Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Passion vs Intimacy

Much to the chagrin of my wife there is a type of television show that I can't watching without becoming more and more agitated and angry.  Shows like The Bachelor or Bachelorette where dozens of men and women get together and see who can produce the most passion in the least amount of time using the most ridiculous budget.  Movies where the heroine finally has the courage to leave her boring old husband and embrace life with a new exciting and romantic man make me want to scream at the TV that relationships that start as a result of an affair have like a 10% chance of success.  Now admittedly, part of my irritation comes from being the least romantic man on the planet, I have had many conversations with my wife that boil down to me asking in exasperation, "OK, well if THAT isn't romantic then what the heck is romance?"  But even further I get sickened by our culture that promotes sex and romance as the most important goals to be sought out and the way to feel good about yourself.  For men it is pornography, and hypersexuality in the culture that says if you as a man can have a very attractive woman, or better many women, who desire you intensely enough to have tons of crazy sex with you then you will be content and life will be perfect.  If your wife isn't having sex with you three times a day and you are unhappy and unfulfilled in life then that isn't a coincidence, it's your wife's fault.  For women it is romance novels, romantic reality shows, and such that says if you can get a man to read your mind and do for you what you aren't even able to vocalize before you even know you want it then you will be in bliss.  The problem is that Hugh Grant and Jenna Jameson both play characters that don't exist in the real world and it is just as dishonoring to compare a husband to outrageously romantic gestures as it is to compare a wife to outrageously misproportioned body parts.  They both take something good that men and women have been blessed by God with and make an idol out of them - attractiveness and pursuing - when research shows that marital satisfaction, much less individual mental and emotional health are not based on sex or romance.

Now that my mini-rant is over I'll tackle my real target, the idolization of romantic love in our culture that results in cashing in real relationships looking for something flashier.  Most people fall in love, then later come to see a host of flaws in their spouse but feel confident they can fix them, before throwing in the towel and filing for divorce.  Others just have an affair because they are either so selfish that they want the stability of home with some passion on the side or are so cowardly they just can't bear to tackle the problems in the marriage so look for something easier on the side.  The reason divorce is seen as easy and affairs can feel like a real relationship when they are usually just fragile fantasies that crumble in the light of reality is because of this obsession with passion.  Passion is exciting, new found romantic love, or limerence as some researchers refer to it can make everything else in life seem pale in comparison to that person who has swept you off your feet.  They are all you can think about, they have nothing but good qualities and not only have they never hurt you but you can't imagine they ever will.  They receive instant grace, they go on and on about your positive attributes, they encourage you, they want to sit for hours and hear about your hopes and dreams.  This is true of two people falling in love and it is equally true of someone who is married and is building an inappropriate relationship with someone who isn't their spouse, except there is even more of a draw.  This relationship has all those warm fuzzy feelings as well as a kick of adrenaline for the wrongness of it, a bond that if things leaked out it would be the two of you against the world, they encourage you to be as selfish and deceptive as they are without a hint of judgement.  You take the fantastic feelings of puppy love or forbidden love and they are going to look better seven days a week compared to the day in, day out routine of marriage complete with years of hurt and resentment after the grace tank ran out, a mortgage to pay and kids to raise together.  There is only one scale where long-term committed marriage has an edge on romantic love and that is durability, because the dirty little secret about romantic love is that it is a neurological state that can only exist in the human brain for a maximum of two to three years.

So get a divorce, have an affair, you're guaranteed that the next person you date will make you feel all warm and fuzzy, for two to three years.  If you are fine jumping from relationship to relationship then you can keep the feeling alive, as long as you are OK with the relational carnage you leave in your wake.  There is one exception to the two to three year rule, and that is unrequited love - you get separated and never get to see things played out you can keep the fantasy alive in your head a hundred years later as long as you never actually meet back up with them.  Maybe there is a high school sweetheart that you still follow on Facebook and you just know in your heart that if you would have married them instead of the toad you live with you would still be madly, passionately in love.  Maybe you had a crush on someone years ago and still compare everyone you date to them unsuccessfully.  Research seems to show that the archenemy of romantic love seems to be reality.  Give it enough time, reality seeps in and you see the person for who and what they really are, a selfish, sinful, flawed human being with personality quirks and character flaws.  I call it the anesthesia of love, and when it wears off it is rarely pleasant.  Now that most of you reading have gone to get your antidepressants refilled I'll reveal the truly beautiful part of all this, there is a third option - Intimacy.

There's romantic love, there is brutal disenchantment, and then there is the rarely seen unicorn known as intimacy which is never attained by the vast majority of the population because they don't have the selflessness and perseverance to ever see it come to fruition.  Intimacy is what happens when you decide to let romantic love die because you know it can't last anyway, and when disenchantment comes you don't give up.  Divorce is the widely publicized route plenty of people take to find a way out, but just as often people settle in to an accompanied solitude, a resignation that marriage will always be there but love died a long time ago.  That's why I don't vilify romantic love anymore, because I now know what it is - it's like a down payment, earnest money, a sneak peek for a couple down the road to what they can have if they really work on it.  Infatuation comes with no work and no investment and if it didn't exist we'd all just meet each other, see reality and want nothing to do with each other - then the human race would die off in a generation.  When we hit the point in marriage where we are tempted to give up we can look back at what was once there and remind ourselves that we can have something that looks a whole lot like it in the future.  Hollywood tells us we can get back romantic love with the person where everything is easy and natural and takes no selflessness or sacrifice but that is crap.  The reality is if we can allow marriage to humble us, to kill off our selfishness, to orient our mindsets around what is best for us as a couple rather than continuing to think as an individual, and if we can use years and years of conflict and stressors both internal and external to mature and grow us we can achieve intimacy.  Strangers in a public bathroom can have passion, any two selfish idiots can remain stuck in stubborn disenchantment, but it takes a selfless, loving, humble man and woman who have been through job losses, the death of family members, late night tearful arguments, or financial devastation to ever achieve true intimacy.  If the two of you haven't been through hell together then you haven't earned intimacy yet.  You see intimacy takes effort, it takes time, and it takes not giving up when it gets hard.  It means you figure out a way to be like Christ and truly love a sinful flawed human being who try as they might will never stop disappointing and hurting you, because you know they are married to you and you aren't much different.  I'm not talking about denying they have problems like romantic love, or being obsessed with getting them to fix their flaws like in disenchantment, but seeing them for who they are and choosing to love them anyway.  You both do that long enough and lo and behold you'll wake up one day and look around to see that you have achieved true intimacy like I have.  And then, like me, you can scoff at hypersexuality and reality shows based on romance because you enjoy something 95% of the population will never achieve and so for them what's on TV is the best they can imagine.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Voice, Relationship, and Power

Last post, I mentioned the need to redefine what sexual abuse is and how we should view it's effects.  Most of my examples focused around childhood sexual abuse and incest, but sexual abuse also covers rape, whether by a stranger, a date, or a husband.  Sexual abuse is very different for everyone and there are many various degrees of hurt that are inflicted upon individuals.  Many factors come into play that make abuse worse - do you know the offender, are they a close friend or family member, are they in a position of power, were they supposed to be caring for you and protecting you instead of abusing, how far physically did the abuse go, how long did it last, how many times, where at, how did other family members or authorities react, what propaganda was given, were you punished for refusing, were you powerless to stop it, were there injuries, was there sexual stimulation or pleasure, all of these questions and more determine severity.

Today what I will focus on is speaking to the predictable ways in which sexual abuse damages people for years and years afterwards, especially if it was childhood incest or molestation.  My goal with my blog is never to give trite truisms, to never replace the value of one on one counseling, and to not lump large groups of people into one category and label them.  That's why I make a much better counselor than a preacher, I prefer speaking to specifics.  But in the same way that all auto accidents are different but have similar injuries, so all sexual abuse is different but has similar injuries.  Whether the abuse stunted growth in these three areas from the point of injury or whether it shattered them inside a person, or stolen from them altogether, most everyone who has experienced sexual abuse deals with three main deficits that need addressed and healed - Their Voice, their Relationships, and their Power.

Sexual abuse damages a persons view of their own voice, their right to speak up for themselves in the face of mistreatment, the ability to call attention to wrong and for it to be dealt with.  As a child you were given the clear indication either by your abuser, enabling family members, or just your own deduction that speaking up and saying the truth is a really bad idea.  This carries over into adult life by allowing people to hurt you, take advantage of you, and abuse you without feeling like you have a right to speak up.  Maybe if you told on your uncle for abusing you it would destroy the family, maybe if anyone knew what your dad did you would be sent to one of those homes you saw on the news.  Maybe if you told your boyfriend to stop pressuring you for sex he would leave and no one would ever find you good enough to be with.  So now you feel like your voice is unimportant, to be ignored, and that your protests as well as you are really unimportant.  Maybe your abuser even used shame to convince you this was something you were a part of, that you were enjoying it, and that it was "our little secret" that couldn't get out or you would be in trouble too.  So then you get treated poorly as an adult and come to believe you must somehow be at fault because when bad stuff happens to you then you are partially responsible at least.  Whatever it looks like it is a loss of belief in your own ability to stand up and proclaim truth, to call evil out for what it is, and let the world see it for what it is so that it can be made better.

The second wound comes in how you view relationships - who and what are you, what do others exist for, and what is your role supposed to be in relationships.  You are given tons of data to suggest that you are beneath other people, an object to be used and discarded when the other person in the relationship is through with you.  You are an obstinate little girl who deserves what is coming your way because you have been bad, or if you don't do this then your abuser will be cranky and hurt someone else, or you are just a walking vagina with no other worth, value, or purpose.  The basic message sent over and over is that you exist solely for the pleasure of those around you, you are responsible for their happiness and if you fail in that purpose you aren't good for much else and so lose what little value you had.  Relationships become seen as transactional, and you never want to have to owe somebody or feel behind in the transactions.  If you only exist to pleasure someone else then it is important for them to convince you not to look for anything in return.  This creates this weird paradigm where you are supposed to make everyone else happy, even at your own expense, because everyone in the world deserves to be taken care of and treated well, everyone except you, you're different.  Realizing you are a real person with the same rights as everyone else who deserves equality in relationships and can even have people take care of you is part of the healing process.

The third major injury most people who have been sexually abused suffer is a damaging blow to their sense of their own power.  You were put in a position either once or repetitively where bad stuff was happening that your mind may not have even been able to adequately process but you were powerless to do anything to stop it.  You couldn't prevent it no matter how diligent you may be, you couldn't stop it because of the size or power differential, and no matter how much you wished or prayed for it to stop it never did and so you were powerless and God probably was too.  Either he was powerless or just deemed you as deserving it, but either way it skews how you view God - especially when it is your earthly father doing the abusing.  So most people who were abused go one of two routes in response to this powerlessness, you either become a helpless victim or a merciless control freak.  Maybe you accept your powerlessness and decide you are just weak and ineffective, so even if you wanted to go back to school you can't, even if you wanted to lose weight you can't, even if you wanted to get out of that bad relationship you can't, you don't have any power.  Maybe you go the other route and decide no one will ever take advantage of you again, because you will be hyper-vigilant and totally in control of everything, because being out of control was just too painful for you.  You'll mockingly talk of your abuse as if it were petty and if anyone else shows weakness or powerlessness around you it will provoke an irrational anger at them for for not rising above it the way you have.  Problem is that either way the abuse has come to define you and when you don't allow anyone close to you because you can't trust them you can pat yourself on the back for being strong and in control or just see that your abuser has once again robbed you of something life-giving and you let them.  Either way you go power becomes something different than it is to others, either an elusive thing you wish you were worthy of having or the most valuable commodity on the planet that must be acquired and maintained at all costs.

So whether you want to think of yourself as the survivor of sexual abuse or not, if your injuries look like the above three it doesn't really matter, just get the help you need to become all of who God created you to be initially before the sins of others changed the arc of your life.  I've walked with men and women through the process of redefining themselves through God's eyes, healing from past injuries, and counseling has helped them bloom into far more than they ever thought possible, and it can be the same for you.  The common excuses of it is too expensive, or I don't have the time for it, or shouldn't I just suck it up and get over it don't apply here.  You wouldn't give those excuses if you had a physical injury, no one has time to get their broken leg reset but you make time for it.  I see it like a total knee replacement, you could go the rest of your life limping and unable to do all that is within your potential or you can take the time and money required to have the surgery, with all the pain and all the months of rehab, but in the end you can run and jump and get up and down stairs like you've never remembered.

My Amazon widget appears to be malfunctioning but here is my book suggestion on this topic -

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Shot In The Chest

When I first started counseling everyone suggests you pick a couple of key areas to focus in on and make them your specialties, and so I immediately picked Marriage and Parenting as my top favorites I wanted to get good at doing.  The problem was I seemed to have more and more people coming to me dealing with having been sexually abused, and we immediately loved each other.  My counseling style has always been very "tell it like it is" with far more truth spoken than tact, so while I am compassionate and encouraging I'll also kick you in the butt when needed.  My picture of the perfect counselor for someone healing from sexual abuse was a kindly older woman who would hold their hand and cry with them while sharing encouraging Bible verses, and that wasn't exactly me.  So it kind of shocked me that all these women felt so comfortable talking to me about something that for many of them I was the very first person to ever know about their abuse other than them and their abuser.  I mean women who have teenagers and husbands of 20 years who have never ever shared that when they were younger someone hurt them in one of the worst ways a human being can be hurt.

Given, to date, I have never had a single client come in who said they were there because they were abused as a kid.  They come in for depression, anxiety, trust issues, marital problems, being either obsessed with or repulsed by sex, boundaries problems, same sex attraction, addictions, etc but these were just symptoms of the core injury that needed to be addressed and healed.  Their stories broke my heart and made me angry and I found that without exception that anger was exactly what the women needed.  Not more sadness, not more shame, and certainly not pity, but something came alive in them when I said I wish I could have ten minutes alone in a room with their worthless piece of crap father.  So having a brash counselor tell them it was not only OK but necessary to get good and mad at their abuser turned out to make me a good fit.  You can't forgive someone if you haven't gotten angry, otherwise you are just sweeping it under the rug with denial.  The many men I have talked to that were sexually abused NEVER would have talked about that with a female counselor and usually expected me to respond like any other neanderthal in the locker room by high-fiving them for getting sex so early.  The women that shared it with me not only felt validated and understood, but in a wonderful way I could never had predicted but God ordained I was able to be a healing, healthy, safe relationship with a man.  A man that knew all of their secrets and didn't shame them, a man who wanted only health and healing for them rather than their preconceived notion of what all men want from them.  For some I was the first man in their lives that gave to them rather than taking, that loved them for who they were rather than what they could do for me, and who saw them how God views them so they could do the same.  I'm pretty good with marriages and parenting, but looking back I really believe my greatest impact has been on the men and women I have walked alongside as they heal from sexual abuse.

Still, years later I couldn't figure out why I had such a heart for sexual abuse survivors, why I was so beneficial for them, and why God kept bringing them to me until just within the last two years.  I was reading a book on sexual abuse and it was pretty good, but back in the appendix there was a frequently asked questions section that had a little note on men who were sexually abused.  It basically says when asking a man if he has sexually abused don't ask "Were you sexually abused," because they'll usually say no.  Ask "What were your first experiences with sex" and you'll get a totally different answer.  So it pops in my head in that moment that I had access to media with full nudity and sex scenes as a kid, and by adolescence there were a couple of incidents where guys my same age messed around with me and I assumed because I considered most of those things enjoyable at the time that it couldn't be "abuse."  That was when I was forced to reconsider what sexual abuse was, as I knew from my many clients that God designed sex to be pleasurable and so therefore just because something feels physically good doesn't make it any less abusive.  I also knew that just because you weren't held at gunpoint doesn't mean there aren't power differentials and consent is impossible for a child that doesn't know what sex is anyway.  Any time emotional pain is difficult for people to grasp I just transfer it into what it would look like as a physical wound and it seems to make more sense.  If a man kicks your front door in and points a gun at your child's chest and pulls the trigger while smiling it is clearly damaging and evil and wrong.  If the neighbor kid who is the same age as your kid brings over his dad's handgun and the two kids are playing around with it and it goes off shooting your child in the chest it is still damaging and evil and wrong.  The scars are actually the same.  Anytime someone is introduced to sex in an inappropriate way, earlier than they are ready and able to process, it damages a person's soul and it will show effects across their lifetime.

I don't intend to compare my extremely minor abuse to anyone else because I know better than any of you reading the depths of depravity human being are capable of and the damage potential therein.  What I do want to say is that maybe we have the wrong view of sexual abuse and that it is a huge disservice to victims everywhere.  I say sexual abuse and the average person thinks of a disgusting pedophile that drives up in a black van and offers a kid candy to get in the back so he can viciously rape them, which I am sure happens but it is definitely the exception to the rule.  Most people in my generation got that stupid idea from the stranger danger campaign that taught us to watch out for creepy guys on the playground looking for a lost puppy.  The truth is it is fathers whose number one job is to love, nurture, and care for a beautiful defenseless child but instead use their position of power and authority to terrorize their little girl every time mom goes to the store.  It's the cousin, the family friend, the uncle, the grandfather who tries a little more and a little more usually because they were abused and think it is normal.  It's the who slaps his 12 year old son on the back with a smile and hands him a stack of Playboys, or the parents who watch graphic nudity and sex scenes or even porn with their kids in the room assuming they are too young to know what is really going on or that it will be over in just a minute.  It's the boyfriend in the back seat of the car that pushes past the "no" because she's had a few beers and doesn't really know what she wants.  It's the little boy who goes off to Christian summer camp and has another camper or even a counselor do things to him that feel good in the moment but feel dirty and disgusting and confused afterwards.

This post was basically to expand what sexual abuse is so that people can begin to see wounds that may need healing, as well as maybe to better protect your kids from the real dangers out there.  Stats are fuzzy as it is something no one talks about and few people admit to, but most estimates say one in four women will be sexually abused at some point in their life and one in five men will be, so next time you are in the mall or at church and you realize there are easily a hundred people you'll pass that have been sexually abused you won't feel so alone.  Next post I'll lay out how sexual abuse affects people on into adulthood so that you can know what needs to be done to heal and reclaim what was stolen and damaged.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rules For Conflict Part III

Third and final post to wrap up rules for effective conflict resolution:

Everyone Takes Personal Responsibility - easily my single greatest pet peeve in counseling, when people refuse to look at their own responsibility but rather blame their spouse, and justify themselves.  God gives us our job descriptions as husbands and wives not our spouses, so when we fail to be what God has called us to be we have no one to blame but ourselves.  Too often couples want to go back and forth justifying their poor choices by comparing the other's transgressions, or excusing their own refusal to meet their spouses needs by listing what needs they haven't received.  That's like saying, "Yeah I failed Math but another kid in my class didn't do his homework so I decided not to.  And you think my grade is bad, my 60 is way better than their 45" - you both failed.  Everyone is responsible for their own decisions, good or bad, and justification and blame just assure that one will ever become who they are called to be.  We often compare our own excellent job of biting our tongue fifty times to our spouse's five mean statements and don't realize they bit their tongue eighty times.  When we compare our internal achievements to our spouse's external failures we always win and we feel justified in treating them like crap, when we compare our hearts to the hearts God has designed us for we allow ourselves to be molded into His image.  With this perspective there is no room for defensiveness, as anything our spouse brings to us can be seen as an opportunity to grow rather than an attack that needs to be countered with something they do even worse.

Become aware of the core wounds and accompanying fears of your spouse and avoid them.  If they came from a family that always made them feel they were wrong then they may fight a little harder than necessary to make sure they don't always lose in the marriage.  If they had an overprotective mother that smothered them they might fight a little harder to have their autonomy and not feel controlled by you.  If they had a critical father that always compared them to someone else who they could never live up to you may want to avoid telling them they aren't as good of a wife as friend's wife.  If your spouse has an ex-husband who verbally and emotionally abused her it may be that you can never raise your voice at all without signaling to her that you are attacking her.  Whatever the wound and wherever it came from you have the opportunity to help heal it or to keep ripping it open and pouring salt in it, and that is a tremendous power.  Usually during conflict there is the topic that the fight is about and then there are the real underlying issues that aren't being spoken.  You can grumble about how you have to clean up someone else's mess or you can recognize you have your own core fears that get triggered as well and need extra grace in certain areas.

Create a culture of appreciation and acceptance rather than contempt - One of the keys inside and outside of conflict to make sure you are able to resolve conflict well is create a culture of acceptance, appreciation, and love rather than judgement, criticism, and blame.  Research shows you need at least five times as many positive interactions for every negative one just to balance things out.  Deep at the base of your brain is a part called the amygdala that is the emotional center that basically sees people in black and white, good and bad ways, people are either your allies, on your team and there to make your life better or people are enemies, attacking you and need to be protected from.  Its like a giant scale that tips one way or the other and it takes five experiences of acceptance, respect, and positivity to balance out each one incident of anger, frustration, judgement, or negativity.  Whichever side the scale is on, that is how everything will be interpreted, neutral comments like "Oh those look like new jeans", get automatically interpreted either as a compliment - "Oh thanks, I'm excited about them" - or a criticism - "They aren't new, I've had them for two weeks, and before you complain about money they were on sale and I had nothing else that fits."  If you want your spouse to hear what you say as you intend it rather than with automatic defensiveness you can help by working hard to show tons more appreciation, respect, acknowledgement, and praise, rather than always being critical.

Stay Engaged - the last rule for effective conflict is no matter what, try your best to always stay engaged, or to reconnect as quick as possible afterwards.  Often in the middle of conflict one partner will go into an icy cool stance where they respond like a robot without emotions.  It's called stonewalling and it is usually a defense mechanism to keep themselves from becoming overwhelmed and flooded with emotions, and often as a way of protecting the relationship.  The idea is that if I were to open up and express how I feel I will say something I regret and then lose this important relationship, but what the other person sees is somebody who doesn't care about the relationship or them.  Both partners have racing heart rates and blood pressures, but only one looks like they give a crap.  This is where it becomes important to learn how to reschedule or just sooth the other person or yourself in the moment, to talk yourself back into being present and engaged.  Sometimes this carries over into an overall approach to the relationship where the partner is no longer angry, just numb.  The way our emotions work is that we either feel them all or none of them and if someone feels to painful for too long they often have a firewall that comes crashing down that cuts off all emotions.  To feel love means to also feel all the pain so they both get thrown out.  This is where you need to stop playing around and get in to see a counselor, because your marriage is flat lining.  Most couples wait 6-7 years after they notice major problems before they go for help which is like waiting a few weeks to see if you are having a heart attack - tons of damage has already been done.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rules For Conflict Part II

Here is part two continued of rules for a fair and productive fight:

Perception is reality - this means that it is possible to validate your spouse's subjective experience and perspective without agreeing with them or saying they are objectively right. Wherever they are coming from is their true view of things and arguing with them will not change this. We have this mistaken notion that if we just tell someone our subjective reality it will trump theirs and they will adopt our way of viewing things, which really doesn't happen. "You know I was really upset about feeling fat because I couldn't fit in my jeans but then when you informed me I was beautiful and didn't need to worry about it, it just all clicked and now I feel totally secure!" "I was really hurt and upset with you but then you told me that was immature so I just decided to get over it and not hurt anymore, you are SO right!" "When your mom said I was a selfish incompetent excuse for a wife I was really upset but then you said that was just how she was and to not take it personal so now I'm fine and considering having lunch with her tomorrow." It really never quite works out that way but we argue as if they are just deluded in seeing things from their obviously wrong perspective. The key is learning to accept influence and being able to put yourself in their shoes so you can see and express the validity of their perspective while still seeing things differently.

Emotional Repair - the key to great conflict resolution is realizing you are both imperfect and need to be forgiven often, and therefore extending grace to the other as well. This means after conflict and eventually even during conflict you can practice emotional repair where you take responsibility for your actions rather than blaming or justifying.  Emotional repair is basically restating that we are both on the same team, I did these specific hurtful things, and I really want to be able to have a dialogue without more injury.  This should be done as quick as possible and as thorough as possible.  It is like moving into a beautiful new house when you get married and each fight you break something or put a hole in the wall, emotional repair patches and fixes rather than just continuing to trash the house until there is nothing to look forward to coming home to.

Stay on Topic - this means to dialogue through one issue until everyone feels heard, validated, and empathized with rather than jumping from gripe to gripe, adding more and more without resolving any.  This means no bringing up crap from the past as a way of discrediting the defense's whole case and painting the picture of them as whatever poor character trait - most common complaint is selfishness.  No going on and on with endless stories from the past where you are convinced you are Aesop and by the end of your fable your spouse will feel convicted and the reality is you just end up bickering about story details and missing the main point completely.  No interrupting the other person, it's a sign you aren't listening and don't care, but on the flip side keep tirades to a minimum so interruption is not necessary.  Some people try to filibuster in marriage figuring if they can hold the floor long enough they somehow win, and reality is you end up getting interrupted or at least tuned out.

Avoid Negative Generalities - Never say never or always in the middle of conflict unless your goal is to get your spouse defensive and looking for exceptions, "You claim I NEVER help clean up yet 15 years ago I picked up my socks, therefore you are dead wrong."  It is fine to share a complaint, it isn't OK to criticize.  We often broadly and generally paint the picture of our spouse as unfeeling, frigid, selfish, lazy, or whatever by lumping together all of their mistakes and making a generalization, yet we don't do that for positive things about them.  We make it sound like we view them as a giant horrible loser that every once in a blue moon screws up and gets things right, when we usually really see them as a great loving person who from time to time makes mistakes or drops the ball.  Therefor name calling, character assassination, and generic criticism are off limits as completely ineffective.

Next Post - part three and the conclusion to rules for a fair fight!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rules for Conflict Part I

War has rules. You can't torture people, you can't execute prisoners of war, you can only play a maximum of three Justin Bieber songs or it is considered cruel and unusual. There seems to be rules everywhere except for within marriage conflict, where it's every man and woman for themselves. We often see conflict as a battlefield and anything is fair in love and war, right? Depends on if abuse is happening or if you want your conflict to be beneficial versus destructive. Three posts will be my complete set of rules for a fair fight - effective conflict resolution skills.

No Abuse - this means physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, financial, sexual, or any other type of abuse where the other person is dehumanized, degraded, and destroyed. I'm not talking about a give and take heated exchange where everyone is on the same level, but an intimidating bullying approach which attempts to cause the other person to cower in fear and shut up and do what you say. If you wouldn't want your son doing it to their wife or your daughter being treated that way some day then stop it now.

Don't ever try to win an argument - nobody wins an argument, either you both feel closer, more heard, and connected because of conflict or you have both lost. Arguing for an invisible jury, dropping emotional artillery, or just trying hard to be heard by using to two common tactics of repeating yourself or getting louder just don't work (Unless they just happen to have hearing loss). The vast majority of what couples argue about is subjective, like whether something should have hurt the others' feelings, rather than objective like the capital of South Dakota. There is no right and wrong, just whether we feel heard and validated and empathized with. 70% of what all couples argue about are considered perpetual issues which will never be resolved. You will have the same 5-10 issues at day one and in fifty years, and no she will never be more adventurous and no he will never be more cleanly. This means only 30% results in some sort of resolution so you do best to focus on hearing and understanding each other rather than fixing each other.

Know your thermostats and reschedule when you are flooded - we are all wired to handle a certain amount of conflict before physiologically we begin shutting down. Like a thermostat that determines when we have sustained too much conflict we get adrenaline dumped in our system and we have the fight or flight response, actually there are two more - freeze and nurture as well. We are all wired to respond in a predictable way and they all can be very hurtful when you are on the receiving end. If your spouse hears the signal that it is time for conflict and immediately go for the jugular they are a fighter, if you instinctively look for the nearest exit and say or do whatever it takes to get out if there you are a flighter. If your spouse goes into screensaver, deer in the headlights mode during conflict he is a freezer, and if you nervously scurry around cleaning, mending, and attending then you are a nurturer. While I have trouble seeing how getting your house cleaned every time conflict happens is a bad thing I hear that all four are devastating to someone trying to be heard and understood. The solution? Know where your cut-off is and before it gets there offer to reschedule for a specific time. Half hour, hour, next morning? Whenever it is, just make sure it is clear we both want to discuss this but right now we are in diffuse physiological arousal and so we will be ineffective at hearing, processing, and storing data. Until we are calmed and soothed we are no good in conflict. This doesn't mean running away when things get tough, or saying what they want to hear, but rather optimizing your conflict by only having it with a brain and body that is able to stay engaged.

No triangulation - keep the conflict between you and your spouse - no bringing anyone else into it. Don't argue in Walmart like rednecks, don't argue in front if your kids, and don't vent to others. I'll likely do a whole post on just this as it is one if my major pet peeves but venting is very unhealthy and produces nothing good. If you have a problem with your spouse talk to them about it not your mom, your sister, your best friend, the guys on the golf course or anyone else who can't actually fix the problem.

Two more posts and you'll have an idea how to make conflict beneficial rather than destructive!