let them know that you will withdraw from the conversation if they speak to you in a way that is out of line. Stop fights from escalating by agreeing in advance that either of you can call time out. And if there is any possibility of violent or threatening behavior, contact a therapist, woman’s shelter, or the police.
  2. Assert your needs – Get a reality check on the validity of your needs or issues by talking with people you trust who love and support you. Sort out any over-reactions on your part, and then get serious and determined about the legitimate needs that remain. Identify the specific behaviors from your partner that would address them – both their outward actions and their internal attitudes and intentions.

Then find ways to tell them what you want (while reminding yourself that what you want is legitimate!), such as in ordinary conversation, or by writing a note, leaving a message at work, talking in a neutral place like a restaurant, or involving a third party like a mutual friend, a minister, or a therapist. Stay on your topic and agree to address their issues later. Do not muddy the water by bringing in unrelated grievances, getting overly emotional, or overwhelming the other with words. Be direct, succinct, matter of fact, and self-controlled.

Use genuine humor and warmth to lift the mood. Build on any positive moves they make by being positive yourself and acknowledging progress toward getting what you want. State your understanding of how you each are saying things will be from now on; write them down if that’s clarifying.

  1. Extend the hand of reconciliation – The fastest, most direct way to get another person to behave better and be nicer is to find out what their complaints are and then do everything reasonable to make them go away. It’s not easy, it’s the road less travelled, but it’s the way that works best of all.

Find out what you could do, concretely and specifically, that would make your partner feel better about the situations that bothers the other, or your life in general. Try to set aside your own reactions to answer three questions for yourself: In what ways am I at fault here and should make changes? Separate from being at fault, in what ways could I be more skillful? And separate from matters of fault or skill, how could I simply be more giving or gracious? Then take action steadfastly – with dignity and self-respect, with a sense of choosing to act rather than being forced into anything – to implement the answers to these questions.

  1. Be compassionate – This one is listed last because it’s probably the hardest one to do, but it’s actually the most important of all. Everyone suffers in some way, and you can see the suffering inside another person any time you look – just like he or she can see it inside of you. They’re hurting, and that pain is fuelling their quarrel with you.

By understanding the other’s stresses, anxiety, frustrations, anger, and losses better, you will have more perspective on why they are acting the way they do, and you will be more able to work things out with them peacefully. Also, they will sense your good intentions, and that will draw more understanding and compassion out of them. We all live under the same roof – whether it’s the one over your kitchen or it’s the thin skin of blue sky covering our precious planet – and compassion for the difficult parts of everyone’s life is the foundation of being able to live together.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.