“Their relationship consisted in discussing if it existed.” Sadly, that line from Thom Gunn sums up the miserable state that many couples find themselves in right now. Lockdown may have ended, but the strain has pushed an alarming number of relationships to the brink.
China’s Wuhan province saw its divorce rate double after its 70-day-long quarantine was relaxed. In Australia, the scenario also looks bleak. The Separation Guide, a national information and mediation group, reported a 314 per cent spike in the number of couples now considering splitting up since the social restrictions began.
“It’s really placed relationships under great pressure,” says John Aitken, a veteran relationship specialist and one of the experts on Channel 9’s Married at First Sight. “Because you have issues with alcohol, domestic violence, problems with finances. You also have lack of quality couple time and real uncertainty about the future.
“That is the perfect storm for a couple. If you were not particularly good before COVID, imagine what you’re like now.”
Given these additional stress-points, if you’re finding yourself arguing more with your partner, then you’re certainly not alone. But this road-tested strategy could help you to defuse your next altercation.
Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg is world-renowned as the Zen-master of conflict resolution. He’s built that reputation after pioneering a method called Non-Violent Communication that advocates deep listening to improve a sense of connection. As part of that, there’s one simple tactic that you can instantly use to stop a dispute from spiralling out of control.
Rosenberg emphasises the benefits of paraphrasing back to the other person what they just have said in order to demonstrate that you are really listening to them.
“Studies in labour-management negotiations demonstrate that the time to reach conflict resolution is cut in half when each negotiator agrees, before responding, to accurately repeat what the last speaker said,” Rosenberg writes in his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, .
Other research has reinforced this idea that verbal repetition can help you to hose down a conflict. One German study that investigated the effects found that “participants reported feeling less negative after hearing the interviewer paraphrase what they had said.”
The good news? It doesn’t just work on disgruntled spouses either. You can also use it with your kids to let them feel heard or, if they’re really little, help them to articulate the cause of their distress.
I tried it with my three-year-old this morning and discovered, the reason he was so nonplussed was that I’d committed the breakfast atrocity of cutting his vegemite toast into squares not triangles. Ultimately, this paraphrasing tactic boils down to using empathy to try and reach a place of mutual understanding. And understand the correct geometry of toast.