Tag Archive for conflict

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!

Conflict With Your Spouse? Try the Elmo Approach.

Remember Elmo from Sesame Street? Elmo talks in third person most of the time. The Sesame Street Workshop Frequently Asked Questions tells us Elmo talks in third person because of his preschool age. In fact, many preschoolers do speak in third person. Elmo simply says he “was born that way.” Whatever his reason for talking in third person, he may be on to something that could benefit you, your marriage, and your family.

Teresa Frisbie, a professional mediator and director of Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Dispute Resolution Program, helps clarify what Elmo can teach us. She notes we often react to stressors, disagreements, or perceived threats with a fight, flight, or freeze response. John Gottman also states that marital arguments trigger this fight, flight, or freeze response. During this response, we become defensive and self-protective. We are less able to listen well or understand another person’s perspective. As you can imagine, that is not good for resolving the argument with your spouse. In fact, it only makes the conflict worse. But what can we do? Which leads us back to Teresa Frisbie.

Teresa Frisbie suggests we try what I call the Elmo Approach. She suggests we begin to use a third person perspective, just like Elmo does. Simply shifting our perspective from the first-person (I, me, mine) to third person (Elmo says…) helps us gain distance from the perceived stresses and perceived threat so we can remain calm and gain some clarity. The third person perspective helps us maintain a healthy optimism as well, which helps resolve disagreements. The Elmo Approach can also help us listen better and appreciate multiple perspectives. It will help us resolve the disagreement more easily.

You may be thinking, “Elmo can talk in third person, but I’ll look crazy talking in third-person during an argument.” Well…. Here’s the beauty of this? You don’t have to say it out loud. You can simply begin referring to yourself in third person in your mind. Beginning to use the third person in your thoughts can produce the same results. So, give the Elmo Approach a try. If you find yourself stressed or overwhelmed, start referring to yourself in third person (by using your name or referring to yourself as he, she, him, or her) as you contemplate your response. Whether you find yourself giggling like Elmo or not, you will find it easier to maintain some distance from the stressor and resolve the conflict more easily.

Read more about this in How to Get Some Emotional Distance in an Argument from The Greater Good Science Center.

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.

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.

Is It Hysterical or Historical? Probably Both!

Have you ever had an experience like this? Your spouse reacts strongly to something that seems insignificant to you. You feel like you made a simple mistake, but your spouse seems to think you were intentionally expressing hate toward them. You didn’t pick up a dirty sock, but your spouse seems to think you don’t value anything they do.

On the other hand, maybe you were the one who react strongly and later wonder, “Why did I get so angry about that?”

If you’ve had either of these experiences (and most of us have), here is a saying that sheds light on your confusion. “When it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” In other words, if you or your spouse have a reaction that seems extreme given the situation that provoked it, the reason behind the reaction may be historical. The reason behind the reaction may come from the past.  Rather than get “hysterical,” it will prove more helpful to become an investigator of the “historical.” Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat, grab your magnifying glass, and do a little detective work. Here are some questions that might help start the investigation.

  • Did you ever have a similar feeling as a child? In previous relationships?
    • When was the first time?
    • How often did you have that feeling?
  • Describe the feeling and the circumstances that led to the feeling in the past?
    • What thoughts go through your mind?
    • Do you see any images or colors?
    • How does your body feel?
  • What have these feelings and their related circumstances come to mean to you now?
    • Objectively, do the circumstances really hold this meaning?
    • Objectively, what meaning do the feelings and circumstances hold?
  • How is this circumstance and my current relationship different than my past experiences?

With the information you gain through this small piece of investigative work into your own life, you can approach your spouse and the frustrating circumstance differently. You can use the circumstances to open up about personal vulnerabilities and ask your spouse for help in responding to those vulnerabilities. You can draw closer to one another and more intimate with one another. Rather than responding “hysterically,” you can respond “vulnerably” and find your relationship growing stronger and more intimate. So, put on your Sherlock Holmes hat, pick up your magnifying glass, and let the investigation begin.

That Makes Me So Mad!!

It happened. Your spouse has done something that makes you angry. No, furious. They’ve made you furious! Your blood is boiling and you’re about to blow your top. But wait. Will that really get the results you seek? Has it worked in the past? Probably not. You know that your angry outburst in the past immediately flooded your spouse with emotions and they either attacked back or shut down. Neither response helped. There has to be a better way.

Breath. Calm down. Think. Perhaps if you approach the situation calmly, things will turn out differently. In fact, when it comes to this kind of interaction, it ends like it begins. If you offer an objective description of what aroused your anger it might elicit a different response, a greater possibility of change. So, start with a calm description of objective facts and the emotions you felt in response to those facts. Oh, look. They look somewhat surprised at how calm you are; and, they’re listening. They’re not getting defensive or shutting down or blaming in response. They’re simply paying attention and listening. That’s nice…good. What now?

Now focus on the behavior you desire from them. Don’t get stuck on what you think they did wrong. If you dwell on past mistakes or behaviors you don’t like, they’ll feel the need to defend themselves and cast blame elsewhere. Move on to what you desire instead. Give them a solution. Give them a way out. Clearly and specifically make the request of what they could do to help you. After all, they love you and want you to be happier. They want a deeper relationship with you. Let them know, clearly and calmly, what they could do to help you draw closer to them. Yes! They’re nodding their head in agreement.

Now open up and be a little vulnerable. Explain why this change in behavior would mean so much to you. Let them know something about your deeper motivations, the reason for requesting this change from them. Maybe your deeper need is one of security and this change will make you feel more secure. Maybe it’s a need for more affection because of personality or childhood experiences. Whatever the reason, open up and tell them about your need. Then make your request again, adding that this change in their behavior will help you. They’re looking closely at you now. You can tell they feel closer to you…and you realize you feel closer to them. Being vulnerable has brought you closer together. “Yes, I will work on making this change for you. I love you.” That’s exactly what you wanted to hear. Hug and enjoy one another’s presence for a moment. Express your gratitude. “Thank you for listening and being willing to work on this with me. Thank you.”

One last thing to do. Every time you see your spouse make an effort to do what you requested, thank them. Let them know you see their effort by acknowledging it. Knowing you recognize their effort will encourage them to continue making the effort to change. And isn’t that what you really wanted when you were about to blow you top?   

Powerful Hints to Build a Happy Marriage

Linda and Charlie Bloom recently wrote an article in Psychology Today describing essential qualities of happy marriages. They came up with seven qualities by interviewing “50 of the happiest couples” they could find. Their conclusions are very insightful…and I wanted to share a short summary of them with you.

  1. Happy couples appreciate the differences between them and their partner. In fact, many of the happy couples managed and enjoyed profound differences between them and their partner. They saw those differences as adding richness to their relationship. As a result, they could appreciate and express gratitude for their differences. (Appreciating your spouse holds other benefits as well. Read A Provocative Secret for a More Satisfying Sex Life to learn of one.)
  2. Happy couples found delight in bringing greater fulfillment and joy into their partner’s life. They did not consider it a sacrifice to promote their partner’s success and joy. Instead, they found it a pleasure to see their partner find fulfillment and success. (Discover how this attitude helps the family in The Lost Art of Sacrifice in the Family.)
  3. Happy couples kept short accounts of wrongs committed. They practiced quick apologies and forgiveness. They effectively and quickly dealt with any disappointments that occurred.
  4. Individuals in a happy marriage take responsibility for their part in any conflict. They do not blame, become defensive, or scapegoat. Instead, they take responsibility for the impact of their actions and words upon their partner. They acknowledge their responsibility and make amends as needed. (Taking responsibility for our actions may involve saying The Hardest Word.)
  5. Happy couples practice honesty. But, rather than practicing “brutal honesty,” they practice sensitive, loving honesty. They remained sensitive to their partner’s feelings and vulnerabilities when expressing their honest thoughts and feelings.
  6. Happy couples maintained a healthy balance between self-care and marital care. Happy couples saw each partner’s health and well-being as inextricably tied to the health and well-being of their marriage. So, they practiced healthy self-care and encouraged their spouse to practice healthy self-care.
  7. Finally, happy couples practiced gratitude on a daily basis. Gratitude seemed to contribute to an optimistic view of their partner and their marriage. Ironically, this optimistic view of their partner and marriage contributed to even more gratitude.

These seven points are excellent ways to keep your marriage strong. Read them over and talk about them with your spouse.  Discuss how you can begin to practice each one in your marriage. Start today. Your partner will love you for it, your marriage will be stronger for it, and you’ll both discover a growing happiness in one another. Who could ask for more?

Ten Commandments for Effective Conflict

Conflict can make or break a marriage. Well, not the conflict so much as how we manage the conflict can make or break a marriage. In my “exhaustive search for marital tools” I found an ancient manuscript entitled The Ten Commandments for Effective Conflict. Well…OK…I really didn’t do an exhaustive search.  The commands are not so ancient either. And, I didn’t find them; I’m just making them up. But, these “commandments” are based on the knowledge of various marital experts. So, if you want conflict to draw you and your spouse into a closer relationship, follow these ten commandments for effective conflict. 

1.      Thou shalt regard conflict as sacred. Conflict is useful in a marriage. Avoiding conflict discounts the strength of your relationship, your spouse’s love, and your spouse’s desire to know you. It hinders intimacy by hiding the truth of yourself and your feelings. Conflict regarded as sacred is managed well and reveal your commitment to your spouse and your relationship. It increases intimacy and enhances loyalty. It allows you to confirm your values as a couple. Conflict is good. When managed well, conflict is sacred. (Shut Up & Put Up to Ruin Your Marriage shows the danger not considering conflict sacred but something to avoid.)

2.      Thou shalt commit to working through conflict to reach a resolution. The best marriages involve people who willingly turn toward one another to work through difficult emotions and circumstances. They work to resolve disagreements. Unresolved conflict simmers and boils until it explodes causing emotional damage and relational pain. (Read Finish Your Family Business for more)  Working to resolve conflict strengthens communication skills, reveals priorities, and solidifies a secure couple identity.  

3.      Thou shalt remember to cherish and honor thy spouse. It is easy to forget how much you love and cherish your spouse during conflict. So, make it a habit to recall the fun times you have shared with your spouse. Remember what you admire about your spouse. Call to mind all your spouse has done to support you, nurture your marriage, and build your home. Keep in mind that your spouse can have a valid perspective, even when they disagree with you. Your spouse is not the enemy. Your spouse is the one you love, the one you cherish, the one you honor above all others.

4.      Thou shalt soothe thyself and thy spouse. Do not let your emotions run away with you during a conflict. Instead, soothe yourself. Breath. If you feel yourself escalating, intentionally take a breath and do something to remember and express your love for your spouse. Inject an “inside joke” into the conversation. Admit your fears. Reaffirm that you love your spouse even when you disagree. Verbally confirm your desire to understand what your spouse is saying. Make what John Gottmann calls “repair statements” to keep the emotion of the conflict in check. (Arguing with Your Spouse will help you learn other ways to soothe.)

5.      Thou shalt remember thy spouse’s vulnerabilities and avoid “pushing buttons.” In other words, treat your spouse with respect, especially during a disagreement. You may even treat them with extra kindness during conflict, with kid-gloves so to speak, to avoid “pushing those buttons.” Avoid name-calling. Avoid sweeping accusations. Avoid blame. Be polite. Show respect. 

6.      Thou shalt listen twice as much as thou speak. You know the old saying, “You have two ears and one mouth so listen twice as much as you talk.”  The wisdom of this saying is especially true during marital conflict. Listen intently. Listen to understand. Listen to connect. 

7.      Thou shalt avoid the kitchen sink. Stick to one topic, the topic of the conflict. Do not throw in the kitchen sink; stick to one topic at a time. If you find yourself bringing up other issues or past hurts, stop for a moment and refocus on the issue at hand. Commit to resolving one issue at a time. (Read Avoid 5 Practices to Have a Successful Family Conflict for more on Kitchen Sinking & 4 other patterns detrimental to healthy conflict.)

8.      Thou shalt keep short accounts. Once a conflict has ended, do not harbor it in your mind. 

9.      Thou shalt take responsibility for thine own contribution to the conflict and thine own actions during the conflict. Think about your contribution to the conflict. Think about the emotions aroused during the conflict. What made the topic or the conflict so important to you? Did you feel frightened of the distance from your spouse created by the conflict? Were you reminded of incidents from your childhood that increased your anxiety or fear or anger?  How might you communicate these emotions to your spouse in a calm way? Also, what did you do to escalate the conflict? For what do you need to apologize? How will you make amends?

10.   Thou shalt reaffirm thy love and commitment. When the conflict has ended, whether you have reached an agreement or not, reaffirm your love and commitment to your spouse. Give your spouse a hug and a kiss. Offer them a sincere compliment. Tell them you love them and are committed to a lifetime with them.

Improve Your Marriage with One Simple, Daily Activity

I love being married. I find more joy and happiness, adventure and excitement, joy and contentment, even fun and ecstasy with my wife than I could have ever imagined.  But, let’s face it. Marriage is not all fun and games. It’s not always easy. I also experience irritations and frustrations in my marriage that impact me more deeply than any I experience in other relationships. I’m sure my wife can say the same. (Still, I did plead perfection when telling her about this blog. She simply snickered and shook her head in response. Go figure.) Anyway, the Florida State University’s Family Institute suggests a way to increase the positive side of marriage and decrease the negative, increase the joy and excitement while limiting the frustrations and anger. And, it’s based on over 20 years of research! (Full disclosure—I only reviewed some of the studies from the last 10 years.) Based on their research, staff at the Florida State University’s Family Institute suggests an activity that any of us can engage in on a daily basis to improve our marriages. It’s simple, yet powerful; easy to do yet profound in its impact. Want to know what activity they suggest? Praying for your spouse. That’s right. Praying! Coming before God (your Higher Power) to ask that your spouse be blessed and protected. Making intercession with God for your spouse; asking Him to help your spouse achieve his or her goals. One caveat—none of these prayers in these studies asked for their partners to become the person they wanted them to be. No, they offered sincere, unselfish prayers focused on their partner’s well-being. Overall, research suggests that saying prayers for one’s partner has many positive effects. Let me share just a few from the last 10 years of research (Read more here).

  1. Praying for one’s spouse has a softening effect on conflict (Butler et al, 1998). In other words, conflict becomes less harsh for those who have a praying spouse.
  2. Praying for one’s spouse predicts relationship satisfaction beyond what positive or negative behaviors in the relationship can predict (Lambert et al, 2008).
  3. Praying for one’s spouse over a 4-week period leads to greater gratitude toward one’s spouse than did thinking positive thoughts about one’s spouse or engaging in daily activities together (Lambert et al, 2009).
  4. Praying for one’s spouse increases the willingness of the one praying to forgive and did so more than simply speaking positively about one’s partner (Lambert et al, 2010).
  5. Praying for one’s spouse predicts greater commitment to the marriage (Fincham et al, 2010).
  6. Praying for one’s spouse while praying with your spouse leads to a greater sense of trust and unity in the relationship (Lambert et al, 2012).

Increased relationship satisfaction, more gratitude, more willingness to forgive, greater commitment, greater trust and less harsh conflict…all through the simple act of sincerely and unselfishly praying for your spouse. I’m getting started now. How about you?

It Ends Like It Begins…The Big BUT

Do you have a complaint about your spouse? Are the kids driving you crazy? Do you ever feel the need to talk with a family member about his or her irritating behavior, hurtful 馬鹿にするビジネスマンwords, or lack of consideration? Great idea; do it! Talking leads to resolution and a stronger relationship; BUT (and this is a BIG BUT) remember…how you begin the conversation is probably how the conversation will end. In fact, family researcher John Gottman, PHD, suggests that the first three minutes of a conversation not only indicate how the conversation will end but impacts the health of your long-term marriage, even predicting who will be married in six years times (Read Predicting Divorce From the First Three Minutes of Conflict Discussion for more). Scripture refers to this principle as reaping what we sow (Galatians 6:7-9). It’s true in our family conversations:

  • If we sow blame at the start the conversation, we will reap defensiveness.
  • If we sow accusations at the start the conversation, we will reap more counter-accusations.
  • If we sow verbal attacks at the start the conversation, we will reap verbal attacks in return.
  • If we sow judgments at the start of the conversation, we will reap “well you…” and more negative comments. (“I’m not a puppet, you’re the puppet.”)

On the other hand…

  • If we sow an acknowledgement of positive actions done in the past, we reap gratitude and more positive acknowledgements.
  • If we sow recognition of positive intent, we reap thoughtful discussion about ways to act on that intent.
  • If we sow politeness at the start of the conversation, we will reap politeness in return.
  • If we sow appreciation at the start of the conversation, we will reap open ears and further appreciation.
  • If we sow positive solutions in the conversation, we will reap cooperation and mutual problem solving.
  • If we sow an acknowledgement of our personal responsibility in the situation causing stress, we will more likely reap an acknowledgement from the other person of their responsibility as well.

The fact is: we reap what we sow, even in family conversations. So, if you have a difficult subject you need to discuss with your spouse, parent, or child, take a deep breath and think. Think about the best way to start the conversation with grace, gentleness, acceptance of personal responsibility, and acknowledgement of love. After all, the conversation will end as it begins. The family you reap will grow from the seeds you sow.

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