“You’re just like your father.”
“How hard is it for you to think of someone else for a change?”
“Can’t you do anything right?”
We’ve all heard phrases like these, or perhaps we’ve even said some ourselves… Words like these are powerful and strong enough to start a fight, one that usually ends bitterly for both sides. But it doesn’t always have to be this way. There are tools for identifying and moving beyond destructive conflict patterns and I’d like to share a few I learned during my college studies. Let me also add, that all relationships will have conflict, the goal isn’t to avoid it, but to work through it.
The first and most important aspect of relational conflict is perception. The Lens Model Theory states each person see conflict through a different “lens” or “perspective.” This means what both people see (verbal acts or behavior) may be interpreted radically different depending how each person ascribes meaning to oneself, the other, and their combined relationship.
To complicate matters further, there’s the False Attribution Theory. It states we attribute causes of our behavior to external factors (i.e. “I failed the test because the teacher was unfair”). And we attribute causes of other’s behavior to internal dispositions or character flaws (i.e. “He failed the test because he is lazy and didn’t study”).
With this information in mind, it’s safe to admit our view of others is “off the mark” – especially when compounded with an emotionally charged conflict. Simply checking our perception of the situation and asking the other person, “This is how I see things, is this right?” can help disarm a destructive conflict before it begins.
But what if you are currently in the midst of a serious conflict or trust has eroded to the point where even a question like this would be seen as hostile? Let’s take a look at some common destructive patterns and possible alternatives: Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The name comes from the statistically probability that if these patterns are present in your relationship, the end is near.
Criticism is a generally broad accusation or attack; a sharp and negative attempt to point out fault in another. An example would be,
“You are the most selfish man I know! My mother is sick, maybe terminally, and you can’t stir yourself to drive 30 miles for her birthday. Great. Now I get to tell my Mom that I’m married to a narcissistic jerk! Could you think of someone else for a change?”
We often use criticisms to get someone’s attention. We want the other person to know how awful we feel or to make the conflict important enough to resolve. But it rarely works out that way…
A much better way would be to “turn criticism into a constructive complaint.” By using an “I” statement, we can state how we feel, describe undesirable behavior and ask for specific change. A constructive complaint also leaves out blame and the idea that there is something wrong with the other person.
“I am upset that we are not going to see my Mom together. I have asked you three times to clear your weekend so we could both go see her. Next weekend is her birthday. She is sick and I want to see her, and I want you to come with me. I am frustrated and impatient with the excuses you’ve given me. I hope you will come. I don’t want to have the kind of marriage where I have to see my folks by myself.”
Defensiveness is basically denial; a tactic that tries to ward off an attack (usually the initial criticism) by deferring blame. It is also an effort to protect oneself “against pain, fear, personal responsibility, or new information (Wilmot and Hocker, 2001).” Defensiveness also creates a readiness to strike back and start a criticizing cycle.
Listen to this exchange in an example from Wilmot and Hocker (2001)…
BARBARA: Every time I try to talk to you about my day, you launch off into complaints and whining about how bad life is for you. You never listen to me. [Notice that Barbara is in fact attacking, criticizing, and blaming.]
MARK: If I didn’t get my two cents’ worth in you’d talk all evening. All you ever do is complain. I decided two weeks ago that every time you come home with some “poor me” tale, I’ll match you. Besides, I have a right to be heard too. You aren’t the only important one in this family.
BARBARA: If things are so rotten for you in this relationship, why are you sticking around? All I’m asking for is a little empathy, but I guess that’s beyond you.
Defensiveness drops away when a person can approach the other with a desire to listen and learn about oneself and the other (Paul and Paul 1998). This kind of approach says, “Teach me your perspective and I’ll share with you mine and we’ll both walk away better for it.”
Stonewalling is withdrawing from the conversation (while still being physically there). It withholds “good things” from the other in attempts to get them to “shape up” or “do what I want” in a destructive way. Stonewalling or withholding is common when hostility is sensed or trust hasn’t been built up (Yankelovitch, 1999).
The most effective way to gain trust in a relationship is to lay down your own defenses, share something vulnerable or give information that could hurt you. By allowing your loved one to ability to hurt you, you acknowledge your mutual interdependence and call them to be responsible for their own actions without blaming or criticizing them. They suddenly realize they can hurt you and are forced to ask themselves if that’s what they really want…
Contempt “… is any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts oneself on a higher plane than [another] (Gottman, 1999).” This can be expressed directly in words or actions or in nonverbal cues and tones (even when all the right things are being said). Contempt includes put-downs, name-calling, hostile corrections, mockery, sarcasm, ridicule, hostile joking, and attack on the personhood of the other. The damage of contempt goes deep, it is where human beings stop being human to us. And we start to believe they deserve any harsh treatment they receive from us or anyone else.
Think about how you’ve seen these patterns play out at times in your own life. Hopefully this short article helps name and identify the common pitfalls of conflict and gives practical alternatives to build up rather than tear down. Of course it is usually takes much longer to actually practice avoiding these patterns in real life, but I know if we do so, we’ll find it easier and easier to resolve previously unresolved issues and build stronger relationships. And that’s definitely something worth celebrating!
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.
Wilmot, W. and J. Hocker. (2001). Interpersonal Conflict. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2001
Yankelovich, D. (1999). The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation. New York: Simon and Schuster.