Healing Your Broken Relationship: Learning to Productively Disagree

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In their book, Out of the Doghouse for Christian Men: A Redemptive Guide for Men Caught Cheating, authors Robert Weiss and Marnie Ferree list eight specific things that men (or women) who’ve engaged in sexual infidelity (with or without the presence of sex addiction/compulsivity) can do to help mend their damaged relationship. Although this advice comes from a book written for a Christian audience, we believe that the advice given is useful regardless of your spiritual belief system.

According to Weiss and Ferree, the eight actions you can take to repair your connection with your significant other include:

  • Develop empathy for your partner.
  • Learn to disagree in healthy and productive ways.
  • Instead of telling your partner you care, show it.
  • Always keep the need to rebuild relationship trust in mind.
  • Anticipate and deal with potential hazards before they happen.
  • Don’t forget about self-care.
  • Express gratitude to your partner.
  • View love as a verb.

In this post, we will examine the second item on this list: learning to disagree in healthy and productive ways.

Being in the doghouse after you cheated (with or without the presence of sexual addiction/compulsivity) is not fun. For starters, your betrayed partner will tend to get angry with you for seemingly no reason, and there’s little you can do about that. For the most part, you just have to sit there and take it. And usually that’s what your partner wants. Occasionally, however, your partner will want to argue with you. In fact, he or she might almost insist on it, no matter how hard you try to sit quietly.

In these situations, it sometimes helps to remember that disagreements aren’t a bad thing. Believe it or not, arguments can evolve into deeper relationship intimacy. In addition, your partner’s desire to argue with you is a strong indication that he or she still cares about you. Think about it: Do you argue with people you don’t care about, over topics you don’t care about? Probably not. So you partner wanting to fight with you is a sign that your relationship still matters. The trick, of course, is learning to resolve these conflicts in ways that strengthen rather than diminish your relationship, which can be very difficult after the betrayal of infidelity.

Weiss and Ferree state that when they have clients who seem to disagree and fight a lot without accomplishing much in the process, they present them with the following guidelines for respectful conflict resolution.

Respectful Conflict Agreement

The purpose of this agreement is to create a safe and intimate environment for conversations when we’re in conflict. It offers a way to establish respectful guidelines and boundaries that allow for the healthy expression of emotions, and to ensure that both parties feel heard even if full agreement isn’t reached.

  • We agree that we are allies and on the same team.
  • We agree to review this agreement weekly and before attempting to resolve any conflict. We agree to do our utmost to uphold this agreement.
  • If either of us needs a time-out to cool off, we agree in advance that the first time-out will be for fifteen minutes. The person requesting the time-out agrees to say, “I need a time-out for fifteen minutes. I’m not leaving the discussion or the relationship. I just need a short time-out.” That person then leaves the room and goes for a short walk or has a brief phone conversation with a supportive friend, and then returns on time to finish the discussion.
  • We agree to limit discussions of loaded topics to twenty minutes. A timer can be used if either of us wishes it. When the time is up, if the conflict isn’t resolved, we will agree to either continue the discussion for another twenty minutes or to schedule a later time to complete the conversation.
  • We agree not to discuss loaded topics before 9:00 am or after 9:00 pm. (This can be adjusted depending on the couple’s needs and lifestyle.)
  • We agree that we won’t engage in name-calling, we won’t use offensive language, and we won’t be emotionally abusive.
  • We agree that we won’t be physically abusive. This includes but is not limited to shoving, hitting, slamming doors, and breaking or throwing things. We also agree not to engage in threatening behavior that we know our partner fears, such as threats of abandonment or exile. If either of us is in fear of the other, we agree to be honest about our feelings.
  • We agree to identify the issue that needs to be discussed and to keep the conversation about that issue only. At the same time, we understand that the problem at hand may trigger, for one or both of us, a core issue from childhood or elsewhere in our past. When this occurs, we agree to differentiate between the present and the past as best we can.
  • We agree not to attempt conflict resolution while driving, while in bed, during the workday, at a place of employment, when hostile behavior may escalate (such as after a few drinks), or when one of us is feeling low, vulnerable, tired, hungry, or otherwise not up to the task.
  • We agree not to attempt conflict resolution in public or in the presence of family members (especially our kids). If conflict erupts at these times, we agree to acknowledge the upset feelings, and to set a time to discuss the issue.
  • We agree to close a conflict resolution conversation with a couple-affirming prayer. (If the couple doesn’t wish to engage in prayer, we generally suggest a couple-centered affirmation, such as, “We love each other, and we know that our differences and disagreements are a normal part of any relationship. We choose to not let them define us or cause us to doubt our love.”)
  • We agree to ask for help if either of us feels unable to remain respectful in our attempt to resolve a particular disagreement.

We enter this agreement willingly and lovingly.

Signature of Partner A:

Signature of Partner B:

The principles in this agreement probably seem relatively logical and straightforward to most readers. However, these common-sense guidelines can still be hard to follow. Because of this reality, Weiss and Ferree state that they always stress the first item on the list: We agree that we are allies and on the same team. This principle is key for both you and your partner. You need to understand that you aren’t fighting each other, you are fighting the problem, whatever that might be. When two people agree that they’re on the same team—the team that wants to make things better—strong disagreements tend to dissipate, and it becomes much easier to work together toward a common goal.