Thanks to my grandfather, I grew up with my childhood memories recorded on 8mm film. The closest thing to a real memory for me will forever be those faded warm tones and light leaks! Like a good memory — both intimate and distant — it always leaves me wanting more. More love, more meaningful moments, more life. To continue the family tradition, I made this for my son the day he was born.

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“Every good relationship between two or more people, whether it is friendship, marriage, or community, creates space where strangers can enter and become friends. Good relationships are hospitable. When we enter into a home and feel warmly welcomed, we will soon realize that the love among those who live in that home is what makes that welcome possible.

“When there is conflict in the home, the guest is soon forced to choose sides. ‘Are you for him or for her?’ ‘Do you agree with them or with us?’ ‘Do you like him more than you do me?’ These questions prevent true hospitality–that is, an opportunity for the stranger to feel safe and discover his or her own gifts. Hospitality is more than an expression of love for the guest.  It is also and foremost an expression of love between the hosts.”

Henri Nouwen

Bread for the Journey

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“In our culture there is a severe illusion about faith, or belief. It is one that has been produced by many centuries of people professing, as a cultural identification, to believe things they do not really believe at all… Thus there arises the misunderstanding that human life is not really governed by belief.

“This is a disastrous error.

“We often speak of people not living up to their faith. But the cases in which we say this are not really cases of people behaving otherwise than they believe. They are cases in which genuine beliefs are made obvious by what people do. We always live up to our beliefs — or down to them, as the case may be. Nothing else is possible. It is the nature of belief.”

Dallas Willard
The Divine Conspiracy

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“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.

Now What?

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.

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  • Communication is a dynamic process — it continuously changes, evolves, and moves on
  • Communication is systemic — it occurs in particular situations or systems that influence what and how we communicate and what meanings we attach to messages
  • Communication has two levels of meaning — the content or literal meaning and the relational level which defines each person’s relationship to one another
  • Meanings are created through human interaction with symbols — symbols are abstract, arbitrary, and ambiguous and require mediation and thought with interpretations

Martha tells George that she is worried about her friend. George gives a minimal response cue, saying only, “Oh.” To Martha, this suggests he isn’t interested, because women make and expect more of what Deborah Tannen (1986) calls “listening noises” to signal interest. Yet, if George operates according to norms of masculine speech communities, he is probably thinking that, if Martha wants to tell him something, she will. Masculine rules of speech assume people use talk to assert themselves (Bellinger & Gleason, 1982). Even without much encouragement, Martha continues by describing the tension in her friend’s marriage and her own desire to help. She says, “I feel so bad for Barbara, and I want to help her, but I don’t know what to do.” George then says, “It’s their problem, not yours. Just butt out.” At this, Martha explodes: “Who asked for your advice?” George is now completely confused. He thought Martha wanted advice, so he gave it. She is hurt that George didn’t tune into her feelings. Both are frusterated.

The problem is not so much what George and Martha say and don’t say. Rather, it’s how they interpret each other’s communication–actually, how they misinterpret it, because they fail to understand that each is operating by different rules of talk. George is respecting Martha’s independence by not pushing her to talk. When he thinks she wants advice, he offers it in an effort to help. Martha, on the other hand, wants comfort and a connection with George–that’s her purpose in talking with him. To her, George’s advice seems to dismiss her feelings. He doesn’t offer sympathy, because masculine rules for communication define this as condescending. Yet the feminine speech community in which Martha was socialize taught her that giving sympathy is a way to show support.

Talk about troubles or personal problems, is a kind of interaction in which hurt feelings may result from the contrast between most men’s and women’s rules of communication. Nancy might tell her partner, Craig, that she is feeling down becuase she did not get a job she wanted. In an effort to be supportive, Craig might respond by saying, “You shouldn’t feel bad. Lots of people don’t get jobs they want.” To Nancy this seems to dismiss her feelings–to belittle them by saying lots of people experience her situation. Yet within masculine speech communities, this is a way of showing respect for another by not assuming that she or he needs sympathy.

Now let’s turn the tables and see what happens when Craig feels troubled. When he meets Nancy, Craig is unusually quiet because he feels down about not getting a job offer. Sensing that something is wrong, Nancy tries to show interest by asking, “Are you okay? What’s bothering you?” Craig feels she is imposing and trying to get him to show a vulnerability he prefers to keep to himself. Nancy probes further to show she cares. As a result, he feels intruded on and withdraws further. Then Nancy feels shut out.

But perhaps Craig does decide to tell Nancy why he feels down. After hearing about his rejection letter, Nancy says, “I know how you feel. I felt so low when I didn’t get that position at Datanet.” She is matching experiences to show Crait that she understands his feelings and that he’s not alone. According to the communication rules that Craig learned in a masculine speech community, however, Nancy’s comment about her own experience is an effort to steal the center stage from him and focus on herself.

Julia Wood

Gendered Lives

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“In love hands don’t take, grasp or hold. They caress… In love the mouth does not bite, devour or destroy. It kisses. A kiss is not to take in, but to allow for the full and fearless surrender… Only when men and women give themselves to each other in total surrender, that is, with their whole person for their whole life, can their encounter bear full fruits. When through the careful growth of their relationship men and women have come to the freedom of total disarmament, their giving also becomes forgiving, their nakedness does not evoke shame but desire to share, and their ultimate vulnerability becomes the core of their mutual strenght. New life is born in the state of total vulnerability–this is the mystery of love.”

Henri Nouwen


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“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we love most cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies, the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.

“Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”

Henri Nouwen


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“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There‘s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Nelson Mandela


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“The great paradox of life is that those who lose their lives will gain them. This paradox becomes visible in very ordinary situations. If we cling to our friends, we may lose them, but if we are nonpossessive in our relationships we will make many friends. If fame is what we seek and desire, it often vanishes as soon as we acquire it, but if we have no need to be known, we might be remembered long after our deaths. When we want to be in the center, we easily end up on the margins, but when we are free enough to be wherever we must be, we often find ourselves in the center.

“Giving away our lives for others is the greatest of all human acts. This will gain us our lives.”

Henri Nouwen

Bread For The Journey

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