Conflicts, and How to Stop Them

And How To Stop Them

By Dr. Paul Coleman

1. Minimizing Defensiveness

“I hate it when you get so mad, Charlie. Why can’t I tell you my
concerns about our relationship without you getting irate?”
“I get mad because you make me mad, Karla.”
“Oh, it’s my fault, is that it? When will you take responsibility for
your own actions?”
“I do take responsibility. Oh, forget it. You just don’t understand.”

Charlie and Karla talked like that a lot of the time, which is why they eventually ended their relationship. Their main difficulty was that their discussions-punctuated by name-calling and accusations-led to defensiveness, and defensiveness squeezed the breath out of any intimate dialogue.

Defensiveness is quite common. We show defensiveness when we make excuses for our behavior or attack another’s viewpoint. A defensive person is quick to feel accused. But often, when defensiveness causes a conversation to break down, the person was being accused. Badgering your mate also increases their stubbornness and defensiveness. So does making frequent criticisms.

An easy formula to remember is this: Accusations + Criticisms =Defensiveness.

Do your conversations result in defensiveness? If so, matters won’t likely improve without intervention. One study, in which couples’ communication styles were examined over a five year period, showed that the patterns of interaction didn’t change much during that time.

Psychologists have found that increasing positive interactions (such as being polite, respectful and considerate) can improve marital quality, but reducing defensiveness and negative interactions is more vital.

Esteemed psychologist John Gottman reported that in a distressed marriage, one destructive or hurtful interaction can often wipe away the effects of ten positive and constructive interactions.

Some actions are easy to identify as being destructive: physical abuse, yelling, put-downs, cruel remarks-they poison a relationship and are not easily forgotten. But partners in solid relationships are often surprised at how defensive their mate can be even when no accusations were made. Are there subtle ways to promote defensiveness? Yes. Researchers Jacqueline Schachter and Dan O’Leary studied whether the intent of one spouse’s message matched the impact it had on the mate. It seemed that most people rated the intent of their message as more positive than did the spouse who received the message. That was true whether the couples were classified as happy or unhappy. (When spouses knew they were sending a negative message, their partners still interpreted the message more negatively than was intended.) This discrepancy between intent and impact was less troublesome for happy couples because most of their messages were very positive, overall. But that helps explain why some spouses-who think they are making positive or neutral comments-might provoke defensiveness in their mate.

What to Do

Make A-B-C statements. Instead of accusing, phrase your concerns this way: “When I see (or hear) you do A, I think B and respond C.”

Example: “When I wait for you while you’re talking on the phone for an hour, I think you don’t care about my feelings and I rent it.” That is more clear and less accusatory than the shotgun style of “You don’t care about my feelings.” A-B-C statements begin with “I” (“When you are yelling..”) Comments that begin with “You” automatically promote defensiveness.

Use Intent-Impact cards. Remove the hearts and clubs from a deck of playing cards and divide them equally between you and your spouse.

Now begin a conversation, speaking one at a time. Every time you believe you are saying something in a positive way, give your partner a heart card. If you believe you are being more negative, hand out a club card. As the listener, whenever you believe your mate is speaking in a positive way, hand over a heart card. If negative, hand over a club card. This exercise does two things. At a minimum it slows down the conversation, which prevents rapid escalations of negativity. More importantly, it clarifies what a speaker’s intent is and what the impact is on the receiver. Partners often believe they are revealing more positiveness and therefore can’t understand when their mates react with hostility to a “perfectly nice comment.”

Since many arguments erupt unplanned, it’s helpful to agree that the next time an argument occurs one of you will call “Time-out.” Then you can continue the discussion using the cards.

If you must make a complaint, write it out first. Your partner is to read it without comment and then the two of you can discuss it at least half an hour later. (Try writing it in the A-B-C format). This prevents unfortunate, off-the-cuff reactions to the complaint while allowing for a thoughtful response.

If you must make a complaint, check first to see whether you’ve overlooked something positive about your mate. Criticisms are never appreciated when the criticized spouse is expecting a compliment. Dave complained to Sue that she ignored his mother when his parents visited. Sue got angry. She had expected him to compliment her for the feast she had prepared and for “going out of my way” to be cordial. Dave missed both an opportunity to express gratitude and an opportunity for his complaint to be taken seriously.

If you’re very angry with your mate, don’t ask “Why?” questions. “Why did you arrive home now instead of an hour ago?” “I saw you looking at that woman that way. Why did you do that?” “Why don’t you send me flowers anymore?” Asking such questions invites your partner to come up with some explanation-when no explanation will be good enough. Instead, better to make a comment (not a question) followed by a specific request. “I like it when you surprise me with gifts. Do you think you could surprise me sometime soon?”

If you must know a reason, better to say “Please help me understand why…” It’s less provocative and demonstrates that you haven’t yet passed judgment on the behavior.

If your mate makes an angry complaint that is far-fetched or downright false, avoid being argumentative or righteously indignant. Better to say “I don’t understand what you are saying. Could you say it another way and help me make sense of it?” This demonstrates patience, prevents a debate on semantics (“How can you say I never care about your feelings, I’ve cares about your feelings plenty of times…”), and gives your mate an opportunity to rethink and rephrase what they really

Bail out. If your dialogue is promoting defensiveness despite best attempts to do otherwise, halt the conversation and ask your spouse, “What could I say or do right now that would help you to feel better
understood?” That prevents escalations of defensiveness, shows consideration and indicates your strong desire to really make the discussion work for the relationship, not against it.

Keep in mind

* Accusations, badgering and criticisms are the perfect ingredients for defensiveness.

* You may intend to say something in a positive or neutral way, but your mate may interpret it a bit less positively. That’s not uncommon.

* Name-calling, abusiveness and put-downs will close off your partner’s heart more quickly than anything else you can do.

* Your anger may be legitimate, but expressing it in a hostile manner rarely gets you what you want.

* It’s possible to make a complaint without being accusatory or insensitive. The key is to not pass judgment or label your partner but rather to state clearly what your perceptions are and offer suggestions on how you’d like him or her to act differently/

2. Halting Arguments The Right Way

“I thought this was supposed to be our weekend away together, Bill. I can’t believe you invited Dick and Sheila.”
“I thought you’d enjoy having Sheila around. Besides, we’ll have plenty of time to be alone,” Bill answered crossly. “Sometimes I can’t figure you out at all Liz. You’ve wanted the four of us to go skiing for a long time. That’s all I heard you talk about last summer.”
“But what I meant was…”

“You always mean something other than what you say,” Bill interrupted.
“Why is it you can’t hear your own words the way everyone else hears them? I really wish you’d…”

Here we go again, Liz thought to herself, tuning Bill out. It’s not worth arguing about, she concluded. Sullen, she resigned herself to end the argument and go skiing with Bill, Dick and Sheila. What a romantic weekend that would be.

And the argument did end, at least the verbal argument ended. But the non-verbal argument was just beginning. Over the next several days Bill could tell something was wrong. Liz was standoffish, irritable and too quiet. Here we go again, Bill thought to himself. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

One of the most outstanding features of unhappy couples is their inability to end negative, hurtful interactions. Their arguments fit this pattern:

1. The argument escalates as each partner gets more and more angry and hostile.

2. Escalations are punctuated by periodic attempts by either partner to calm the situation. When the effort to deescalate the argument has no immediate impact, that partner resumes hostilities.

3. The argument “ends” by one partner shutting down or withdrawing from the scene (as Liz did with Bill). But the argument continues on a non-verbal level.

What has been popularly referred to as a “power struggle” occurs when battling partners believe they’ve been treated unjustly by their mate. Trying to balance the scales of justice by coercive means (making demands, punishing, hinting, withdrawing) often comes next but is rarely satisfying. “Look what I have to go through to get you to do things my way” is a common complaint of unhappy, coercive couples.

Another complication with coercion has to do with a principle in social psychology: if someone acts a certain way despite very strong constraints (for example, if a jogger is running outside in subzero weather), we conclude there is great motivation to do so. So if a husband observes his wife repeatedly complaining to him despite his efforts to stop her (by withdrawing and “refusing to listen”), he concludes that his wife must have a strong motivation to keep complaining. (She’s stubborn and doesn’t want to consider my feelings,he’ll probably conclude.) But the same principle applies to the wife. She observes her husband to be withdrawn and uncommunicative despite her strong protests. So she concludes he must be highly motivated to act that way. (He’s being stubborn and doesn’t want to consider my feelings, she’ll probably conclude.) When coercive efforts fail to bring about the desired response, couples often decide to act more coercively. Rarely do they see how the coercive efforts make their partners more hurt and angry and therefore contribute to the problem.

Arguments must end sometime, but how they end is more important than when. Do your “buttons get pushed” during arguments with your spouse? If so, pushing back will fuel the fires, not douse them. The first step in halting hurtful escalations is acknowledging that they are problematic and need changing.

What To Do

Split the week. You take Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Your spouse takes Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. When it’s your day, it is your responsibility to maintain a noncritical, non-punishing stance whatever your partner’ s actions. You refuse to accuse or coerce. Instead, state that you’ll discuss the issue at hand only in a calm manner, preferably using good communication techniques. This insures that one of you will keep a cool head while allowing the other to vent, if necessary.

Call attention to the fact that your “button has been pushed” without inflaming the situation. A clever and creative way to do that is the following: each of you pockets seven pennies. Every time you believe your spouse pushes your buttons, you give him or her a penny. (A fundamental rule of this game is that the penny-giver is always right. There is no debate.) The goal is to have as few of your mate’s pennies in your possession as possible. This exercise interrupts your automatic exchanges before they get too intense.

Schedule a discussion (argument?) but record it on audio- or videotape. (Don’t dismiss this idea too readily. Couples who try this more effectively alter their behavior.) Listen to the tape alone and then together. Then try to list three “unproductive” things you said or did. Discuss them with your partner. Don’t debate whether either of you had a “right” to say what you said.

The purpose of the exercise is to help you recognize your unhelpful contributions to marital arguments.

After you’ve made progress with these exercises, role-play a recent (constructive) discussion, but this time purposely turn it into an argument by playing your former role. Say and do the kinds of things you now know will only make matters worse (ideally, record it on video or audio). Afterward, discuss your reactions with each other. This exercise can have very subtle and powerful effects. Forcing yourself to be harsh and uncaring- in a contrived manner-makes you more acutely aware of the hurtful behaviors that once were so automatic and reflexive.

This is important: when the role-play is over, actually tell one another that you are not the person who was arguing a moment ago. Remind one another it was a role-play. Embrace, and do something enjoyable.

Touch base. When an argument ends (or is interrupted by the children, a phone call, work schedules, etc.) make some positive, tender, physical connection with your mate. It needn’t be warm and loving (since you don’t feel all that loving after an argument). Touch or squeeze your mate’s hand, stroke his shoulder, give her a goodbye peck-on-the-cheek-do anything physical that indicates you’re still connected to each other and that you want hurt feelings to somehow be mended. It is an immediate and powerful signal that you still care. (Deep down your mate knows you care, but at the moment he or she may feel unsure.)

Keep in mind

* Withdrawing from an argument is a short-term solution with long-term negative consequences. Hang in there.

* Don’t develop the attitude that you will show kindness and consideration during a discussion only if your mate is showing it. Research shows that happier couples are more tolerant, understanding and empathic even when their mates are not.

* Appreciate any and all efforts by your mate to argue more effectively. He or she needs your support.

3. Uncovering Hidden Agendas

“They’re my parents, Gina. I don’t want to visit them. I don’t want to call them. We’ve been over this a dozen times already. Can’t just drop it?”
“I still don’t understand why you won’t even call your mother on her birthday. Lee. You’ve hardly spoken with her in five years. Don’t you think it’s time somebody put aside their pride…”
“Why can’t you stay out of this?” Lee interrupted. “I told you, they’re my parents, not yours. I don’t tell you how to run your relationship with your parents, so why do you insist on running my relationship with my parents?”

“That’s just it,” Gina said. “You don’t have a relationship with your parents. Can’t you see that?”

“This is going nowhere,” Lee concluded, walking out of the room.

Repetitive “Here we go again” arguments, standoffs and stalemates happen, but not for the reasons people think. Lee believed that if Gina would just view the problem from his perspective, she’d back off. (Then again, if she was just being stubborn, maybe he should be stubborn, too. That would show her.) But the problem wasn’t Gina’s lack of understanding or her stubbornness. And the problem, despite what Gina believed, wasn’t Lee’s relationship with his parents. The real reason Lee and Gina argued periodically about this problem-to no avail-was because they weren’t arguing about what they thought they were arguing about. Misidentifying the fundamental problem made it impossible to resolve.

Uncovering the hidden agenda

“What worries you about Lee’s unwillingness to speak to his parents?” I asked Gina one day.
” They are his parents. A son shouldn’t simply cut himself off from his parents no matter what they’ve done to him,” Gina answered.
“But how does his decision to cut himself off from his family affect you personally?” I probed.
“It doesn’t,” she began. “But…maybe I worry that if he can close himself off from his parents, he’ll close himself off from me one day. Let’s face it, we began marriage counseling because we’ve drifted apart the past two years.”
“So it sounds to me that the reason you argued with him about his relationship with his parents is because it symbolizes something more important – his relationship with you. Deep down, you worry that he might stop loving you, too.”
“Yes, that’s right,” she said.
“I never realized that before,” Lee commented.

Lee never realized it because it was hidden. Hidden agendas crop up from time to time in a relationship. But for happy couples the hidden agendas don’t stay hidden for long.

Hidden agendas begin as doubts or fears one spouse has about the other’s level of commitment or caring. Examples:

Spouse A: “Let’s ask the Pattersons to join us for dinner.”

Spouse B: (The Pattersons? Doesn’t she want to spend time alone with me?)

Spouse A: “We can’t afford a piano. Besides, you know I’ve been wanting to buy a backyard pool.”

Spouse B: (He always gets his own way. Don’t my wishes count?)

Spouse A: “Good night.”

Spouse B: (Already? I thought we’d have time to chat before going to bed. Isn’t he interested in knowing how my day went?)

Spouse A: “Dear (cough), would you bring me the vaporizer (gag), please?”

Spouse B: (She can’t fool me. Her cold isn’t that bad. That’s just her way of avoiding sex.)

Hidden agendas, as you can see, are the undercurrents to a superficial dialogue. One problem with hidden agendas is that they are believed, and additional evidence is then gathered to support the belief. So if a husband believes his wife is avoiding sex with him, many of her (innocent) behaviors will be interpreted by him as avoidance. (“She wants to phone her sister? I’ve heard that excuse before…”) Left unspoken, hidden agendas build hurt and frustration and couples end up arguing over seemingly unimportant matters.

“Why must you always call your sister!””what? I don’t always call my sister. And it’s a local call, so what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is the meaning he gives to his wife calling her sister. But that meaning (his fear that she’s avoiding sex with him), if left hidden, will complicate their relationship unnecessarily.

Three kinds of hidden agendas

Researcher John Gottman and associates say that hidden agendas are about three fundamental issues:

1. Caring. Does my spouse care about me? Love me? Trust me?

2. Interest. Is my mate interested in my thoughts, feelings, wishes? Is my mate responsive to me? Am I sexually appealing? Does he or shevalue my opinions? Can I talk to him or her about my future goals?

3. Status. Am I in a one-down position to my mate? Do his or her needs always come first? Do I have a say in important decisions?

Whether you’re arguing about money, children, in-laws or what to eat for dinner, if you’re fighting that same old fight, then hidden agendas may be lurking.

What to do

Call a “Time-out” during a tiresome argument and try to determine your hidden agenda. Ask each other, “Are you worried or hurt because I’m not showing you enough love or caring? Are you hurt because you feel controlled or powerless?” Once uncovered, allow the one with the hidden agenda to speak uninterrupted. Don’t challenge or debate his or her views. Every thirty seconds or so, summarize what you’ve heard to be sure you’ve understood correctly. If you respond to your partner’s uncovered agenda with anger, insensitivity or impatience, you’ll fuel the original fear (fear of being unloved, uncared for or controlled).

Send a signal. If you have difficulty revealing your hidden agenda during conversations or arguments, have a prearranged signal that will indicate to your spouse how you really feel. For example, a pillow placed outside and on top of the bedspread may signal that you are wondering if your partner finds you attractive or is interested in things important to you. A lighted candle may signal your doubts about being loved and cherished. Such symbols make your feelings known in a quiet but effective way, without accusation, and reflect your continued desire to improve the relationship.

Once your hidden agenda is revealed, agree with your mate that for the next two weeks you will call attention to behavior that sparks your hidden agenda. For example, if your agenda has to do with status and equal power in the relationship, inform your spouse every “time you believe she is doing something that lowers your status. (You will notice those behaviors anyway. Calling attention to them gives your mate immediate feedback about his behavior and reduces the odds your resentment will build.) The purpose is not to debate whether or not you are right and your mate is wrong. The goal is to clarify when your hidden agendas are being sparked so that the two of you can work together with understanding.

Keep in mind

* Arguments over “little things” are about bigger agendas.

* The three kinds of hidden agendas (caring, interest and status) reflect fundamental needs in life: the need for love, self-esteem and control (influence). Once uncovered, treat those needs with respect.

* You can help your mate uncover his or her hidden agendas by being less defensive when they re pointed out. Remember, revealing a hidden agenda is not an accusation. It is an explanation of one’s feelings.

(The above information was published by MARRIAGE, July/August 1993)

Christian Information Network