From Dr. Jane's Notebook
Marital conflict: couples' pathway to creative growth
One myth about being married or
part of a couple is that all conflict is a problem. In reality,
successful couples practice the art of conflict management as part of their
daily communications. Conflict management, sometimes referred to as ‘fair
fighting’, is designed to result in ‘win-win solutions’ and in constructive
compromise so that both parties are satisfied with their solutions. Sound
impossible? Well, its not.
Presumably, when two people form
a partnership, it is because they believe that together, they will be happier
and more successful than either would be by remaining alone. Being partners
suggests that you value each others’ opinions, thoughts, feelings and
perceptions. So, it is presumed that if a problem exists, by bringing it to the
other’s attention, the problem can be resolved in a healthy way. Thus, conflict
is often a valuable pathway to creative growth as a couple. According to this
model, bigger problems arise when individuals decide not to bring up problems
for fear that they will be ridiculed, feel shamed, or blamed. More than conflict
itself, conflict avoidance is what leads to a break-down in partnerships.
Here are a few more thoughts on the matter.
- It is natural for people who live together to have
differences. When people live together, every now and then they are
bound to step on each others’ toes. When toes get stepped on, we become aware
of our boundaries. Usually, we have the gut reaction of feeling walked on, put
down or ignored. Unfortunately, even when we don’t acknowledge hurt feelings
at the time, we rarely forget about them. Following an insult, we usually
spend time mulling the event over and thinking about what we’ll say the next
time it happens. Then we spend our time thinking and waiting, perhaps even
baiting the other, instead of talking about the painful event when it occurs.
- Where communication stops, problems begin.
When insults go ignored, they accumulate as simmering anger, which most of us
tightly control for as long as possible. When we can no longer contain that
anger, we explode, rant and rave a bit, until eventually we feel guilty and
end up apologizing for the explosion. The irony is that while we’re stuffing
down feelings of anger, our loved ones often don’t even know that we’re upset
or holding a grudge because we haven’t told them! If this rings true in your
relationship, consider why you are trying to avoid conflict. Be aware that
there is a cost associated with our fear of speaking up; intimacy is the high
price we pay for that silence.
- It’s normal to have conflict. We’re not
always happy and we’re not always sad. But many of us are secretive in that we
secretly expect our mates to read our minds. We may choose not to say how we
are feeling, and then get upset when our partners fail to meet our
expectations. Ironically, conflict only goes away through the act of talking
about it. Talking about problems or issues allows for conflict management; not
talking about them creates conflict avoidance, which like mounting garbage,
does not go away by itself.
- Suppressing how you feel is living a lie.
One of Simon and Garfunkel’s earliest tunes told us that “like a cancer,
silence grows”. When we get married or decide to live together, aren’t we
agreeing to tell each other what we’re thinking? People cite many reasons for
why they choose to withhold their feelings. Some folks feel that unless they
have a quick come-back to an insult, they have missed their ‘window of
opportunity’, others fear they’ll hurt their partner’s feelings, and still
others fear they’ll be told that they are making ‘too big of a deal out of
nothing’. But more often, the opposite is true. Problems are most easily
resolved when we are brave enough to ‘bring them to the table’ as soon as
possible. Usually, we gain self-confidence and self-respect when we stand up
for ourselves. Hopefully, we also gain our partner’s respect. Don’t take my
word for it…. ask your partner if they want you to be their ‘doormat’ and if
they want you to keep secrets from them. In other words, make your couple
communication style a mutual decision!
- Differences are sexy; don’t pretend to be so easy.
When we pretend that we don’t have boundaries, it’s usually because we fear
rejection. But this is also a way to set ourselves up for rejection. If we fail
to speak our minds, and then blast our partners from time to time, that’s not
sexy. But expressing one’s differences before anger mounts up, says that you are
an individual. Hopefully, you never promised to be a clone of your mate, devoid
of your own opinions, thoughts and feelings. Not only are ‘doormats’ not sexy,
they are also boring.
One of my favorite pastimes over
the years has been watching my animals play. My cats wrestle and chase each
other daily. My dogs once won a tag-team wrestling award, though we were
participating in an obedience training class. Members of the same species often
fight, wrestle, establish dominance, and then go about their lives as the
closest of friends.
Throughout nature, conflict is
normal. As a human being, why not consider the virtue of just being your self.
One warning, if you’ve been quietly pretending that your feelings don’t count,
people will be surprised when you start saying how you really feel. As the
famous psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Perls used to say, ‘they more you become
yourself, the more people will accuse you of changing’! Don’t worry. In the long
run, you will be happier and the absence of your anger will make you a lot more
fun to live with.
©Copyright, 2004, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.
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