Relationships, Part 43 : Constructive Conflict: Calling Fouls

Any marriage counselor can sit with a couple and listen to them talk about a difficult issue for three minutes and know whether they are heading for a break up. All the counselor has to do is spot fouls. The fouls predict that a conversation will not be productive. It may turn into a fight. An accumulation of fouls often results in divorce.

The four fouls most prophetic of trouble are defamation, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. We will look at each of them in detail in later posts, but for now, let’s talk about how to call them.

What should you do if you spot a foul? All it takes is one and a conversation will begin to deteriorate. Nothing good will come of talking any more unless the foul is addressed.

It’s best when you can call your own fouls. If you’re talking with your partner and you catch yourself defaming her, getting defensive, retreating into silence, or expressing contempt, you should stop right there and admit your mistake. It’s time to re-boot.

I admit it’s sometimes hard to notice when you are fouling. Many people were raised to foul. The relationships they saw when they were growing up were dangerous places where family members hacked and committed flagrant violations so frequently they were routine. If that was the case, you know you don’t want to continue the tradition. You probably swore to yourself you would never do as your parents had done. Well, now’s your chance. Pay attention to when you are doing it, when you open your mouth and the words of your violent father or shrewish mother come out. When you catch yourself, or your partner catches you fouling, stop, apologize, and start the conversation over.

If you know you are committing a violation and you do it anyway, you are behaving as if you’re a sadistic prick, unworthy of human companionship. I know those are harsh words, especially coming from a therapist type, but I’ve witnessed enough pain in my office that I want to call out the conduct that inflicts it. However, I am enough of a therapist to know that just because you behave like a sadistic prick, doesn’t mean you are one. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I ever have met a real sadistic prick, only people who sometimes act that way. All the more reason to take responsibility for the violations you commit, seeing as though they are so out of character.

So, what do you do if you spot your partner committing a foul that he doesn’t call on himself? He might have been aware of it and needs you to point it out. It’s vitally important that you don’t just let it pass and ignore it as if it never happened. The conversation may deteriorate into a fight if you go on that way and you will certainly not get your issue resolved. If he is not aware of the violation, he will not learn that he is fouling and will go on to do it again. It’s possible to create a monster out of a perfectly good human being by letting him behave in a selfish, childish manner.

Therefore, it’s important to call fouls that your partner does not call on himself. Do it like this:
• “Try again.”
• “I am getting scared.”
• “Please say that more gently.”
• “That felt like an insult.”
• “You didn’t say that right.”
• “Let’s start over.”
• “Let’s take a ten minute break.”
• “Let’s calm down.”
• Use an already established safe word.

Or, if you can do it in a humorous way:
• “Foul!”
• Throw a yellow handkerchief
• Blow a whistle
• I know a very modest couple; every time one of them spots a foul, he or she takes off a single article of clothing, starting with a watch, or a belt, or a single shoe, whether they are in public or not. It doesn’t take long before the conversation straightens out.

Do something and get the constructive conversation back on track.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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