Latest update: March 5th, 2012
No matter how couples try to make sure everything in their lives is perfect, at some point they may experience conflict in their marriage. Conflict is not as dramatic as it sounds. In marriage, independent of how much you love someone, you may have differing ideas about money or education, preferences, or various special activities you both want to do. Learning how to resolve these differences, appropriately, can avoid prolonged or destructive anger and hostility. Conflict resolution skills include cultivating the right attitude, as well as learning interpersonal techniques.
To begin with, most arguments, on some level, stem from misunderstanding. One spouse might perceive the other’s action, inaction, or words as being unreasonable and inappropriate in a given circumstance. People are quick to take their positions and justify their stands rather than to try to understand the other party. Added to this problem of misunderstanding are feelings of pride where people put up a bold front and avoid giving in to their spouse. In some marriages, a small war might rage for days before the conflict is resolved and in between, tension and unhappiness builds.
Take Rachel 27, and David, 28 who came to speak to me about a fight they were having over how to handle their 8-year-old son, Yosef. Yosef was by all means a rambunctious third-grader who kept his teacher and parents hopping on their toes day and night. Rachel, who had two other young children at home, was feeling overwhelmed dealing with them and Yosef’s ADD-like behavior. She was also upset that her husband, David, came home late from work and wasn’t pulling his weight around the house. The home-related stress was causing conflict and Rachel and David were unable to resolve their problems peacefully.
Understanding Differences in Communication
It is true that many couples like Rachel and David face similar stress-filled situations yet are able to maintain a positive relationship. The difference between Rachel and David and others, is the way they argue and the defensive styles of communication they maintain. Rachel, for example, tends to be very assertive. She’s quick to blame David for the stress she’s feeling at home and berates him from the second he enters the door until the minute they go to sleep. David on the other hand, is an “avoider” who shies away from conflict. He has more of an happy-go-lucky personality and hushes up like an obedient puppy when his wife yells at him. Together, the mixture of Rachel’s competitive style and David’s avoidance of conflict has created a relationship that was low on trust and high on negative feelings.
One way of for Rachel and David to deal with their conflict is through them becoming aware of their negative styles of communication. According to family therapists there are several key styles of communication that people develop: competitive, avoidant, and compromising.
When a person uses a competitive style, they tend to be very assertive and interested in getting their own way. They also approach the conflict in a forceful manner without being interested in cooperating with other people, and view their relationship from a win/lose perspective.
People use the competitive style when an issue is very important to them, or when the person has the authority to make the decision, and it seems clear that this is the one best way. They can also become competitive when decisions have to be made fast and the person has power the to make it, as the following dialogue shows:
Moshe (irritated): You didn’t turn off the lights in the bathroom when you were finished. How many times do I have to remind you? Shani (sarcastic tone): Why do you have to make such a big deal about a few cents worth of electricity? Moshe (harshly): Because you’re irresponsible about money, that’s why! Shani (reacting): Maybe you’d save more money if I just moved out.
When someone is competitive, they look upon a family discussion or disagreement as being sort of like a debate or contest.
In a contest, it’s natural for humans to want to score more points than their opponent.
When spouses seek to score points against one another, a family discussion quickly degenerates into a win/lose competition. As disagreement heats up, spouses begin using increasingly abusive comments to “score points.”
Usually these hurtful words do not express what the two spouses really feel about each other.
They’re just caught up in the heat of competition. When the dust settles both spouses wonder how the mess got started in the first place and wish they could take back the words they said. Unfortunately, the “winner” settles down in a cloud of gloom and thinks, “Boy, I won that one! Soooo… how come I feel so bad?”
This approach happens when a person does not assert himself, doesn’t know how to cooperate or wants to avoid conflict entirely. Although this can temporarily be a good approach to use if one is dealing with a difficult person, in the long run, it leaves issues unresolved and can linger on far beyond the event. Avoidance can mean to others that a person is ‘running away’ from them and they feel they can take advantage of the situation. Their inner message is that they need to maintain a lose/win attitude to survive.
The avoider on the outside may seem to give in, but at the same time, they can build considerable resentment towards their spouse for denying their feelings and agreeing to things they feel are wrong or hurtful.
When one partner always retreats from difficult discussions, the other partner pushes even harder to achieve a resolution. As the pusher pushes harder, the retreater retreats further. Eventually the distance between spouses can become an uncrossable chasm.
Next week, Part 19 – The Compromising Style of Communication
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force and author of a “First Aid for Jewish Marriages: Eight Steps To Enhancing the Most Important Relationship in Your Life.” For more information about Shalom Task Force, please visit www.shalomtaskforce.org. You can e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723
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