Tag Archive for conflict

In Marital Conflict, “What” Is In Charge

When it comes to conflict with your spouse, “what” is in charge. Not who, “what.” If left to its own devices, the “what” in charge of your marital conflict will leave no “who” in charge. Let me explain.

In many marital arguments, anger and fear represent the “what” that takes charge. Anger and fear shape our reactions and our words. When anger takes charge, it may lead us to blame our spouse or our parents or our boss…anybody but ourselves. Anger may also direct us to belittle our spouse, maybe even call our spouse a few names. When anger is the “what” in charge of conflict, the result in disaster.

Fear is “what” takes charge of marital conflict even more often than anger. Fear, in fact, is often the true commanding officer of the conflict and anger merely fear’s emissary. Fear, if it does not turn to its emissary anger, will lead us to become defensive, distant, or avoidant during the marital conflict.

When anger or fear take charge of a conflict, there is no “who” in charge. Anger and fear have formed a coup and taken charge…and the results are disastrous: blaming, defending, belittling, feeling rejected, emotional distance, more anger, and more fear. The hurt caused by anger and fear puts us on guard, ever vigilant for the next slight, the next provocation. There is no security and no winner when anger and fear are the “what” in charge of your marital disagreement.

None of us want fear and anger to run our martial conflict. So, “what” do we want to take charge of our marital conflicts? Empathy. Empathy commands us to listen and intentionally work to understand. Empathy directs us to seek connection and intimacy above “winning” or “being right.” Empathy calms the fear and resolves the anger. “What”—anger, fear, or empathy—may take charge of your marital conflict, but “WHO” determines which “what” will take charge. “Who” will make that decision? You. Only you can choose how you will engage in the conflict. Only you can choose which “what” will take charge of the marital conflict—anger, fear, or empathy. You, only you, can choose your response. Be the “who” that takes charge of the “what” that shapes your response during marital conflict.

Step back. Take a breath. Choose “empathy” as the “what” to direct your conflict. You will be so glad you did. And do you know “who” else will be glad? Your spouse.

Help, My Child ALWAYS Argues With Me

If you’re a parent, you’ve had the experience. You know the one. It’s the experience of making one simple request of your child only to hear them start to argue with you…AGAIN! Suddenly, the last few days come to mind and you notice that every time you said something to our child it turns into an argument. And, every time they spoke to you, it became an argument. Those days of arguments feel like weeks and those weeks suddenly feel like months of constant arguing. I know the feeling. So, if you’ve ever been there, if you’ve ever thought “Help. All my child does is argue,” here are a few tips to help stop the cycle.

First, recognize that arguing is normal for children. It provides them the opportunity to practice using their developing cognitive skills. It helps them assert their growing independence. It even provides them the opportunity to think through their priorities, values, and morals. After all, it’s a lot more effective to let mom and dad debate one side than to debate both sides of the argument in my own mind.  Knowing that arguing is developmentally appropriate means you do not have to take it personal. It’s not about you. It’s all part of the process of growing up. Let them bump.

Second, arguing is not about being right. Again, your child is asserting independence, testing your fortitude, practicing cognitive skills. You can focus on the relationship rather than proving yourself right and your child wrong. You can focus on connection. Remember, your child learns best from those they feel connected to, those with whom they have a relationship. As a rule: connect first, teach second. Relationships rule.

Third, sometimes the best way to stop the cycle of arguing it to not argue back. Take a breath, bite your tongue, and do not argue back. In fact, as soon as you take the bait and respond with an argument, you have given your child the power. By NOT engaging in the argument, on the other hand, you teach your children how to have a respectful argument with someone they disagree with.

Fourth, acknowledge your child’s stated concern and implicit feelings. Many times, our children simply want to be deeply heard. When you restate their concern and reflect their feelings back to them, they will know you are listening. They will learn you value them enough to listen deeply. They will feel deeply heard and trust you more. A simple pattern to assure you listen deeply is to say something like, “It sounds like you feel ‘x’ because ‘their statement of concern.’” After they confirm you understand, you can follow up with a statement like “Let’s work on that together” or “Could I explain my reasons as we work together on this.” This will open the door to discuss the issue at hand and, more importantly, connect with your child.

Arguing is normal. It is not about you. It is an opportunity to connect with your children while learning more about them and their development. So, do NOT simply argue back. Listen. Learn. And work together.

Is Your Marriage Under Siege

Is your marriage under siege? Has an invisible enemy cut off the essential emotional and relational supplies that give life to your marriage? Maybe your own actions have unknowingly put your marriage under siege. It’s easy to do. Whether under siege from within or without, you need to recognize the siege artillery used to sap your marriage of the loving nutrients and sustenance it needs to survive. Then you can respond and overcome the siege to build a healthy marriage. Here are four strategies the enemy of marriage uses to set siege on your marriage…so you can address & defeat them!

  • TV, phones, and other screens. If you find yourself sitting in the same room with your spouse in silence as you both scroll through social media apps, your marriage is under siege. If you watch TV more than you interact with your spouse, your marriage is under siege. Excessive screen time will sap your marriage of the necessary interactions and emotional connection you need to build a healthy marriage.

Turn off the TV. Put down the phone and forget about social media for a while. Look your spouse in the eye and talk about your day, your dreams, your life. Converse with one another. Dream together. Doing so will nurture the emotional connection every marriage needs to survive.

  • Defensiveness. If you find you and your spouse caught in a cycle of blame and defensiveness every time something goes awry, your marriage is under siege. We reap what we sow, even in marital disagreements. Blame and defensiveness prevent growth. They create an environment in which both parties deny responsibility and so become powerless to change, powerless to strengthen their marriage. Instead, blame and defensiveness poison marriages with anger and resentment, slowly draining it of health.

Stop blaming. Look at yourself. Take the log out of your own eye. As you do, your spouse is more likely to do the same. Your marriage will grow as both people take responsibility for their contribution to the problem and so take hold of the power to change themselves as individuals within the marriage.

  • The primacy of “my.” When one or both people in a marriage focus on “my wants,” “my way,” “my desires,” “my,” “my,” “my…” your marriage is under the siege of pride and selfishness. It will soon die of starvation for real connection and mutual regard for one another’s needs.

Take a step back. Remember what you love about your spouse. Recall what you did when love was young and do it again. Show kindness. Give preference to your spouse’s wants and wishes. Serve them. Seek to please them. Your marital joy will be nurtured. And your relationship will grow stronger as a result.

  • Unrealistic expectations. Many people enter marriage with unrealistic expectations. We learn unrealistic expectations from family and TV. Unrealistic expectations may include things like “my spouse completes me” or “we will live happily ever after—all the time” or “we should want to spend all our free time together” or “my spouse will change to be everything I want and need.” Unrealistic expectations will drain your marriage of joy and build walls of resentment.

Face the truth. You and your spouse are two different people, each with your own faults, shortcomings, and eccentricities. You will make one another angry at times. You will feel lonely at times, even though you’re married. Accept these truths. And accept your spouse for who they are, shortcomings and all. Focus on those aspects you love about your spouse and celebrate those strengths. And intentionally work to grow as a person your spouse can love more.

What Your Family Needs Now…

What the world, and your family needs now is NOT love, sweet love. No. your family needs a specific type of response from you, especially during these uncertain times. Sure, this response falls under the category of “loving action,” but many (including me) have missed the mark at times. A study published in the Journal of Communication revealed how we can hit the mark, and even the bull’s eye, more often. In this study, the authors recruited 478 married adults who had recently experienced an argument with their spouse. They offered these adults one of six types of supportive while talking to them about their disagreement. These six responses types ranged from low to moderate to high in “person-centeredness.”

Low “person-centered” responses were critical and challenged the person’s feelings… statements like, “Nobody is worth getting so upset about. Stop being so depressed.” Or “I don’t know why you’re so upset. You do the same thing.” 

High “person-centered” responses recognized the person’s feelings and may have even invited them to discuss or explore those feelings… statements like, “Disagreeing with someone you care about is hard. It makes sense you’re upset.” 

Which response elicited the best results? Well, not the low “person-centered” responses. These responses created resistance and anger in the person. They did not help the person manage their emotions or resolve their marital disagreement. In fact, they often led to the person feeling criticized and experiencing more negative emotions.

The high “person-centered” responses led to greater emotional management. The person felt validated and free to discuss their thoughts and feelings. This contributed to a move to resolution. In other words, high “person-centered” responses proved more effective in helping a person resolve marital conflict.

In our families, arguments and disagreements will arise. How you respond to those disagreements can lead to feelings of resistance and anger or to feelings of validation and acceptance. Your response can contribute to escalating disagreement or quicker resolution. The more “person-centered” your response, the more acceptance and validation your family member will feel…and the more quickly you will reach resolution. What would high “person-centered” responses look like?

  • High “person-centered” responses involve listening intently to understand even before speaking.
  • High “person-centered” responses express acceptance. They seek to recognize and validate the emotions and feelings of the other person, your spouse.
  • High “person-centered” responses recognize, respect, and accept your spouse’s experience, even if it seems different than your own.
  • High “person-centered” responses express sympathy, care, and concern for your spouse…even if you do disagree. It communicates that your relationship is more important than your disagreement.

Next time you find yourself in an argument with a family member, do an experiment. Focus on giving high “person-centered” responses. Listen to understand. Communicate acceptance and respect. Validate their emotions and their experience. Express care and concern. See if the resolution comes more quickly, if the intimacy feels more secure, and if you and your family member are more content with the process. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Speaking the Truth in Love

Building a healthy family requires some tough conversations—tough conversations with our spouse, tough conversations with our children, and even tough conversations with our parents. These conversations often put us in a moral bind between the desire to be honest and the desire to be kind. Of course, we can approach these tough conversations in a variety of ways. Emma Levine, a University of Chicago psychologist, describes five ways to approach these tough conversations.

  1. We could just fail to address the issue. This approach is low on honesty and, in the long run, kindness. We avoid the discomfort of bringing up unpleasant material. But our family member does not learn valuable information. And, we miss the opportunity to nurture a more intimate relationship through the conversation.
  2. We might tell a “little white lie,” a false kindness to protect our family member’s feelings. Once again, we avoid the unpleasant confrontation, but our family member misses out on learning important information. Intimacy is hindered. And, if the “white lie” is discovered, our family member may even become resentful.
  3. We could simply speak with brutal honesty. In this scenario, we speak the truth but do not take our family member’s feelings into consideration.  Our family member will likely feel criticized or attacked  and, as a result, reject the message. Once again, family members do not gain important information. Intimacy is hindered. Relationships are harmed.
  4. The fourth approach involves telling your family member something true and positive but irrelevant to the “real” issue. For instance, your son asks about his performance during the baseball game and you reply by saying, “It was a beautiful sunny day to watch your game” rather than offering a direct, but loving critique of his performance. Unfortunately, your family member will likely view this as no different than telling an outright lie. They will become frustrated. Intimacy will be hindered. Relationships harmed.

Why do we use these ineffective approaches? Dr. Levine believes we choose one of these ineffective approaches because we focus mainly on our own feelings during the anticipated interaction and we focus on short-term comfort rather than long-term kindness. All this aside, Dr. Levine does describe one more approach… and this one proves most effective. It shifts the focus to the long-term growth and increased intimacy we might gain rather than the short-term comfort. .

  • Articulate a sincere interest in your family member’s long-term benefit before describing your concern in a gentle, straight-forward manner. Remember, the conversation will end like it begins so approach the interaction gently, with a “gentle start up.” Even if you fumble over some words, your family member will sense your attempt. They will experience the warmth of emotion expressed and recognize your genuine concern. As a result, they will be more able to hear the concern…even if it is unpleasant in the moment. In other words, speak the truth in love. When we do, family members gain important information. Everyone grows. Intimacy is enhanced.

To speak the truth in love is an ancient wisdom that helps us grow more mature, more intimate, and more secure.

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.

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