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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Word For The Week

Have you ever noticed that in relationships it is the little things that seem to provoke the fiercest arguments? "You always leave the toilet seat up!" "Do you really need yet another pair of shoes?" Knowing how to fight fair is critical to the survival of any relationship, be it a marriage, friendship or business relationship. Conflict and misunderstandings are unavoidable - the key to the survival of your relationship is how do you manage conflicts and misunderstandings. We know that Satan is the author of confusion and the father of lies, and that he prowls like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. It is Satan who sows the seeds of stress in our situations, but we know that God is faithful - He will not allow us to be tempted beyond that which we can bear. Unfortunately, all too often, we let our true adversary get over on us with some pretty petty stuff, and that is often due to the accumulation of petty things - the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. That is why a good fight isn't necessarily a bad thing - you simply have to know how to fight fair in order to clear the air in your relationship. Conflict is the price that you pay for deepening intimacy. It's about open, honest communication.

There are four omens that your relationship is in trouble, four steps to destroying a marriage. They are sometimes called "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," for as each horseman arrives, he paves the way for the next. These four disastrous ways of interacting are (1) criticism, (2) contempt, (3) defensiveness, and (4) stonewalling. You might want to check out Dr. John Gottman's book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1994) for more details.

Everyone has the right to complain - I've heard one woman call it a birthright. Complaining is a healthy marital activity (contrary to the testimony of billions of men over the ages) in that it attempts to communicate the feelings and desires of one person to the other. Open, honest communication is a good thing, even if it is not always a pleasant thing. There is a fine line however, a dangerous line, between complaining and criticizing. Criticism involves attacking someone's personality rather than their behavior. Complaints usually begin with the word "I", while criticisms usually begin with the word "You." Criticism: "You never take me anywhere." Complaint: "I wish we would go out more than we do." It may not seem like a big difference, but it is indeed huge, and you can feel the difference when you're on the receiving end - receiving criticism feels far worse than receiving a complaint.

Contempt will poison a relationship, regardless of how long a couple has been together. The difference between criticism and contempt is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your mate. "You are a packrat!" Contempt is aimed directly at the heart of the spouse and it rarely misses, which is why it is lethal to marriages - blotting out every positive feeling spouses have for each other. Contempt manifests itself in many ways: name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, and many other ways, but the end result is always the same - the relationship goes from bad to worse.

Once contempt enters a relationship, defensiveness jumps right in behind it. If your heart has been attacked then the natural inclination is to defend it at all costs. The danger of defensiveness is that it easily, and quickly, becomes a reflex - the modus operandi for interacting in the relationship. The "victim" - reacting instinctively - usually doesn't see anything wrong with being defensive, but defensiveness tends to escalate rather than diffuse conflict, especially when both spouses feel like they've been attacked, as is often the case.

Overwhelmed by emotion (either his own or the spouse's), defensiveness having failed to mute the attacks/nagging of the spouse, the fourth step into the chasm is emotional withdrawal, erecting a stone wall between the hearts of the partners. The intentions are often noble - "I'm just trying not to make things worse" - but stonewalling itself is a very powerful act. It conveys disapproval and icy distance, even smugness and arrogance. This is, in effect, an emotional divorce. Most stonewallers are men - about 85% of the time according to Gottman. Stonewalling doesn't necessarily mark the end of a marriage, but once it becomes a regular pattern the relationship is in deep trouble and will require a significant amount of effort to save. Each of these harbingers of doom - criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling - can be exhibited in even healthy relationships on occasion. The problem is when they become patterns, when they become habits - that is when they will take a relationship to the pit.

Peter says that wives should be submissive to their own husbands and for husbands to love their wives in an understanding way, summarizing that all of us should be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead. There are seven ways to fight a fair fight, seven steps to imparting information without injury:

Don't Run From Strife. There is a story about a genie who was locked in a bottle. During his first thousand years of captivity he said, "Whoever lets me out will get three wishes", but who in his second thousand years of captivity said, "Whoever lets me out I'm gonna kill." The longer we bottle up grievances the meaner and more dangerous we become. What's more is that sooner or later it's going to come up anyway, as will testify anyone who has had a loved one bring to your remembrance a wrong suffered decades ago. It is better to address the issue when it first comes up than to repress it and have it come up later dripping in bile. It may be uncomfortable, but it is better not to run from strife.

Choose Your Battles Carefully. If love is blind then marriage is a magnifying glass. The closer you get to someone, the clearer you see their warts - and the clearer they see your warts - but everything is not worth fighting over. Squeezing versus rolling the toothpaste is not an issue to take to the mat, nor is having the toilet paper roll over versus under. Couples must find a way of negotiating these minor issues so that they don't become major ones, as an avalanche can begin with one well-placed snowball. We are all familiar with the serenity prayer, and while it is now cliché it is also true - some things can be and need to be changed while others can't and won't - don't sweat the small stuff. We must discern the difference and choose our battles carefully.

Define The Issues Clearly. The stimulus for a disagreement is often lost in an argument as the tit-for-tat banter back and forth breaks new ground and takes a life of its own. The military calls this "Mission Creep" and it is anathema to open, honest communication. When tensions begin to rise, define exactly what is at issue until both partners clearly understand what the conflict is about. This avoids mission creep and the phrase, "And another thing..." This also keeps the fight centered on the issue as opposed to the individual - complaint vs. criticism. Before you fight, define the issues clearly.

State Your Feelings Directly. Women, generally, don't have a problem with this one. However, for us guys this is often a major issue. Here's a way to state feelings directly - from Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts by Les & Leslie Parrott (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), called the XYZ formulation, where you replace the variables with your particular gripe in mind: "In situation X, when you do Y, I feel Z." For example, "Yesterday (X), when you failed to return my call (Y), I felt neglected (Z)" or, "When you leave (X) and don't hug me (Y) I feel unloved (Z)." Using this formulation will help you to avoid insults and character assassination which summon the four horsemen, instead focusing on the partner's behavior and how it affects you. This can be annoying for some of us, but the payoff in effectively communicating with our loved ones is worth the effort to state our feelings directly.

Rate The Intensity Of Your Feelings. This might sound corny but it is imperative if you want to communicate effectively. In virtually every relationship one partner is more expressive emotionally than the other, the effect of which is that the lack of sufficient expression from one partner may be construed as a lack of concern by the other when it is merely a lack of effective expression. When discussing these matters, rate your feelings on a scale of 1-10 as follows:
  1. I'm not enthusiastic, but it's no big deal to me.
  2. I don't see it the way you do, but I may be wrong.
  3. I don't agree, but I can live with it.
  4. I don't agree, but I'll let you have your way.
  5. I don't agree and cannot remain silent on this.
  6. I do not approve, and I need more time.
  7. I strongly disapprove and cannot go along with it.
  8. I will be so seriously upset I can't predict my reaction.
  9. No possible way! If you do, I quit.
  10. Over my dead body!
This might seem a little cheesy, but it will help when one partner is less expressive than the other. This is actually printed on cards and you can get them from Zondervan free by calling (800) 727-3480.

Give Up Put-Downs. Everybody has jokes these day, and cracking on folks is an integral part of our culture (have you seen Barbershop?), but they can be death to a marriage. Nobody knows you better than you spouse (hopefully), but that also means that they know your vulnerable spots, you Achilles' heel. Cracking on your partner's vulnerabilities is absolutely out of line and must never, ever be done. If your spouse confesses that he was ridiculed in high school as being an egghead then that nickname is absolutely off-limits. If she tells you that it really hurt her when she used to be called a tar-baby then that is not something that you can ever call her. There are a couple of areas that are mentioned so often that they are probably universally off-limits, specifically sexual performance and parents. "You're just like your no-good daddy" - never. "Well, the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree" - can't do that either. "That's it?" - bad idea. "I've had better" - go directly to the curb, do not pass Go, do not collect alimony. No spouse should have to put up with put-downs, and the greatest gift you can give your mate is to give up put-downs.

Don't Dwell On Downers. We cannot get into runaway spleen-venting and piling negative on top of negative to prove, "You're worse than me" or "It's really your fault." We cannot focus on negatives - we must address issues. Another way of putting it is this: give up the mindset of winning or losing. Get to the issue and solve the problem. It's not about assigning blame; it’s about coming up with a solution to a problem. The solution could be a better understanding or the solution could be some action(s) that needs to be done, but don't dwell on downers. When your partner brings a complaint, don't escalate the tension by redirecting the focus onto them. If they bring criticism instead of a complaint then redirect the focus onto the issue, but not onto them. We can easily get caught in one-upmanship where we have to get the last word in, but it's not about the last word, it's about the final solution to the problem that is raised - even if that solution is the realization that there really is no problem. We must avoid runaway spleen-venting, and the best way to do that is not to dwell on downers.

One final word on fighting fair comes from Paul - "Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger." We must always look for resolution to our differences with our loved ones since we are harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not ones returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but who give a blessing instead. Jesus said, "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions." We must always be willing to forgive and forget, always seeking to reconcile our differences with our mate, always being conformed into the image of Christ through the renewing of our mind. Don't let the sun go down without you having resolved any differences with your spouse. You'll sleep better, together.

May the LORD bless you and keep you;
May the LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
And may the LORD,
Who wants you to fight fair,
May He turn His face toward you and give you peace.

Emancipated by Athanasius @ 11:00 AM

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