“Conflict creates the fire of affects and emotions; and like every fire it has two aspects: that of burning and that of giving light.” (Carl Jung)
Allen and I have our fair share of FIGHTS (the seventh F in the series). We are certainly NOT the couple who can say, “We never argue. We agree on everything.” Nor do we want to be (well, Allen wants to be secretly).
Allen is kind and gracious. I am sarcastic and I like to say, discerning (others may call me a bit judgmental). Allen is a hard-worker, quiet and reserved. I am quick-witted and loud. He is methodical and analytical. I am passionate and decisive. Allen is a supporter and a peacemaker. I am a leader and aggressive. As you can see, blending our personalities lends itself to conflict. It is inevitable.
We bicker about (super important things like) how to pack the car, load the dishwasher, and fold the laundry. I hear myself saying just last night, “I’ve told you not to fold my dresses. They just go on a hanger. You are wasting your time.” (I know, ladies. The man was folding the laundry and I still had something to say about it.)
We argue about more serious things like where to spend our money, how to handle the latest “children issue” and what to fill our calendars with, the things of life that have big implications. There’s just no way around it.
We also have more tender “discussions” about how we’ve been hurt, misunderstood, and disrespected by the other. These stem from places of abandonment and shame, and our lack of the ability to “stay with the uncomfortable” parts of ourselves. Allen has an especially hard time with this, deeply desiring the absence of conflict. It does not make him feel safe inside or out. On the other hand, I love exposing all our shadowy parts (or maybe just his if I’m truthful) and bringing them out into the open for the gaping wound to sometimes fester and other times heal. Allen tends to be the avoider. I am the chaser. I fight and he flees when we feel threatened.
For many years, we had no idea that all this conflict CAN actually lead to intimacy (being fully-known and fully-loved). But it CAN also lead to disconnection. The trick is knowing HOW to argue, how to fight fair. Allen’s calm and quiet during our times of conflict appears like marital harmony, but without resolution, the problem just brews beneath the surface. My love of “getting it out into the open” many times degenerates into insults and harm. This breeds the perfect environment for disconnection.
Dr. Gottman, the expert marriage researcher, says that how a couple handles conflict is directly related to how likely they are to have a happy marriage. There are four disastrous ways of interacting that will cripple attempts to resolve conflict, one feeding into the next (he calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse): criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. They are the FIRE that destroys.
Complaining (not to be confused with endless nagging – Allen likes the idea of challenging the status quo) is a healthy marital activity. It’s not pleasant, but it brings things into the light. Many times, and this is where I personally struggle, it crosses the line to CRITICISM. Criticism involves attacking someone’s person, rather than their behavior. Complaints usually start with the word “I” and criticism with the word “you.” For example, “I wish we spent more time together” is a complaint. “You never spend time with me” is a criticism. Criticism produces blame and multiplies shame, never resulting in closeness.
CONTEMPT brings criticism to a whole new level. Many times, criticism, as bad as it is, is born from a place of frustration. It tends to be a “crime” of passion. Contempt is a clear “premeditated” attempt to harm your partner. Its aim is to cause pain. No matter if you have been married for four days or forty years, this monster sucks away every positive feeling spouses have for one another. It appears in the form of name-calling, hostile humor (sarcasm) and straight up mockery. I always associate it with the “rolling of the eyes.” This is the most dangerous “horseman.”
Once contempt has entered the picture, each of us has a natural inclination to defend ourselves. In fact, DEFENSIVENESS can result even from proper forms of communication like complaining, especially if there is unresolved shame in either party. However, it is completely natural to resort to this place when there is CRITICISM and especially when CONTEMPT has taken hold. This being said, defensiveness only escalates a conflict instead of resolving it. Denying responsibility and making excuses only separates a couple further.
The last horseman is STONEWALLING. Allen struggles with this. Overwhelmed by emotions, his natural inclination is to withdraw, protect himself. Even though it might look on the surface like “peace-making,” it actually is a very powerful act, conveying disapproval. The example that comes to mind is when one of us “stops talking” to the other. When this happens, the ability to connect is seriously thwarted and intimacy is beyond reach.
All this sounds so horrible and hard and probably completely relatable. Even writing this is making me a little discouraged. I need a little good news, how about you?
There is great HOPE! All of those horseman come into every marriage, even happy ones at some point or another, especially when there is intense marital conflict. But they don’t have to be the norm. Just like fires can bring harm and destruction, they can also produce light and warmth.
Conflict in marriage can be the fire that produces light and warmth. It can bring life and vitality into a relationship. It is the price you pay to have deeper intimacy. WE CAN FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE! Here are basic “rules” (not a huge fan of that word) that govern how to move from harm to healing:
- DON’T RUN
Bottling things up and burying them just makes the “cork pop” at some point. The problem hasn’t gone away. Instead, take some time away if you need to with the promise that you will come back together when cooler heads prevail over heated emotions. This has been huge for us. When Allen says “Let’s come back later,” I am able to “let things go for now” knowing there will be resolution.
- CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES
This goes back to probably 85% of our arguments about how to squeeze the toothpaste tube, mow the lawn, etc. Allen and I have wasted a lot of time and energy here.
- GET TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrot, marriage counselors, teach couples the X, Y, Z formula to help them state their true feelings, “In situation X, when you do Y, I feel Z.” This gives room for you to state how your partner’s behavior affects your feelings. This is when “I” statements, instead of “you” statements, come into play. This helps to diffuse defensiveness and provide a place of safety.
- NO LOW-BLOWS
Never “throw back in their face” something your spouse has shared with you in a place of vulnerability and confidentiality. In the heat of an argument, this is a quick “go-to,” but will break trust and humiliate the other. Nothing enhances feelings of shame more than this.
- IS IT THE RIGHT TIME?
This is especially helpful when working through the bigger things that may need to be sorted out over the long-haul. I have had to learn this the hard way. I want to rush through and fix things right away (like the minute it pops into my head). Allen has taught me to be patient and gracious here. Instead of my normal MO (mode of operation), I ask instead, “I have something bothering me. When is a good time to talk about it?”
- AVOID MIND-READING
Be careful to believe the best about the other’s intentions and be open to learning whether or not you are right or wrong. Mind-reading assumes the worst about someone and can be a strategy of self-protection. If I have Allen “all figured out” (and I’m not usually thinking the best), what room is there for him to share his heart? This shuts down communication and blocks intimacy.
- STAY ON TOPIC
Stick to the relevant issue that you are discussing. Don’t veer off course, bringing up everything the person has done wrong in the last five years. Refocus when things get off course. Be careful of this slippery slope.
- TWO EARS, ONE MOUTH
Listen. Plain and simple. But not that easy. Have the goal of understanding where the other person is coming from. This is so hard. I’m not sure why. We want so desperately to be understood. Give the gift you long for to the other. Hear with your heart. Be careful not to fix. Sometimes, silence is your spouse’s best friend (something super hard for this chatterbox). “I hear you” have been three of the most powerful words I’ve ever said or heard.
- ADMIT YOUR PART
I have a huge barrier when it comes to saying I am wrong. I can see so clearly how Allen is “completely in the wrong about everything” (note sarcastic tone here). This comes for me from a place of pride (“I’m better than you”). For Allen, it comes from a place of shame (“You’re better than me”). We both struggle here for different reasons, neither one of them good. Understanding the back story of our own reactions is HUGE here. When we understand that we both have infinite value and worth, “I’m sorry” becomes much easier because we can take responsibility for our actions without blame and shame.
Feeding off the compassion we now have for ourselves (and our spouses) that comes straight from God’s heart for us provides real room for forgiveness, “giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” We all fail. We all need forgiveness. Giving to the other what we will eventually need brings true healing. (This is a huge topic, one to be talked about at a later date.)
I keep coming back to the image of fire. “Keep the fires burning” and “Keep the flame alive” are mantras for good marriage. Fire destroys or gives light. Conflict is the same. Fighting harms or heals, brings intimacy or disconnection. I’m sure another “discussion” is right around the corner for Allen and me. May we fight the FIRES of destruction and harm with the FIRES that bring light and healing!
If you’ve made it this far, can you go back to Social Media and “like” it (but only if you do like it…LOL)!
CHECK OUT THE FIRST SIX “Fs”