Thursday, July 27, 2006

Conflict Resolution

Everyone has disagreements. The most agreeable guy and the most agreeable girl in the world will, if made financially and emotionally dependent on each other, sometimes have fights.

In a marriage, the most important part isn't so much the direct outcome of the disagreement, but how the disagreement was conducted. Try and control your spouse too much, or manipulate them, or just get too damned angry, and you are going to end up with a HUGE problem.

I love my wife more than life itself, I would do anything in the world for her, and she feels the same about me. Anyone who spends any amount of time around us knows, we generally don't fight; but when we do, it tends to be rather epic.

But really, we get along great mostly, because we talk A LOT, about just about everything, and because we generally share a similar outlook on things.

One of the reasons we can TALK about things generally, rather than fight, is because neither my wife, nor myself generally attempt to control each other emotionally; though Mel will tend to BE controlled without my intending to do so, because she sublimates herself WAY too much (more on this below).

One point of contention we have, is that sometimes she doesn't quite get the distinction between a disagreement, and argument, and a fight. This distinction is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL TO ME. I personally love to debate, and I love to argue. I'm stubborn, and I'm competitive (though not with my wife), and I just like the stimulation. Plus I think you get a better result with a good argument then just plain consensus.

The thing is, most women (and these days a lot of men), including Mel, don't have that same perspective on things. They have a hard time with CONFLICT, and in distinguishing between healthy and friendly and useful conflict, and unhealthy or hurtful conflict; and they don't know how to deal with any of it.

Let me illustrate my point a bit here.

We generally don't fight about money (the number one subject of spousal arguments), but we certainly have disagreements and some arguments about it.

The thing is, Mel has a very unhealthy attitude towards money, and that sometimes leads to her doing things that I disagree with, or her objecting to things I do. For example, she tends to hoard food (i.e. purchase far more food than we will eat), and then complain about small purchases I make that aren’t strictly necessary. Or, she'll avoid purchasing small things that she would like, because she feels guilty. In her mind, irrationally large food purchases are OK, because food is a necessity, but spending a few bucks on something she wants ISN'T ok, because it isn't strictly necessary; even when we have plenty of money.

On the other hand, I tend to make small frivolous purchases just because I feel like it. I don't spend a lot of money this way, but if I want something, and I can afford it, I don't see anything wrong with buying it. Of course if this is uncontrolled that spending can really add up (so I make sure it doesn't). However, even if it's just a little bit, this actually makes Mel really nervous, almost panicky.

I understand this is not a rational reaction on her part, and we discuss it AFTER we’ve had our 5 second argument, and I tell her she’s doing it again, and she gets all embarrassed and bashful about it, because she KNOWS she does it, but she doesn't realize it til afterwards.

Other than little stuff, my wife and I have only had one major cause for all of our FIGHTS (as distinct from disagreements and arguments), and that is her lack of self esteem and self confidence; and the fact that my confident and aggressive nature can tend to steamroller her.

Because she doesn't feel worthy, or doesn't feel able, to make good arguments; she either sublimates her own desires, or she falls into emotionally unhealthy conflict patterns, and what would otherwise be a rational discussion will turn into a fight.

The first part, it's just something that we'll have to work on over time. She needs to feel better about herself (and realize just how great she is); and then become more assertive about her needs and her wants. I need to be more careful about seeing this.

This isn't to say that she doesn't ever get what she wants, and I always do; we generally have a very balanced relationship in terms of our needs and wants being met. There are only a few times where it's become an issue, but the whole thing can make her feel too out of control.

On the other side of things, is when she really does want something, but she uses those unhealthy conflict resolution patterns to try and get them.

There are certain things that will just not go over with me. I react very negatively to them, and they will sour me on an argument right quick.

Basically I have a 100% no tolerance policy about certain modes of conflict resolution that goes something like this:

1. If you try and play head games with me, you lose

2. If you threaten me, you lose

3. If you give me an ultimatum, you lose

4. If you try to emotionally manipulate me, you lose

5. If you are passive aggressive with me, you lose

Mel started out in our relationship with some of these bad habits; but they've mostly been emotionally beaten out of her, excepting that she is still sometimes passive aggressive.

Mostly these weren’t really problems to begin with, because she is a far better woman than she gives herself credit for. Unfortunately, she (and most women in my experience) never learned valid conflict resolution skills, and so she fell back on anything she could come up with, and these unhealthy patterns are easy to fall into.

Some people learn early on that the five tactics above work, and will get them what they want, so they believe that is the best, or even the only model for functioning. MOST folks these days never had much of a model to follow when it comes to conflict resolution in the home; and things that they would never do to their friends, or their co-workers, seem to fly in the home, simply because they don't know better.

Worse, the pervasive media message is that these modes of conflict resolution are OK, or even desirable. The currently popular media depiction (primarily in situation comedy) of all men as loutish idiots, and all women as smart, capable "superwomen" who are always right at the expense of their bumbling husbands, or who have to manipulate them to get what they need... well lets just say it irritates me and we'll leave it at that.

When I have a disagreement with someone, I try to clearly state what my disagreement is, and why I have it; I then try to ask the other person for a clear statement of what they want, why, and why I should change my mind.

I consider this a reasonable and rational way of resolving conflicts, however it seems to me that most folks don't get it. In fact, this very approach (along with the rejection of those approaches above) seems to drive some people into anger and hostility.

If anyone in my life attempts to use any of the above tactics on me, in anything more than a trivial, playful, or obvious way, I INSTANTLY put a stop to it. I inform them of what they are doing, I tell them why it won’t work, and I make it clear to them how much they have just damaged their position with me. I then explain that if they want something, they had better ask for it, and give a clear argument why if I disagree.

I'll be honest, I react very badly to threats, games, ultimatums, and manipulations. I wouldn't say I'm irrational, but I am definitely inclined to be negative (if not hostile) towards someone making them. This isn't to say I fly off the handle or anything, it's damn near impossible to make me mad; but I'll DEFINITELY be unfavorably disposed towards someone using these tactics, and to their arguments if they have any. If you ever want me to just shut you down completely, and reject whatever it is you want out of hand, just threaten me, and you'll have your wish.

Do not bluff me, do not threaten me, and do not give me an ultimatum. I have zero tolerance for that, and I'll call you on it. If you say you're gonna do something, or you want something, you better damn well mean it, because I'mna make you do it. If you don't mean it, don't threaten me.

The thing is though, I'm always willing to talk, listen, debate, and argue. There's no reason things have to turn into a fight, or can't get resolved.

Most of the time I’m an easygoing guy, but I’m also stubborn and strong willed, so if it’s not something I immediately agree to, I need a good reason why I should change my mind.

Now I’m not saying all conflicts need a RATIONAL or LOGICAL resolution, just a good one. I consider making my wife happy a pretty good reason, if indeed I agree that getting what she SAYS she wants would make her happy, and that what she SAYS she wants, really IS what she wants.

In fact much of the time we disagree about things that she asks for, it’s because I don’t think what she says, is what she really wants. My wife has a habit of asking for strange things, because she thinks that she needs them to achieve a result she wants; but she never tells me what the result she wants are, so I of course say no. She then gets upset, and falls into some of her patterns from the above list, and I have to push her into telling me exactly what it is she REALLY WANTS TO ACHIEVE, rather than whatever conclusions she has so thoroughly convinced herself will get her what she really wants.

Rather an inefficient process really, but in the end, she usually gets what she really wants, and we don’t waste time with the thing she SAID she wanted, but didn't really.

Honestly, most of the time I am willing to do something I wouldn’t otherwise be willing to do, simply because it would please my wife, so long as she can explain to me exactly what it was she really wanted and why.

Now, if for some reason the person doesn't understand at this point you aren't going to put up with this… well the first time they never seem to. They usually continue trying to manipulate you in the way they were trying before, or they try to move on to the next method of manipulation. Like I said, they just don't understand or know other methods of conflict resolution.

At this point you need to make it bloody well clear to them that it won’t be tolerated.

“If you love me you would do this” needs to be turned around into “If you loved me you wouldn’t try and use that argument”.

“Why are you doing this to me” INSTANTLY gets turned around into “This isn’t about you personally it’s about {insert real issue here}”.

One should note, many women (and some men - heck all men about some particular subjects) have a lot of trouble separating what is personal and emotional, from what is logical or rational. If you make a logical argument against their emotional conclusion or statement, they are likely to take this as you disrespecting their emotions. You need to reassure them that the disagreement isn’t personal, and you respect them; but that these logical and rational issues need to be addressed.

I have THIS particular problem with my wife all the time. She just can’t seem to separate her emotional reactions to things, from their real world presence, consequences etc…

If it degenerates from there, and at least the first few times it probably will, you have to be hard. The first time she says “Well maybe I should leave then”, you say “Well, I don't want you to go; but if that’s the way you want it, then pack your bags, I’ll drop you off at your mothers as soon as you’re ready to go”.

Note, make sure you say “I don't want that, but if that is really what you want”, this is HER choice not yours. All you want to do is have a rational argument (please note, I'm writing this from a mans perspective, but the same thing is true for both men and women; it's just the words are usually a bit different).

“Honey, I love you more than anything, and this is going to hurt me tremendously; but if you feel that way about it, and you aren't even willing to talk about why, then maybe you really should leave"

Those are some scary words right there, at least if she really loves you; and if she doesn't, you’re better off without her anyway.

Early on in our relationship my wife thought that doing this was a good idea. She thought I was kidding.

When I started putting her stuff in the car, she figured out that I wasn’t.

That straightened her up right quick. Actually it made her collapse in a heap; because that of course ISN’T what she wanted. What she wanted was something else entirely, but she had invested so much unhealthy emotion into her conclusions, that it took something THAT serious to shock her out of it.

What she wanted was to get her way, or to reach a compromise, but she just didn’t know how to do it; and thus she broke down into the unhealthy habits above, and finally when that didn't work, she just broke down.

Sometimes, you have to go that far before a disagreement can be resolved in a healthy way.

Unfortunately, if by that point you haven't resolved the issue; well you really shouldn’t be dealing with that person.

There's one more issue that I'd like to address here, and it specifically involves dealing with people who are clinically depressive, bi-polar, "borderline personality" or excessively self destructive. Generally speaking, they will have all of the above habits, and then some, AND they have some very illogical or inappropriate emotional responses to things.

What you need to understand is that what they are really doing when they are abusing you, is they are deliberately hurting themselves. Their subconscious is using you, as a way of hurting themselves. Of proving themselves worthless, or useless, or deserving of pain.

Depression, and other mental and emotional illnesses, need to be treated. They need to be addressed, both by those who suffer from them directly, and by those who love them, and also suffer. Finding good, psychiatric, or psychological, or therapeutic care and sticking to it, and working it, are the best possible thing.

But some won't do it, it doesn't always work for everyone, and even someone who is responding well to care can have bad episodes; and their unhealthy modes of conflict resolution can trigger major life crises.

In those cases, there's three things you can do.

First you can try and smother the depression with love. Don't let them win the argument, just realize that the argument isn't really about the subject of the argument, it's about their depression, and FORCE THEM to feel how much you Love them and want them to be happy.

The second thing is to simply ignore the depression, and the fight, and concentrate exclusively on the logical argument. No matter how emotional they get, no matter how hurtful they get (and believe me they will, either of you, or of themselves), just be calm, logical, understanding, and reasonable.

Sometimes these two things work, sometimes it makes things worse. It can be hard to tell. Remember that depression is a combination of physical and emotional illnesses (hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances, and past traumatic or depressive or otherwise negatively reinforced and reinforcing emotional experience), and that a depressives reactions are not necessarily logical or predictable. You just have to pick whatever you feel is the right course.

The third thing is far more drastic. If you've tried everything else, if nothing else works, if you resolved the REAL problems or managed them such that there is no reason left for their behavior excepting their emotional illness... there's only one thing left to do; and it violates my no ultimatums rule.

You have to say to them, and you have to mean it completely, and you have to follow through:

"If you love ME more than you love your misery, you HAVE TO STOP. If you love your misery, pain, and depression more than you love me, you have to leave."

It hurts. It hurts more than I can describe. You will feel like you've been stabbed, and they'll feel worse. It's also the only thing that you can do; or they will just destroy the both of you with their misery. If they're savable, then this will do it; if it doesn't it, then they are lost. Maybe some day they'll be ready, or be healthy enough to have a relationship, but that day isn't today.

Fortunately for my wife and I, we HAVE been able to resolve these issues. We went through this but we love, respect, and understand each enough that we were able to go through this and come out the other side.

Most people aren't so lucky or so willing to put in the hard work necessary. I can only hope that you're one of the lucky ones.