The three-tiered approach to managing conflict for couples, Part I: Stay in your lane

One of the most commons questions I receive as a psychologist is how to manage conflict between two partners in a relationship, and how one partner can communicate with the other partner in moments of tension. However, before considering how one should communicate in conflict–a topic discussed by many psychologists and therapists–people first need to understand the tension. In my experience, providing categories for different types of conflict can help couples label the disagreement and decide how to best respond in a way that fosters a stronger relationship with healthier and more effective communication.

This approach has three categories, and I will talk about the first in this post. The first category is what I call the “stay-in-your-lane” approach. Just as when driving, sometimes the best way to move through traffic is to ignore the jostling going on around you, put on blinders, and stay the course without getting distracted. Similarly, there are times in your relationship that something bugs you, but the best strategy is to ignore it because it’s not your business.

What is an example of something that falls into this category? Of course, each couple and each communication is unique, and what is a “stay-in-your-lane” conflict for one may be of a different category for another couple–but let’s consider the following circumstance.

After a number of years of marriage, the husband, who typically attended services at synagogue daily, stops going as regularly. The wife wants him to go to shul because she believes that it is proper for him pray with the congregation, and it bothers her that he has become lax with shul attendance. Of course, in a healthy relationship she will be able to speak with him about changes in his life and decisions, and she may be a primary support for him if this change is a result of struggles that he is experiencing. But ultimately, his decision of whether to attend shul regularly is his decision, reflecting his own relationship with God, his own priorities balancing daily life-needs. The role of his wife, in this instance, is to recognize that although she may be saddened by this decision, it is his make.

Many other examples of this type of conflict may arise regularly, from how one spouse organizes their belongings to how they spend money on small purchases that are within the family budget. Conversations about these topics are appropriate, but ultimately the way to resolving the tension is to “stay-in-your-lane.”