Relationships, Part 39: Constructive Conflict: Be Relevant

If you have a conflict with your partner, be sure it has something to do with your partner.
Sam’s wife asks him to take out the garbage. It’s a reasonable request. Someone has to do it and it might as well be Sam. But he snaps at her. An argument ensues. It’s not the garbage that he minds so much, it’s the asking. There’s something about being asked that bothereds him.

Sam’s mother used to ask Sam to take out the garbage, too, but she didn’t ask nicely. She would beat him if he didn’t do it right away. He’s angry about that still, even though he hasn’t thought about it in years.

He managed to survive childhood and grow up and get married. It was all good until his wife asked him to take out the garbage. Something about it subconsciously reminded Sam of his mother. He didn’t realize he was responding to his wife in the way that his mother deserved, but that’s what he did.

When his wife innocently asked him to take out the garbage, Sam’s mind automatically went to his memory bank for something like this experience before. He pulled an old file. There were emotions stored there that escaped when he opened it.

Any time our emotions are out of proportion to the issue at hand, as Sam’s were when his wife inoffensively asked him to take out the garbage, the 20/80% rule is at work. Twenty percent of what you are upset about has to do with the here and now situation. Eighty percent has to do with what’s in the files. In this case, twenty percent of the need to snap came from Sam being annoyed at having to take out the garbage. Taking out the garbage is annoying. It’s tiresome, it smells, and he has to put on his slippers, but twenty percent of a snap is hardly anything at all. It might be a sigh or a groan. That’s it. In this case, the other eighty percent of the snappage came from unresolved anger at the way Sam’s mother treated him. He has good reason to be angry, but not at his wife. She didn’t beat Sam.

Sometimes it’s a simple matter of sitting down and consciously looking at what’s in the files. I do it all the time with people who come in for therapy. Often it’s just a matter of asking, when have you felt that way before? and everything in the files comes out. I then explain the 20/80% rule. People get it. It would be easy for Sam to see that he’s letting his wife have it for something his mother had done. Most of the time it’s enough to be aware that you are doing it and eighty percent of the upset about the present situation goes away, just like that.

Sometimes it’s harder to see what’s in the files. There are some cases where the people just don’t want to look, it’s too painful. Unfortunately, the files affect them whether they want to look or not. In other cases, the material in the files was placed there before the child had the ability to use language. Then, what is placed there cannot be accessed by words. They are raw feelings, what we call body memories.

In these tough cases it’s often enough just to know that there are horrible things in the files. We may not need to know the details of the horrible things to let them go.

Whenever you are reacting out of proportion to what your partner has done, you can bet that eighty percent of your reaction has to do with something in the past that is in your files. It is possible to let go of that horrible material, whatever it is.

That leaves the remaining twenty percent. This is the proportion of the problem that your partner can do something about. That’s the part you bring to the table in conflict. The rest is beyond anything you can do with your partner. It should either be let go or addressed with the person responsible for the trauma in the files. Let go of things your partner can do nothing about.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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