The Shrink’s Links: Constructive Conflict

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Constructive ConflictMy book, Constructive Conflict, has just been published in print and in Kindle.

Conflict in relationships is inevitable.
If you haven’t had a conflict yet, you haven’t been paying attention.

Communication increases conflict.
If you haven’t had a conflict yet, you haven’t really been talking.

Conflict is the beginning of a real relationship, not the end.
If you haven’t had a conflict yet, you haven’t been real.

Violence is not conflict.
Violence is conflict avoidance.

Conflict is like electricity, it can turn on a light, power change, or burn down the house.
To enjoy the benefits of conflict, you need to know how to regulate it.

A short book, packed with wisdom, disarming humor, and refreshing directness, Constructive Conflict shows how you can manage your conflicts.

Click here to buy from Amazon.


Relationships, Part 52: Constructive Conflict: Commemorate

If you and your partner succeed in having a difficult conversation and come away with something resolved, there’s one more thing you need to do before you are done.

Remember it.

You don’t want to have to cover that ground again.

There are some couples who have the same fight over and over. Each time, they settle it somehow, but the next time they don’t remember what they decided. Or they remember things differently. Then they argue over who remembered what.

It’s far better, when you are basking in the warm glow of a successful negotiation, to immediately write down what you have decided. Think of it as minutes of a board meeting, or an amendment to a marital constitution, or as an important contract. The key is to commit it to writing and put it in a safe place where you can refer to it later.

You may want to keep a file just for this purpose. In the file you keep all your agreements so you can find them if you need them.

Many people resist writing things down because they want their relationship to be a dynamic living thing, not a dry, legalistic business arrangement. Well, writing things down doesn’t have to mean that you can’t revise it if you need to, if you follow due process. Your relationship can still breathe. Think of these documents like the bones of a body that give it structure, definition, and strength. Think of them as the bass line of music, upon which the band builds harmonies. They’re like the laws of physics, which underwrite all beauty, motion, and grace; or, the Periodic Table of the Elements, which makes chemistry possible.

The process of recording what you just agreed on might reveal overlooked holes or gaps in your mutual understanding. There’s something about committing things to writing that forces people to be more precise. The devil’s in the details, so you may want to work them out now, while you and your partner are on a roll, rather than when they emerge later.

Commemoration also involves doing something fun. Celebration your accomplishment. I suppose that’s what make-up sex is all about, but it doesn’t have to stop there. Have make-up sex, by all means, but also consider going out to dinner, taking a vacation, renewing your vows. Go to the hardware store, buy a hatchet, and take it out in the backyard and bury it. Create or designate some kind of a symbol of your new agreement: a work of art or a piece of furniture, some jewelry, plant a tree. Have something that you can point to and say, this is a sign of your new covenant, an emblem of the renewal of love.

You and your partner just accomplished something important. You took a conflict that could have driven you apart, you wrestled with it while maintaining respect for each other. This is the kind of operation that, if done enough, can save the world. Give yourself some credit, pat yourself on the back, and celebrate. Make this success something that you will never forget.


Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 51: Constructive Conflict: Compromise

Compromise is one of those things, like flossing, that everyone says is desirable and few are willing to do. We mostly want our partner to practice it. However, you don’t really need to be so cagy about compromise. Just say you don’t like it and avoid it when you can.

There are good and bad ways to evade compromising. Here’re all the ways I can think of, in no particular order. You’ll have to decide for yourself which ones are good and which are bad. I will say that all these methods can be effective; in the short term, at least.

• First, there’s screaming and shouting, hitting and gouging, whining and cajoling, sarcasm and name calling. What you’re going to want to do is to take whatever your loved one wants and increase the cost for him, so that he will give up on it. Domestic violence is the most crude form of this method. The most successful users of intimidation never raise a hand in anger, they are able to terrorize and threaten their partners into compliance by more subtle means.
• The second method to avoid compromise is equally popular. You can give the appearance of agreement to whatever she wants, with no intention of ever following through. This stops the discussion long enough so that you can watch the game. Repeat for as long as it takes her to give up on it.
• If your partner also doesn’t like to compromise (who does?) you may be able to collude with him into pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
• One counterintuitive method of avoiding compromise it to just let her have her way. This spares you the hard work of being real about what you need and coming to terms with the fact that you and your partner just may not be compatible. Sure, you lose whatever you give up, but you can always make up for it later by nursing grudges and exacting concessions. A good grudge is better than drugs.
• Blackmail.
• You might be able to evade compromise if you have a plural marriage. You can form a coalition with your sister wives and vote your husband into submission.
• If you don’t have a plural marriage, you can create sort of a temporary one by erasing the boundaries between your union and others. Friends, children, in-laws, and marriage counselors can be enlisted to arbitrate disputes. The wise ones will refuse, but you don’t need wisdom from them; you just need them to go along with you. You can get your whole family to gang up on your wife and call it an intervention.
• You can avoid a lot of compromise by having a traditional, paternalistic marriage. Just put the husband in charge of all the decision making. Line up all the machinery of society: social disapproval, family ties, religious strictures, the power of the state, to support him and ensure his way or the highway. Both men and women may like this arrangement for their own reasons. The men, so they can be in charge, and the women, so the men can. I suppose it can work just as well the other way around, with the wife in charge, if you can get society to go along with it. The ship has not yet completely sailed when it comes to paternalism in our society. Some say that a new ship, maternalism, has been spotted coming into port.
• Let’s not forget that, before you compromise, you can play a game of marital chicken. Stick to your point to see if the other side blinks first.

So, let’s see. Are there other ways to avoid compromising?
• If you’ve been trying my suggestions about having a constructive conflict, you might’ve found that you and your partner don’t disagree as much as you thought you did. There are huge regions of concord you never knew existed. You might have discovered your partner just wants to be taken seriously. He needs to be heard, that’s all, So, see, no compromise needed.
• Make a deal; do some horse trading.
• If one partner has special expertise in a particular area of common life, you could give that person the final word in matters pertaining. She’s good with figures, so she makes the final decision on money issues. Since he’s a teacher and is an expert on child development, he makes the call with the kids.
• Split the difference.
• Even when there’s no expertise, per se, as a practical matter, it can make sense when each partner deals with his or her own stuff. You could be vested in the ultimate authority when it comes to your own job, your own kids, your family of origin, your car, so on and so forth. In the same way, couples who do not put their money in a common pot, but handle it individually often have the one partner retain control over their portion of the income.

It’s possible to break up the functions of marital life in as many pieces as you would like and maintain dozens of small, petty dictatorships over the laundry, the vacuuming, making breakfast, writing checks, etc. You could cede to the other partner a significant advisory role, but the final decision is left to the person in charge.

Many traditional marriages are structured in this way. Husbands have the final say making a living and relating to the outside world, while wives rule inside the home. This arrangement has its advantages in clarifying roles, but heaven help you if you lose your partner and you don’t know where he did his banking, or if your wife picked out all your clothes and now you don’t know how to shop.
• Here’s another way to settle an impasse and avoid compromise. Go with whomever has the strongest feelings on the subject. If he’s a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan and they’re finally in the World Series there’s no question of what you’re tuning in to if you don’t care what you watch. If she can’t digest Indian food or wash the curry smell out of her hair, you may have to go without your fix of vindaloo. This method works well when you and your partner are in good faith, are not unnecessarily histrionic, and don’t really mind your emotions, much less someone else’s, making all major decisions.
• Take turns giving in.

If you don’t like any of these choices, remember, compromise is not necessary if you don’t care about the relationship, or if you care about it, but not as much as you care about the Stanley Cup Finals, or shopping for shoes, or sending your children to Catholic school, or seeing your parents on Christmas morning, or having the right to drink beer until you’re passed out on the couch after having barfed all over yourself and yelled at the kids. There are plenty of things that you might believe are more important than keeping your vows to the love of your life. If you really believe that, then do not compromise your beliefs by compromising. Stick to your guns, wave the flag, and never give up.

So, you see, there’re lots of choices before you have to compromise. If you exhaust all these, then hold your nose, grit your teeth, and just do it.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 50: Constructive Conflict: Detect Dreams

You find yourself gridlocked. You want children; she doesn’t. He wants you to go to church, but you’re an atheist. She likes to stay home; you’re always ready to party. There doesn’t seem to be any solution. There’s no way to compromise. You’re ready to call it quits. What do you do?

Step away from the problem.

Look at the big picture. Understand the different points of view. Not just your perspectives on the immediate issue, but what lies behind them. Behind every position is a dream or a value that you and your partner find essential. Acknowledging and respecting these deepest, most personal hopes and dreams is the key to getting past the impasse.

To get out of gridlock, you have to understand what causes people to become rigid and inflexible. No matter what the issue, whether it’s momentous, like following a job to a different state, or trivial, like how to make the bed, deadlock is an indication that there are dreams and values that have not been identified, acknowledged, or respected.

You didn’t survive childhood without coming away with some ideas of what you would like to do differently than your parents and what you would like to do the same. These ideas could cover marriage, childrearing, vocation, or general matters of lifestyle. If your father was violent, you may have had your fill of it in childhood and are determined not repeat the behavior in your life. If your family always had Sunday dinner and you found this was the anchor that kept everyone from going adrift, you may have an unwavering commitment to Sunday dinners, yourself.

You didn’t enter adulthood without being aware, more or less, that the time you have is limited. You want to make your life worthwhile. You want to make a difference that you are here. You came up with ideas of things you could do: help people, raise children, glorify God, experience life, pursue truth, or create beauty; things you can do to contribute.

These resolutions, the ones you bring from childhood and the ones you make in the face of death, are very powerful. They define who you are and what makes your life worthwhile. Your partner has them, too. Do you know what they are?

When I say be a dream detective, I mean that you need to know what your partner’s dreams and resolutions are and how they impact on the issue at hand. It may be that the way she makes the bed matters more and for a deeper reason than you ever imagined. It may be that being a good Catholic, or a staunch atheist, is vital to his identity.

Consider the conflict that you have, take her position and trace back to where it connects to these resolutions. When you go back that far, you often find that there are many ways of accomplishing the dream. It turns out that she makes the bed that way because it’s how her Grandmother made her bed. She loved her Grandmother, whose home was an orderly haven from the chaos she grew up in. She is determined to not let her home be chaotic. Well, there’s lots of ways to hold off chaos. The way she makes the bed may not be a crucial once others ways are employed.

When you are able to trace the conflict back to the value that makes the conflict important, then you can come up with other solutions that accomplish the same goal. When you know these things about your partner, you can’t help but respect them, if you love her at all. It’s what makes her, her. You want her to succeed and accomplish her dreams because, well, what is love if it’s not that?

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 49: Constructive Conflict: Repair the Damage

If you’ve been reading the last few posts, you now know how to have a constructive conflict. You can pick the right time and place to talk about difficult matters. You start with the easy stuff. You don’t expect her to fix the things she has no influence over. You can learn from her and how to acknowledge her feelings. You can call the four fouls of an unfair fight, whether you commit them or she; and you know enough not to be evil. You’ve learned a lot, but, before you and your partner can perfect your new skills, things can still go badly.

You need to know enough to make repairs.

Remember the last time you and your partner tried to have a conversation, but it turned into a fight? Go through the scenes carefully. Get to the part right when it started to get ugly. Now rewind back a few frames to where no one was mad yet. Roll it in slow motion. Watch the expression change in your partner’s face as you say that thing you said that made her so upset. You see it? You see that look? You know the look. You’ve seen it plenty of times, whenever you’ve been in trouble. Memorize it. When you see that look again, stop whatever you’re doing and make a repair.

If you were driving down the highway and your tire blew, you wouldn’t go on cruising, playing the radio, looking at the sights, as if nothing was wrong. No, you’d stop and fix it. The same principle applies when you begin to have a fight with your partner. Stop talking about whatever it is you were talking about and reaffirm your commitment to the relationship.

So, let’s say you’re trying to convince him to get up with the baby once in a while. Your cause is just. You have to go to work in the morning just like he does. You need your sleep as much as him. Spending time with the baby, even at two o’clock in the morning can be a tremendously rewarding experience that facilitates bonding. Furthermore, the evidence of his failure to pull his weight is unassailable. You’ve been keeping track. You even have a chart. You wait for a good time to talk, you clear your throat, and speak. You make your point, but then, there’s that look on his face that I told you to notice. It’s time to make a repair.

You might know what you did to get that look. Maybe you just couldn’t resist a little jab. Maybe his precious male ego got jostled too much. Maybe he took something the wrong way. Maybe he’s overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter why you got the look, you still need to make a repair.

It also doesn’t matter how correct your complaint might be. A righteous cause does not guarantee that you’ve expressed it well, nor does it justify any means to implement it. You don’t have to back away from the point you made; he still should get up with the baby. Don’t forget the whole thing because he gave you this look, but you’re going to have to live with this man, even if you win the debate and prevail over him. You’re going to need his cooperation, even if he agrees with you. Make the repair.

If you see that look, stop trying to make your point. You made it already. The job is done. Continue in the same vein and it’ll just get ugly. You need to make a repair. Did I say that already?

It’s not necessary at this juncture to fix everything about your relationship. You’re just trying to undo whatever just happened and get the conversation back on a track. Correct the little things before they turn into big things. Switch your focus from content to process. Forget about what you are trying to say and pay attention to how you are saying it. If you see that look, you’re saying it wrong. Stop it. Make the… you guessed it… make the repair.

People often ask me, “OK, I saw that look and I stopped. Now what do I do to repair the damage?”

You’re asking me how to love your husband? That’s something you should already know, he became your husband somehow. Go back to that tape you were looking at. Rewind it to the beginning of your relationship. Look at how charming you were then, how easy you were to get along with, how you guys talked for hours. Look at all the ways you won him over and made him decide you were the one for him. Do that again. That’s how you make a repair.

Now is the time to paraphrase, to use your safe word, take a break, focus on the positive, reset and reboot.

There’s also humor, humility, a gentle touch, a come-hither look, a soft expression. Sometimes you don’t have to say anything to make a repair, but you do need to communicate that you love him.

In my experience, couples know very well how to make repairs; they just don’t do it. Or they don’t notice when their partner is attempting to make one. They get stuck the issue, rather than paying attention to how they are talking about it.

Don’t wait until doors are slammed before you stop trying to hammer home the point. Notice your relationship needs mending. Make a repair.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 48: Constructive Conflict: Don’t be Evil

If you are unfamiliar with the reality of evil in the world, watch the news. If you’re unfamiliar with its presence in yourself, ask your wife.

Or husband. Partners know very well how evil we can be . We can be evil to the people we love in ways we never imagined being evil to anyone else.

There’s even a term for it that we marriage counselors use: normal marital sadism. Sadism means that you get pleasure out of inflicting pain on another. Marital, in this case, means any close, committed relationship, including marriage. Normal means you do it. Add it up and it means you enjoy inflicted pain on your partner.

Who, me?

Yes, you. You don’t have to commit violence to be a sadist. Have you ever gotten even, held a grudge, let go of (rather than lost) your temper, withheld sex, or felt justified and entitled to retribution when your feelings were hurt?

Of course you have.

What is that, if it’s not evil? It’s deliberately done when you could just as well choose not to. It’s primitive, punitive, petty and vindictive. You know where his buttons are, so you push them. You know where his skeletons are buried, so you dig them up. You perversely derive satisfaction from making him squirm. Screwing with people’s minds is fun. Face it, it’s evil.

Even God-fearing, peace-loving, romantic types who never seem to fight, engage in covert combat. Especially them. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.

To be sure, there are some who are more evil in their relationships than others. If you want to learn to spot them before you get hitched to them, remember what I said in the beginning of this series about being an adult. Marriage is for adults only. Not everyone over the age of eighteen is an adult. Many, very many, are immature. They will not take responsibility, comfort themselves, and are unable to endure temporary hardship for meaningful long term goals. You can’t take them anywhere because if they are not in the right environment, they feel unaffirmed and everything goes to hell. People who don’t handle frustrations well, who take things personally, will cause mayhem all over the place in the name of self-preservation.

You might expect that this evil will happen if the relationship was weak, if you didn’t care about your partner. Actually, weakness or lack of importance has nothing to do with it. You can expect this behavior when the relationship is fused, when all your feelings are tangled up in hers, when you don’t know where one person ends and the other begins.

You might think you want this kind of close relationship because it’s what you experienced as a child. Even if you had a terrible childhood, when you started out as a fetus you were indistinguishable from your mother. You are supposed to grow up and grow apart and become progressively more independent. Furthermore, your partner is supposed to help you.

When this developmental imperative is not obeyed, that’s when evil shows up. You get sadistic when you’re clinging too tightly. It’s function is to drive you apart from people so you can learn to stand by yourself. Evil does something useful, you see, but it’s still unnecessary. You can stand, grounded, on your own two feet just fine, without being hateful.

So, chill out, let it go, grow up, and don’t hurt him back, even if he deserves it. Don’t be evil.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 47: The Fourth Foul: Contempt

Of all the four fouls of an unfair fight, contempt is the most damaging. It’s the coup de grace that finishes off a relationship. If you were wondering if you should see a marriage counselor, if contempt shows up: you should; but it may be too late.

You can recognize contempt in its various forms. There’s the milder versions: eye rolling, sneering, sarcasm, an exasperated sigh. There’s the stronger types: name calling, mockery, scorn, and the pulling out of all the dirty laundry. Contempt is implicit in domestic violence, back stabbing, betrayal, and when you alienate her from her children.

Contempt is found whenever you communicate that you are superior to your partner; each time you cut him down, objectify him, overpower him, ridicule him, and undermine his relationship with others. Express contempt when you are trying to have a constructive conversation, and it’s lights out. There’s no point in going on. It’s time to take a break and you’ll need to apologize when and if you return.

The four fouls, Defamation, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt, can be thought of on a continuum, ranging from the most cerebral, Defamation, to the most visceral, Contempt. Contempt is associated with the disgust you feel when you are sick to your stomach, poisoned by some toxic substance, and you puke. When you are showing contempt you are basically saying that the love of your life is a toxic substance and you can’t wait to get rid of her. That’s a peculiar expression of love, isn’t it?

We might differ on what we believe love is; for some there is more passion than others. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that love has to involve admiration, appreciation, attraction, and respect. Contempt corrodes all that. Yet, I never fail to be amazed when couples can show contempt for one another and then insist that they are in love.

However, despite what we think love should be like, as a matter of fact, love and hate are close cousins in the family of emotions, unrelated to apathy and indifference. You can be the most hateful of the very people you love. It’s impossible to be indifferent to your partner, it matters what she does. The people you are closest to are the very people you can most easily hurt, and can most easily hurt you.

If you’re going to love people, you’re just going to have to get used to the fact that sometimes you’ll have contempt for them, and they will for you. Your darling may disgust you, but it is a feeling that can be regulated.

All you have to do is get close to someone and you can see all his flaws. There are blemishes on his skin; his feet look like they belong in a monster movie. He sniffles and snorts and farts and burps and leaves skid marks on his laundry. He’s afraid of spiders, cries at graduations, lies to his mother, and is too cowed by his boss to ask him for a raise. Sometimes his penis fails to get hard. He has complexes, phobias, insecurities, and, once in a while, has bad dreams from which he awakes, screaming. He’s filled with rage when a car cuts him off. Your partner is a mess.

So are you.

Contempt shows up whenever you forget that you are just as disgusting as your partner. When you fail to observe the truce that is necessary for any two people to get together, an agreement to overlook obvious and not so obvious defects. When you fail to keep your promise to love him anyway.

The thing that regulates contempt is humility. Nurture your humility. Those who fail to, get humiliated.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.