Couples with conflicts often don’t seem to be offering peace and goodwill to each other. In other words, they are not allies in finding resolution. They seem to want war and cruelty. Instead of being allies they are opponents. It’s no wonder that they can’t resolve their conflicts with each other.
Marital conflict resolution requires an understanding and respect for each other’s perspective before they think of possible resolutions. Then, with that understanding, they try to find resolutions that work for both of them. It’s the only logical way for a couple to approach conflicts and go on to resolve them.
But if they try to make their own perspectives dominant, ignoring the perspectives of the other, failure is inevitable. They interrupt each other, speak louder and louder, become disrespectful toward each other’s perspectives, and lose their tempers. They insist that their own way of doing things is the right way, and their spouse’s way is wrong.
That adversarial approach to conflict resolution doesn’t work. All it does is prove to each of them that their spouse doesn’t care about how they feel. And at the time of the argument, that’s a correct judgment. They lack good will toward each other.
Good will is an attitude of kindness and compassion. It reflects a willingness to do good — to help others thrive. It’s what spouses should feel toward each other if they want to resolve their conflicts the right way.
Couples need to have good will toward each other when they are in conflict, which is often! Allies want the other to succeed. So when you and your spouse don’t agree, each should be tempted to sacrifice or give in to each other. But since neither wants the other to lose, they don’t let each other lose. Instead, they negotiate until they find a resolution that makes both winners.
If you are not allies and want each other to win, each tries to force their own perspectives on each other. Each wants to win at all costs. But if you have good will, you won’t do that to each other. Investigate each other’s perspectives to see how both could win. Don’t interrupt each other (invalidate), talk louder and louder, become disrespectful toward each other’s perspectives, or become angry. Instead, resolve the conflict peacefully.
Do you feel good will toward each other? If you are demanding, disrespectful, and angry when you are in conflict, you feel the opposite. You both care only about yourselves. So as you try to resolve conflicts that way, you are sure to feel that your spouse doesn’t care about you. But then, you don’t care about your spouse either.
The goal in marital conflict resolution is extremely important. If you both want to resolve conflicts, you must both win (allies). Otherwise, one of you will feel that the conflict isn’t resolved. So that should always be your goal: win-win. But that approach does more than resolve conflicts. It also makes you care for each other. It’s good will.
But how is good will possible when there has been a long history of the opposite — thoughtlessness. Over the years, you may have experienced such selfishness that your only defense has been to fight fire with fire. If your spouse thinks only of himself or herself, you have no other choice but to do the same for your self-preservation. You may feel that good will has worked for Joyce and me only because we are both thoughtful people. But you are not married to a thoughtful person, so you find yourself compelled to be thoughtless, too.
It’s a vicious cycle. When one spouse commits a thoughtlessness act, or makes a demand, the other spouse feels game on. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Its easy to slip from being thoughtful to being thoughtless. But once you find yourselves being thoughtless, how do you go back to being thoughtful?
To help couples break free from this vicious cycle, Dr. Willard Harley created a rule to turn thoughtless marriages into thoughtful marriages. The rule is the Policy of Joint Agreement: Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse. It’s what spouses do when they both have good will toward each other. But for spouses that don’t have good will toward each other, it forces them to act as if they did.
In the beginning, the Policy of Joint Agreement is not easy to follow for these spouses. But as they both demonstrate to each other that they can actually be thoughtful when they make decisions, the rule eventually becomes almost second nature it becomes a natural expression of their newly discovered good will.
Some couples object to following this procedure because they don’t want to pretend that they have good will toward each other when they don’t feel it. They want their good will to come from the heart or not at all.
But behaving as if you both want each other to win not only creates wise resolutions to conflicts, but it also helps builds your love for each other instead of destroying your love. Dr Harley has demonstrated to couples for over 40 years that if they act in a caring way toward each other, their care will eventually come from their hearts.