Tag Archive for arguments

A Card Game to Change the “Same Old Fights”

I love this quote: “What makes conflict so painful is that we are desperate to be heard but too upset to listen, desperate to be understood but too upset to be understanding, desperate to be validated but too upset to validate. What can help you get what you need is [a] willingness to stoke even a small ember of empathy for your partner’s experience.” (Dr. Alexandra Solomon)

An incredibly wise statement. Arguments are not resolved without listening, understanding, and validating. Unfortunately, the heat of a conflict sends us into a fight or flight mode, making it extremely difficult to listen, understand, and validate. So, what can you do? Here is a neat little “card game” that can help you become less “desperate” and more able to listen, understand, and validate. It demands some prep time, but the results can be wonderful.

Preparation:

  • Think of the tone of voice that escalates your conflicts. Then, write down the tone of voice that will help prevent an escalation. This may include calm (vs. agitated), gentle (vs. harsh), soft (vs. loud), sincere (vs. sarcastic), and any others you think of. Make one note card for each positive tone of voice.
  • Think of the words and phrases that escalate your arguments. Now, write down words and catchphrases to help calm an escalation. These might include repair statements John Gottman talks about. They can also include phrases that affirm your love for one another, phrases like “Even when I’m upset, I still love you” or “We can disagree and still love one another.”
  • After you have made these cards, put them around your house—on the fridge, on the mirror in the bathroom, on your dresser drawer…where ever you will see them throughout the day and where ever they will be readily available to you in the “heat of the moment.”

Playing the Game:

  • Now that the cards are spread throughout your house, make a point of reading them as you go about your day. Say them out loud when open the fridge, look in the mirror, or any time you see a card.
  • If (when is probably more accurate) you find yourself in an argument with your spouse, recite one of the cards. If you struggle to remember what any of them say, walk as you talk and read the cards along the way. Walking and looking for the right card as you talk may change your argument in and of itself…may even make you laugh a little.
  • Also, as you read the new statements and follow the new tone of voice directions, you will be changing your style of argument for good.

You may even find yourself better able to listen, understand, and validate. Better yet, doing all this will turn the argument into an opportunity to learn about one another and grow more intimate. Now that’s the way to win a great card game!

“Yeah, but…,” “Yes, and…”, “Your Marriage”

I like to do an exercise with families and couples struggling to communicate effectively. The exercise involves three parts and is taken from an improvisation exercise. In the first part of the exercise, the couple attempts to have a conversation by replying to everything their partner says with some form of “No.” Variations on “no” can include, “That’s wrong,” “Never,” “How stupid,” “How can you do that to me?” or a simple roll of the eyes. As you can imagine, this conversation is very short in the office, but they can go on for days in the home. A “no” response blocks connection. It tends to either end the conversation or lead to an angry response that escalates into a cycle of blaming and defending.  As you can imagine, done consistently this type of response will kill a relationship.

The second part of the exercise changes the response from “no” to “Yeah, but….”  You can imagine the simple conversations that follow. “It’s sunny outside.” “Yeah, but it’s hot.” “Yeah, but we can swim.” “Yeah, but the water is probably cold.” “Yeah, but….” Is it getting irritating yet?  Yeah, but it can go on in some relationships forever. In life outside my office, “yeah, but” responses may not even include those words. They may sound more like “You did it (yeah)…(but) finally” or “That’s not a bad job (yeah with the implied ‘but it could be better’)” or “That is good work (yeah)…(but) for you.” The “yeah, but…” conversation blocks connection as well. It quickly becomes frustrating and may even escalate to arguing. It will also kill a relationship.

The final part of the exercise changes the initial response one more time. This time, all responses start with “Yes, and….” “It’s sunny today.” “Yes, and it’s hot.” Yes, and we can swim.” “Yes, and the water is probably cold.” “Yes, and that will feel good!” Not near as frustrating. The “Yes, and” conversation accepts the other person’s statement and adds to it. It builds connection through acceptance. It builds cooperation. It opens the door for a deeper and more intimate conversation.

As you finish reading this description, take a moment to reflect. Step away from the “Yeah, but that will never work in my marriage” and the “Yeah, but you don’t know my spouse.”  Pause and consider the “Yes, and I’ll give it a try” or “Yes, and I’ll find out if it works in my marriage.” You might be pleasantly surprised.

3 Elements of a Healthy Marriage

Healthy marriages face challenges. Any time two different people from two different backgrounds with two unique sets of values and communication nuances work to become one unit (a marriage), you are bond to have some conflict. Fortunately, challenges and conflict do not cancel out a healthy marriage. In fact, challenges and conflict present wonderful opportunities to grow more intimate as a couple…as long as the couple handles them with grace. How can couples handle challenges and conflicts with the grace that brings intimacy? Here are 3 suggestions.

  • Embrace the Conflict. Conflict happens. You might as well accept it. In fact, turn toward the conflict. Recognize the moment of conflict as an opportunity to learn about your spouse. Listen carefully to their point of view and you will discover amazing things about your spouse. You will discover that wrapped inside the conflict and your spouse’s emotions is a treasure chest overflowing with information about their values, fears, hopes, and dreams. 
  • Accept the 69. Gottman found that couples who returned to his “love lab” as part of ongoing research would often have the same disagreements they had even five years ago. In fact, his research revealed that about two thirds of all conflicts are unsolvable. They represent differences of personality and style. You could address them with anger and impatience…but that will not change anything. It will not strengthen your relationship. And, the conflict will remain. So, what can you do? Healthy couples do not avoid the conflict or disagreement. They learn to manage them differently, with honor and grace. For instance, they learn to use humor and repair statements during their disagreements forge strong marriages. They also believe and practice point number 3 below.
  • You Need Two Honest Voices to Forge a Strong Marriage. That means couples need to talk about hard feelings, frustrations, and conflicts as well as the celebrations and joys. (Because it ruins a marriage to Shut Up and Put Up.) No matter the content of the conversation, we must remain respectful and kind, even when we might disagree. We must listen, especially when we disagree. When handled with care and love, healthy relationships can handle two opinions. When both people remain open, both people feel accepted. When both people listen, both people feel heard. In the process, both people learn and grow more intimate with one another. Their love grows as they resolve their solvable disagreements  and as they learn to accept their unsolvable conflicts with grace and love.

Yes. Healthy marriages face challenges. Healthy marriages embrace those challenges because you need two honest voices to forge a strong marriage.

The #1 Goal of Marital Arguments

Have you ever thought about the #1 goal of marital arguments? At first glance, you may think the goal is “to win. To make my spouse understand or see it my way.” But that is NOT the most important goal, the one we desire most. Let me ask the question differently. Do you want to make your spouse “see it your way” if it means damaging (or worse yet, destroying) your marriage? For most disagreements (at least 99% of them), the answer is “no.” We don’t want “to win” an argument with our spouse at the expense of our relationship. You may have had an experience like this in your marriage though. You disagree with your spouse and, after exchanging a few heated words, you “prove your point.” Your spouse concedes. They give in. They say you are right. You walk away knowing you “won the argument,” but feeling dissatisfied, disconnected from the one you love. In fact, you’re probably thinking about how to repair the relationship, how to reconnect and feel close again. No, we do not want to win at any cost.

If the #1 goal of any marital argument is not to win, what is it? The #1 goal of any marital argument is to connect in a way that makes both people feel safe and secure. You have probably had this experience too. You and your spouse have the same disagreement mentioned above. You even exchange a few heated words about it. But, somehow, when all is said and done, you feel closer, more connected. You’re not really sure who “won,” but you know you understand your spouse better than you did before the argument and your spouse understands you better as well. You feel connected…and as though you have both “won.”

How do you achieve this #1 goal of any marital argument?

  • First, see your spouse. Look at them. Don’t just look at the issue, the frustration or the anger of the moment. Look at your spouse. Soften your gaze. Recognize your spouse. We all long to be seen. Give your spouse the gift of being seen by you.
  • Pay attention to your spouse’s emotions. Do they look and sound angry, frustrated, hopeless, happy, passionate…. Accept their emotion. When your spouse reveals their emotions, they are opening themselves up like a book for you to learn about them and their priorities. Read this precious book carefully, lovingly. Do not just glance at the book. Get curious and read between the lines. Look deeply to find the priority behind the emotion. It may have little to do with the disagreement you are having and more to do with their sense of security and safety.
  • Accept that your spouse may have a valid point of view. Many issues have more than one valid perspective. Much like the group of blind men trying to describe the elephant, you and your spouse may both have valid perspectives, even though they differ. See your spouse as the intelligent, loving person you married and accept that they may have something important to add to the issue, something important for you to hear and know.   
  • Graciously delay voicing your own point of view until you understand your spouse’s point of view. Lovingly defer your desire to be proven correct until you can understand how your spouse’s perspective seems right to them. This takes patience…a patient delay of your own right to be heard. Such patience is an act of love for “love is patient” (Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:4).
  • Listen. Listen carefully. Listen intently. Listen sincerely. Listen completely. Listen until you understand your spouse’s perspective and they know you understand their perspective. Listen.

As you practice these 5 actions, you will find a growing emotional connection with your spouse. You will also find arguments resolve more easily and more quickly. Hmmmm, a more intimate connection with the added bonus of a quicker resolution? Now that is a great goal for marital arguments!

How Happy Couples Fight

Couples have disagreements. They argue. They get angry at one another. But many couples remain happily together in spite of this. How do they do it? How can a happy couple still have marital problems? That’s the question that a group of researchers (Rauer, Sabey, Proulx, & Volling) set out to answer. To answer the question, they looked at two groups of heterosexual married couples. One group was in their mid-to-late thirties and had been married an average of nine years. The other group was in their early seventies and had been married an average of 42 years. Researchers observed the couples discussing marital problems. This is what they discovered.

  1. Happy couples focused on issues with clear solutions first. This involved issues like distribution of household chores or how to spend their free time. The solutions to these problems were more concrete, measurable so to speak. Focusing on more solvable problems built up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship. It strengthened the sense of “we” in the relationship as they worked to successfully solve these “issues.” It helped to enhance intimacy.
  2. Happy couples rarely focused on those problems that involved more difficult solutions. They focused less on those perpetual problems. Perhaps more difficult-to-solve problems threatened each partners’ confidence in the relationship. By focusing on the more solvable problems, they built a solid base of security that allowed for the greater possibility of solving some of the more difficult problems through willing sacrifice and difficult compromise as well.
  3. Couples married longer reported fewer serious issues. They also reported arguing less overall. This, in combination with other research, suggests that happy couples learn to prioritize their marriage. Over time, they come to realize that some issues just aren’t worth the argument. They learn to choose their battles wisely.

So, how do happy couples fight? In the words of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones, they “choose wisely.” They choose to focus first on those solvable problems in their marriage. Doing so builds a foundation of trust, a strong sense of security. It is a practical way of prioritizing the “we” of their marriage above the individual. This foundation allows them to solve some problems that remain more difficult to resolve. As they do this, they learn to prioritize their marriage above individual wants and desires, even those desires one partner may believe to be a need. Ironically, they even learn that some of those “difficult-to-solve” problems really aren’t as essential as they use to believe. They just aren’t worth the argument. The relationship is more important. And rather than watching their marriage decay in the pain of bad decisions (like the man who drank from the wrong cup in Indiana Jones), they focus on gaining the intimacy, wisdom, and joy of a happy marriage. They “choose wisely.”

After the Fight: Cold War or Intimate Harmony

Every family has conflict. It’s inevitable. Couples are going to disagree and argue. Siblings are going to clash, compete, and struggle with one another. Parental wisdom and desires are going to collide with their children’s push for independence. These skirmishes can create a cold war within the family; or, they can promote an intimate harmony within the family. What makes the difference?

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas asked the same question. To find an answer, they recruited 226 cohabiting couples to keep an online diary of their conflicts for two weeks. They also gave them a checklist of behaviors to indicate how they resolved their conflicts. The checklist had 18 possible post-conflict behaviors that fell into one of four categories. (The 18 post-conflict behaviors and the four related categories were determined from a previous study by the same group of researchers.) At the end of the two-week period, each couple came to the lab where they engaged in “discussions” centered on two of their conflict issues, one chosen by each partner. The researchers observed each couple’s arguments first-hand in this setting. They discovered that a cold war or a more intimate family resulted not from the argument itself, but from which of the four categories of behaviors their post-conflict actions fell into.

  1. Avoidance, one of the four categories of post-conflict behavior, was more likely to result in a cold war. Such practices might include “pretending” like everything is fine even though no resolution was reached, not talking about it, or just ignoring the issue. As you can imagine, avoiding the issue does not make it go away. It only makes it worse. At best, a cold war can ensue. At worst, Shut Up and Put Up can Ruin Your Marriage.
  2. Letting go, another strategy couples use following a conflict, had in mixed results.  Letting go can work wonders for small issues like whether the toilet paper goes over the top or the bottom (top, of course) or whether the toothpaste is squeezed from the middle or bottom (bottom, obviously). But letting go can prove much less effective in larger issues…and, in such cases can lead to a cold war. Gottman suggests that 69% of marital issues are “perpetual problems.” They are unsolvable. They may be the result of differences in personality (extraverted vs. introverted, for example) or lifestyle (desire to travel, level of  house clutter tolerated, etc.). When it comes to “perpetual problems,” we need to accept the ways in which our spouse is different than us. At the same time, these issues don’t go away. Couples will continually return to them in their disagreements and arguments. To keep them from destroying the relationship, couples must learn to approach the conflict of “perpetual problems” with gentleness, personal responsibility, and humor. They must learn to build an overall environment of gratitude and appreciation into their home. Letting go, in and of itself, is incomplete and not effective in the bigger, more perpetual problems.
  3. Gaining new perspective, another post-conflict behavior, sounds like a great option. We are often encouraged to take our spouse’s perspective. Taking perspective can help us gain understanding and build a willingness to compromise…maybe. But if the compromise is one-sided or given begrudgingly, it can lay a root of bitterness, lingering ill-feelings, or even anger at the lack of perceived reciprocation. The result? A potential cold war. So, quit taking your spouse’s perspective and become more like a fly on the wall instead.
  4. Active repair, the final category of post-conflict behaviors, stood out above all the others in effectively promoting an intimate harmony and happiness. Active repair builds harmony through intentional listening, expressions of affection, and learning to give it up to lift up your marriage.

Conflict, disagreement, arguments…they can lead to a cold war or they can promote a more intimate harmony. It all depends on what you do after the conflict. What will you do? Avoid? Let it go? Gain new perspective? Work toward actively repairing the relationship? The choice is clear. Actively repair will promote more intimate harmony…and that is well worth the effort.

Turn Sibling Fights Into Life-Long Skills

Siblings fight. It’s true. They argue. They disagree. They bicker. They have spats. No matter how you choose to say it, siblings fight. And it’s a good thing they do. Disagreeing and arguing helps our children learn important life-long skills like listening, negotiating, compromising, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. (Read Sibling Rivalry-The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly to learn more.) How you respond to their arguments can help or hinder those skills from developing.  For the sake our children, here is a four-step process you can use to help your children learn some important life-long skills.

  1. Set up the game rules ahead of time. Good disagreements involve rules that promote good communication. Set these rules up ahead of time. The rules will include things like no interrupting, no shouting, no name-calling, no insulting and listen, speak kindly, use a calm tone of voice, and be respectful. Your job as a parent is to help your children stick to the rules while disagreeing. Having simple, clear rules will help you do this. You might even write them on a piece of paper and label them “The Good Fight Rules.”
  2. Say your piece…one at a time. Let each child explain what he or she sees as the problem. They will have to take turns to do this and abide by the rules determined earlier.  You will hear two different perspectives in which your children differ about the main issue. You may discover various triggers for the disagreement as well. The children will learn how their behavior impacts others. They will learn that each person may see the world in a different way. As a parent, don’t get caught up in what sounds like irrational reasons for arguments. The goal is to help each child voice their perspective and hear their sibling’s perspective. 
  3. Consider each perspective. Help your children consider not only their own but the other person’s feelings. Label those feelings. Encourage each child to consider how their words and actions impacted their sibling’s feelings. This can help them build empathy. Let them repeat what their sibling described in step number 2. This will help them learn to listen accurately.
  4. Come up with a solution. In the first three steps your children learned to share, listen, respect, and show empathy. Now they can begin to problem-solve. You can help mediate their discussion. But, let them come up with the solution. You’ll be surprised at their creativity and insight in problem-solving.

Children can start learning this process at a surprising young age, as early as 4 or 5-years-old. So, start young. As you practice this process with your children, they will gain life-long skills by arguing with their sibling, skills that will help them in all their relationships and life situations, even as adults. So follow these tips and you can Count It All Joy When Siblings Fight….

The Maariaage Ruummble

“Let’s get ready to rumble!” Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this evening’s marital bliss match. It promises to be a classic in every sense of the word.

In the blue corner we have the husband, weighing in 180 pounds.  Known for his silent fighting skills and constant use of humor, he sometimes becomes overwhelmed in the midst of the emotional tension.

His opponent, in the pink corner and weighing in at 135 pounds, his wife. She is known for her agility to maneuver, verbal prowess, and sudden attacks.

As the bell rings, the wife moves quickly to the center of the ring and leads with a jab of criticism followed by a quick uppercut of blame. The husband slides into a defensive position before a launching a lumbering counterattack of blame.

Verbal sparring continues with the wife dancing around the husband. The husband attempts to follow her dancing but is left flooded and confused. He throws wild punches of character assassination. His wife parries and returns with a blow of her own character assassination. The husband is stunned.  

Suddenly, with a name-calling hit below the belt, this disagreement turns into a street brawl. Both are aiming at their spouse’s sensitive areas, their vulnerabilities, those raw spots of pain.

Flooded by the stimuli of emotional punches, the husband covers and silently accepts the blows, seemingly unfazed. The wife grows more furious and throws a flurry of jabs to prove her point and make him understand. He simple covers more and withdraws…still seemingly unfazed.  

It’s difficult to pick out the winner in this match. Each won a battle here and lost a battle there. Both are emotionally bruised and bleeding. Both are angry, bitter, and feeling disconnected from their spouse. Yes, I believe this one is a draw. There is no winner in this match, only losers.

Does that sound familiar? In marriage, we will have disagreements and even arguments. But there is no such thing as a single winner. We either both win or we both lose. In this scenario, both lost.

So, what’s the alternative? Avoid the emotional boxing match altogether. Instead of starting with the idea that you have to win an argument, start with the realization that you and your spouse may both have equally valid perspectives. Accept your spouse’s perspective as valid, even when you disagree. Instead of trying to prove their perspective wrong, strive to understand it. In understanding their perspective, you learn about them. You draw closer to them. You open the door to connection and intimacy. Isn’t that what you want most of all? Don’t you desire connection and intimacy more than a shallow victory that leaves you in a lose-lose scenario? 

Then, muster up the courage to apologize for your own wrongdoing (chances are, both parties have some wrongdoing). Doing so expresses your love for your spouse. Then put your energy into reconnecting. A hug will go a long way in reconnecting. After all, the only winner in a marriage is the couple, not the individual.

Marital Warning: Don’t Argue While Hungry

Hangry. The bad-tempered, irritable, agitated state a person experiences when they are hungry. Snickers made a whole series of humorous commercials based on it.

Hangry. It’s a real thing…and it can wreak havoc on your marriage. Just consider this study involving married couples and a “spouse doll.” Researchers gave participants a “spouse doll” for three weeks. Every night during those three weeks they could “jab their spouse doll” with pins. The number of pins used in the “jabbing session” increased as the poker partner’s blood sugar went down. In other words, the hungrier the spouse doing the poking, the more pins they stuck in their spouse doll! The “hangrier” the spouse, the more vengeful they became.   

The same researchers invited these couples to their lab at the end of the three-week period. They put them in two separate rooms and set up a friendly competition. The partners would compete with one another to see who could push a button faster in response to a target turning red. (In reality, they were competing against a computer so the researchers could control the winner.) Whoever “won” had the opportunity to blast their spouse’s headphones with a noise as loud and as long as they wanted. Guess what. The lower the “winner’s” blood sugar, the louder and longer they blasted the noise. Hunger increased the negative actions of the “winning” spouse. Hangry spouses were just plain meaner.

In a different study, people were asked to interpret another person’s body language. They were better able to interpret another person’s body language after having a drink of lemonade with real sugar in it. (The artificial sweeteners did not have the same effect.) In other words, hunger made a person less able to read another person’s body language. Hangry people are less aware of their partner’s body language and, as a result, their partner’s subtle responses and emotions.

These studies reveal a great piece of advice for married couples. Don’t have that argument when one or both of you is hangry. Don’t discuss areas of disagreement when hangry. Hangry is not a good state for marital disagreements. Hangry will just make your marital disagreement worse. So, if you and your spouse have a disagreement, don’t talk it out while hungry. Instead, have a nice dinner and then talk about it over dessert. It’s like food therapy for marriage. Have a disagreement? Go get a snack and talk about it while you eat. Making a big decision in which you have different opinions? Get some dinner and talk about it after ordering dessert. And…don’t get a spouse doll to stick pins in. That’s just crazy!

Teach Your Child to NOT Take the Bait

You’ve seen it. Your teen and a friend get into a little squabble. They have a minor disagreement. Suddenly, your teen’s friend drops the bait—they make an outlandish accusation, they make some outlandish statement that will arouse unnecessary emotions, or they make an inappropriate and irritating gesture. You think to yourself, “Don’t take the bait….” But your teen takes the bait and they’re hooked. Their friend takes control of the argument while reeling in your teen. Your teen escalates to crush the bait but it’s too late. The hook is set. Self-control turns to thrashing and the whole interaction goes downhill. No one wants their children or teen to get caught in that situation. Instead, we want to teach our teens to avoid taking the bait.

Fortunately, the best way to teach our teens is by example; and, when it comes to NOT taking the bait, our teens will give us an unlimited supply of opportunities to teach them by example. What parent has not found themselves hooked by the bait their teen’s simple eyeroll, angsty accusation, or under the breath comment. Face it, our teens bait us. They try to hook us, take control of the argument, and reel us in to their net. If we take their bait, emotions escalate. Disagreements increase. We fight to maintain control. In the process, our communications decrease, our relationship suffers, and our teens learn nothing. So, teach your teen to NOT take the bait by setting a good example. Do NOT take their bait. Here are some tips to help.

  • Avoid the emotional bait. We love our teens. They will say things that arouse our fear, anger, helplessness, or sense of inadequacy. They seem skilled at it. Do NOT take the bait. Stay calm. Keep your emotions in check. Stay focused on what your teen is trying to communicate, their underlying message. If you feel yourself getting lost in the emotions your teen arouses in you, find the support of a spouse or friend to help resolve that emotional bait.
  • Avoid the bait of “taking it personal.” Our teens naturally pull away from us during their teen years. It’s normal and appropriate. In the process, they will think us “stupid” and “too old to understand.” They will roll their eyes at our “naïveté” and shrug their shoulders with an “I don’t care” attitude. They will respond with more angst and anger than they even intend. You will long for that loving, affection grade school child, but your teen is growing toward independence. Do NOT take it personal. It’s not about you. It’s part of their development. Do NOT take the bait of their teen angst and drama.
  • Avoid the “tit-for-tat” bait. Your teen may let some harsh statements fly. Do NOT take the bait. Do NOT return “tit-for-tat.” Remember, you are the stronger, more mature person. If you take this bait, you inadvertently send the message that their words are stronger than you. This creates a feeling of insecurity for them. So, don’t take it personal. Do NOT take the bait. Avoid “tit-for-tat.” Give them high regard, even when they sink to harsh statements. Show them kindness with firm boundaries, even when they say mean, irritating things. Show them how to NOT take the bait.
  • Avoid the bait of power. Our teens job is to assert their independence, their individual power to control their own lives. We still want to protect and teach, but they want to try out and learn. We want to help them solve their problem, but they want to learn to solve the problem on their own. When we take the power bait and try to teach or solve their problem for them, we often end up making a power play that pits us in a power struggle with out teen.  Do NOT get into the power struggle. Step back. Let them have age appropriate control. Ask them how they are going to solve the problem. Ask them what they want to do. Offer suggestions but let them have age appropriate power. Do NOT take the power bait.

As you can see, we get plenty of opportunities to teach our children how to NOT take the bait. Interestingly, they provide the bait for us to NOT take. So, practice well and teach them well. They’ll be glad you did.

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