Every human relationship occasionally experiences conflict, even if it is unspoken or minor. Even the most loving of partnerships generate friction from time to time. In fact, frequency of arguments is not a predictor of divorce (Gottman, 2015); it’s all about how arguments are dealt with rather than how often or how seldom they occur. Therefore, rather than trying to minimize conflict, it’s more important to equip yourself with the tools to handle it constructively when it comes up. Couples who intentionally spend time developing the vocabulary and knowledge of concepts relevant to conflict resolution are much more well-equipped to successfully navigate the conflicts that come up in close relationships than those who do not invest in these skills.
There are practically as many frameworks for conflict resolution as there are Disney princesses. Selecting a conflict resolution method is kind of like picking out clothes: Sometimes, something that looks amazing on the shelf feels awkward and clunky when you actually try it on, or something that you bought for a fancy dinner won’t work when you’re going to community yoga in the park. Similarly, some methods which are objectively awesome might not fit you (but, do try them out a few times to see if you grow into them!), while others feel suitable for one circumstance and not for another. Arming yourself with know-how related to a few different conflict frameworks will allow you to gauge which suits your personality as well as which ones you can pull out to use in different scenarios.
We’ve combed through expert research and selected two styles for you to try on which are well-researched, well-reputed, and used successfully by millions of people. Both methods have some elements in common, but diverge in important ways. We will explain them both to you, point out their similarities and differences, discuss their relevance when it comes to prenups, and let you try them both on for size. We hope you find a fit!
Over 80% of the population handles conflict in a predominantly submissive way, willfully putting the needs of others before their own, again and again (Bolton, 2009). Another significant portion of the population reacts to conflict in the opposite way, tending instead towards aggression (Bolton, 2009).
Both submission and aggression have many negative consequences for relationships. Submissiveness can take away from intimacy, breed resentment, and diminish self-esteem and even sense of self. Aggressiveness can alienate a loving partner, create a need for the aggressor to constantly manage their partner in order to remain in control, and provoke rebellious responses. Submission and aggression have also both been shown to be related to many physical illnesses related to the stress the emotions they trigger have on the body (Bolton, 2009).
The sane middle ground between submission and aggression is assertion, but very few people are generally assertive at appropriate times (Bolton, 2009).
Assertion messages are used when someone has knowingly or unknowingly caused strife to another. They have 3 parts:
-1. State what, specifically, happened.
-2. State how it made/makes you feel.
-3. State what tangible and concrete negative effect the action has/had (Bolton, 2009).
Let’s take a look at a simple example: “When you don’t clean the counter after making food, I feel very annoyed, because it makes more work for me” is a well-constructed assertion message (Bolton, 2009, p. 142).
However, there are some other considerations to keep in mind if you want to help your partner understand why they should make an adjustment to meet your needs.
In step 1, what happened should be described objectively and non-judgmentally. Any words that imply judgment should be omitted. The observation should also be very specific. The description should be of behaviors; the character, intentions, and thoughts of your partner should not be assumed. Finally, absolutes such as always, never, and constantly should be avoided (Bolton, 2009).
Here’s step 1 of an assertion message gone awry:
“Yesterday, you selfishly forgot to introduce me to your friend again, and this always happens when we run into someone you know.”
The first part assumes the character (selfish) of the other person and the second devolves into absolutes (‘always’).
In step 2, it is essential that you use the correct feeling word. The message is more effective if it is genuine, so the associated feeling should not be exaggerated or minimized. Take time to step back and reflect a bit in order to choose the correct feeling word. Here, too, it is important to avoid words that imply judgment or blame (Bolton, 2009). For example, “I feel abandoned” implies blame; it implies that the other person abandoned you and it is likely to inspire a highly defensive reaction. However, a small adjustment like “I feel alone” conveys a similar message without implying that your partner is to blame.
Understood incorrectly, one may see assertion messaging as a way to get your partner to change their values to accommodate yours (Bolton, 2009). Although we all secretly or not-so-secretly wish that our partner shared all of our values, this is neither a.) realistic or b.) the goal of assertion messaging. Here’s one not to use (part 3 is in bold):
“When you wear jeans when we go to a nice restaurant together, I feel embarrassed, because I worry about how others will judge me when they see me with someone who is not dressed for the occasion.”
This person values formality more than their partner, which is fine. However, a values-centered assertion message is actually an aggression in disguise, because it infringes upon the other person’s values in an attempt to enforce your own. (Bolton, 2009).
Lastly, the whole assertion message should be concise and to-the-point. One sentence should be enough, and rather than making a request you should let your partner propose a solution (Bolton, 2009).
It would be amazing if most conflicts were solved swiftly, but we all know that it isn’t always that easy. Even if you take the time and energy to craft a truly exemplary assertion message, you may need to go through the cycle of stating your assertion message, listening calmly and reflectively as your partner becomes defensive, restating your assertion message when their defensiveness decreases, and repeating the cycle a few more times before they feel heard and calm enough to truly hear you and propose a solution. This is normal, so don’t be discouraged! (Bolton, 2009).
Those who are well-versed in communication skills might notice that the first two steps of an assertion message are nearly identical to the first two steps in Marshall Rosenberg’s popular and well-known Nonviolent Communication (NVC) framework. Here are the basics the of how NVC approaches conflict resolution:
1. Make an observation (Rosenberg, 2003). For example, “I noticed that yesterday when we agreed that you would clean after I cooked, some dishes were still in the sink the next morning and the cooktop was dirty.”
The observation must be objective. A subjective interpretation with which your partner does not agree is likely to be challenged (Sofer, 2018 & Terzian, 2018).
2. State how it made/makes you feel.
Are you noticing a theme here? NVC also emphasizes that it is important to choose the correct feeling word and not use feeling words that implicitly blame your partner (Rosenberg, 2003).
3. State your needs. Needs = deeper desires underlying feelings (Rosenberg, 2003).
For example, a feeling of desperation when a partner withdraws emotionally may be underscored by a need for emotional intimacy. In NVC, the step of naming your feeling is taken even further by unearthing the need(s) beneath the feeling. This is not done when using an assertion message, which prefers to instead name how the action of another is tangibly affecting your life (Bolton, 2009).
4. Finally, the last step of the NVC system is to make a request based on the needs, feelings, and observations presented (Rosenberg, 2003).
For example, you might say “I noticed that you left your dishes in the sink for the past three nights, and I feel frustrated because my need for mutuality is not being met. Can you please take extra care to wash your dishes in the future?”
Do you notice that this contradicts the assertion message system? With an assertion message, you would say something like “I noticed that you left your dishes in the sink for the past three nights and I feel frustrated because it makes more work for me.” Assertion messaging does not focus on or make space for discussing needs. Instead, the focus is geared towards the tangible effects of a behavior.
Another notable divergence is that the NVC process includes proposing a solution, whereas assertion messages explicitly prohibits proposing a solution because not doing so is said to preserve the dignity of the other person and because it encourages collaboration when they can come up with a workable solution by themselves (Bolton, 2009).
Both systems are reputable and known to have helped numerous individuals and couples make positive changes in their relationships, despite their differences. This is why it’s important to try out different frameworks for different people and different conflicts. Delving into needs might be important to some people or in some situations, while others would prefer to focus on the tangible effects of what happened. Proposing a solution might come across as useful in some contexts and condescending in others. Nonviolent communication has a flavor of being more intimate, whereas assertion messaging feels more matter-of-fact.
Assertion Messages, NVC, and Prenups
When you are in the process of writing your prenup, it’s natural that you and your partner won’t immediately be on the same page about everything. Although this is an incredibly important document and a process whose benefits far outweigh its difficulties, many couples experience a few tense moments. Enter assertion messaging and NVC! Used skillfully, these tools can draw you closer through tense moments.
Avery and Ophelia are talking about how to structure the debt liability section of their prenup. Ophelia has $70,000 of student loan debt from her undergrad at a small liberal arts school. She has barely put a dent in it, and will likely never earn enough income to keep the interest from snowballing. Avery has no debt. In a few years, Avery and Ophelia plan to have kids. They want a big family, and they both agree that when the time comes, Ophelia should stop working and stay at home with them until the youngest is at least 6.
It’s important to Avery that he doesn’t have to assume any responsibility for Ophelia’s debts. His education was more practical and less expensive, and he has always thought that anyone who chooses an expensive liberal arts education should be prepared to pay back their debts.
Ophelia, on the other hand, feels that since she will invest so much of her life into raising their children and caring for their family, Avery’s financial support (should they ever decide to divorce) should extend to her debts as well. She won’t be able to pay them back while she’s at home, and for the same reason she won’t be able to further develop her skills and ability to land a job that pays well enough to pay off her debts.
The discussion about the debt liability clause of their prenup quickly snowballs into a high-stakes argument wrought with tension. Which framework might they use to convey their perspectives to one another?
Here’s an example of an assertion message from Ophelia:
When you refuse to assume responsibility for the debt I won’t be able to pay after raising kids, I feel panicked and alone, because should we ever divorce (God forbid), I would be left on my own with few monetizable skills and a mountain of debt.
Here’s an example of the NVC framework, as used by Avery:
You stated that I should assume responsibility for your debt. I felt heavy and indignant, because I have a need for financial security and freedom. Could you please acknowledge and appreciate my needs before we continue this discussion?
This couple’s conflict resolution prowess doesn’t mean the process is easy. Although their use of assertion messaging and NVC serve as a starting point for them to begin to consider one another’s perspectives, it takes Avery and Ophelia the next few weeks to work through their feelings and expectations before finally settling on an agreement they’re both happy with. Ophelia will do some more schooling or professional training (subsidized in part by Avery) on the side before having kids, and Avery agrees to cover 60% of the remaining debt in case of divorce if Ophelia isn’t making a certain amount of money.
Without correctly using assertion messages, NVC, or other conflict resolution frameworks, Avery and Ophelia may have been driven apart after encountering what could have been a fatal rift. Take the time to educate yourselves on how to solve conflicts as a couple; it’s one of the best ways to strengthen and reinforce your relationship.
Bolton, R. (2009). People Skills. New York: Touchstone.
Rosenberg, M. (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, California: Puddledancer Press.
Sofer, O. J. (2018). Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.