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Winning at Conflict Without Losing at Love
By Tim Downs, Joy Downs, Cheryl Dunlop, Pam Pugh
Moody PublishingCopyright © 2010 Tim and Joy Downs
All rights reserved.
A Game Without RULES
A GAME WITHOUT RULES
Try to imagine a game without rules.
Imagine a game of poker where one player holds five cards, but another holds eighteen. Imagine a game of Monopoly where you can rob the bank, break out of jail, and burn your opponent's hotels. Imagine a baseball game where the batter keeps the bat with him as he rounds the bases, just to break up that annoying double play at second base. Or how about a game of Scrabble where you can make up any word you like?
Most games work better with a few guiding principles in place. You would have to search far and wide to find a sport, a game, or even a simple contest with no rules whatsoever.
But there is one.
"What's this?" a husband demands, tossing a receipt onto the kitchen table.
"What's what?" his wife says without looking up.
"Two hundred and fifty dollars! For what?"
"For something I needed," she says indifferently.
"Why would you spend that kind of money without asking me first?"
"How was golf today?" she asks. "What did that set us back—forty, fifty dollars? You never seem to mention the cost of your hobbies, now, do you?"
"I'm talking about unnecessary expenses!" he says as his voice begins to rise.
"Why is it that only my expenses are unnecessary?" she shouts back.
"You're wasting our money!" he yells, charging from the room.
"What do you know about money?" she calls after him.
Conflict, which someone has said is the art of disagreeing while still holding hands, is a game without rules. It may sound strange to speak of conflict as a "game," but in a sense it is. Every marital disagreement has two players, a starting point, and a finish line. There is a playing field and a time limit, and there are penalties, fouls, and grounds for disqualification along the way. There are winners and losers too—though in this game, unlike most, both players can win or both can lose.
Right now you may be thinking, If conflict is a game, then I'd rather not play. Sorry. Conflict is a part of the true game of Life, and refusing to play is simply not an option. Differences in personality and temperament, multiple time demands, limited resources, and the sheer insanity of modern life all conspire to create occasional (or more than occasional) disagreements between partners. In marriage, conflict simply can't be avoided; the goal, then, is to learn to play the game as pleasantly and productively as possible.
We know a wise grandmother who cautions her grandkids, "Fight nicely." What a concept! For many of us, the very idea of fighting nicely is a contradiction in terms. You can fight, or you can be nice; take your pick. But doing both at once is something many couples have never experienced. Believe it or not, it is possible to "fight nicely." That's where clear rules and a good referee come in—and that's what conflict often lacks.
Like the early sport of boxing, conflict between lovers often has a single guiding principle: Beat the other guy. In the early days of boxing, the question of how to beat the other guy was left entirely to the individual combatants, and liberal interpretations of that rule left many men bloody, broken, or blind. Some, like the gladiators of old, even gave their lives in the arena.
That's why, in the late 1800s, the Marquis de Queensberry thought it was high time someone sat down and penned some rules for the sport of boxing. No more kicking and gouging, he said, and no more hitting below the belt. No head butting is allowed, no rabbit punching, and under no circumstances are you ever allowed to bite off your opponent's ear.
But just because a rule exists, that doesn't mean anyone has to obey it. That's why the Marquis de Queensberry's regulations provided for a referee, a man whose job it was to make sure the rules were followed. To this day, whenever a boxing match is about to begin, a man in a striped shirt steps between the opponents and reviews the basic rules. To break the rules, he reminds them, is to forfeit the contest. The referee's goal is not to prevent the boxers from fighting; on the contrary, he is there to allow them to fight. The referee's goal is not to prevent the conflict from happening, but to make sure the boxers fight fair. By doing so, he greatly increases the chances that the boxers will live to fight another day.
But in marital conflict, there are no rules. Maybe that's why there's so much gouging, biting, and hitting below the belt—and maybe that's why so many love relationships perish in the act of disagreeing.
Wouldn't it be great if, when the sparks begin to fly between a husband and wife, a bell would ring, a closet door would fly open, and a man in a striped shirt would step out? Our own personal marital referee!
"You're wasting our money!" the husband yells, charging from the room.
"Foul!" the referee calls out. "Get back in the ring or you're disqualified!"
"What do you know about money?" his wife calls after him.
"That's hitting below the belt!" the referee warns. "One more time and you're out of the game!"
Since we have no referees to supervise our personal conflicts, we have to serve as our own referees. But what are the rules we should enforce? What are the errors and pitfalls we should watch for, and what are the behaviors we should encourage? This book is intended to be your own personal Marquis de Queensberry's Rules for Conflict in relationships: not a list of rules that we think you should apply, but a chance for you and your spouse to agree together on your own guidelines for successful conflict. All along the way we'll give you tips, insights, and suggestions that have worked for others, but it's your job to decide what you think will work best for you. At the end of the book is a section entitled "Our Rules." As you finish each chapter, turn back to the "Our Rules" section and record any ideas you agree to apply in your own relationship.
You'll find an entire chapter devoted to "Penalties and Fouls" (chapter 14), behaviors that are unproductive, discouraging, or even downright dangerous to the health of your relationship. We'll give you a chance to identify your own fouls—specific words, behaviors, and attitudes that you know from experience to be hurtful or unproductive. In the "Our Rules" section, you'll find a place for you to record your "Personal Fouls," so that you can agree together to avoid them in the future.
By the end of this book, you will have your own personal set of rules for conflict. We encourage you to copy off those pages. Keep your list of guidelines handy to remind you of the things you've agreed together to do—and not do—in your next disagreement.
A word of caution: Rules allow a game to be played fairly and efficiently, but no game consists of rules alone. As we'll emphasize over and over in this book, success in conflict requires more than a set of rules. It depends even more on the attitudes you bring to the game: humility, generosity, gentleness, and a genuine desire to work things out. If you are intent on being stubborn or on punishing your mate, no set of rules will prevent you from doing so. The rules in this book can improve your technique in conflict, but as chapter 5 will remind you, the attitude behind the technique is crucial.
Everyone disagrees; that's inevitable. The question is, How can we disagree with those we love but increase the odds that we will live and love to fight another day? How can we learn to "fight fair"?CHAPTER 2
Where CONFLICTS Come From
WHERE CONFLICTS COME FROM
It's been a long day, a good day, and they've just settled down for a long winter's nap. They smooth and straighten the covers, trade a good-night peck, and reach for their respective light switches. Life is good, the world is at peace, and all is right with the universe—when suddenly she says, "Let's not forget to clean the garage next weekend."
"OK," he says, already halfway to the land of Nod. "Glad to help."
A pause ...
"What does that mean?"
He tenses. Some primal instinct warns him away, but testosterone causes him to plow ahead like a Labrador into a duck pond.
"What does what mean?" he asks.
"'Glad to help.' What do you mean by help?"
His mind races. What could possibly be wrong with the word help? Glad to assist? Glad to lend a hand? Where did he put that thesaurus?
"I just mean that I'm glad to ... you know ... clean the garage too."
"You mean you're glad to help me clean the garage. Like cleaning the garage is my job, and you're just helping out."
"Oh, come on, honey; you're just being picky." Another primal instinct ties a knot in his stomach, the same instinct that used to warn his ancestors not to poke the lion with a stick.
"Picky? Did you say picky?"
In the darkness, he hears her sit upright in bed. He feels the warm, protective covers slide away, and somehow the room feels much colder than it was just moments before....
Where do conflicts come from? Probably not from where you think. Most couples tend to put the blame for conflicts on topics of disagreement. They assume an argument begins because they cannot agree on:
Power And Authority
Scheduling And Priorities
Use of Leisure Time
But have you ever noticed that there's a world of difference between a difference of opinion and a disagreement? You say "potayto," I say "potahto;" that's just a difference of opinion. You experience no rising anger, no mounting tension, no growing hostility or resentment. "Of course not," you say. "That's because it isn't important." But are all your disagreements about matters of national security? Or have you discovered, as most married couples do, that heated disagreements can erupt over the most mundane and unexpected topics?
A marriage without conflicts is almost as inconceivable as a nation without crises.
The Gathering Storm
What is it that turns a minor difference of opinion into a full-fledged disagreement? It has little to do with the topic; a topic serves only as a trigger that gets a conflict under way. Topics attract conflict the way tall buildings attract lightning. It's just a place for the conflict to ground; but for lightning to strike at all, there have to be storm clouds gathering above.
To the hapless man in our opening scenario, their midnight misunderstanding was a bolt out of the blue: What got into her? But to his wife, this conflict had been building up for months. His offer to "help" with the garage reflected his long-held attitude that all jobs around the house were her jobs. When she did them herself, she was simply doing her job; when he did them, he was "helping," and he felt that he deserved special recognition. He never said as much; it was just his attitude. Over time, there were more and more jobs to do around the house—more of her jobs—and her annoyance at his attitude had been building up inside her like an electrical charge. All it needed was one more comment to get the thunderstorm under way.
It's not easy taking my problems one at a time when they refuse to get in line.
Sometimes life is so busy and demanding that couples feel like little more than business partners, both faithfully serving the company but rarely meeting after hours. There are no "after hours;" in marriage and parenting, the job never really ends. There's always something else to do, and it takes both of you just to cover the bases.
After years of this kind of endless service, couples can begin to feel like train tracks running parallel to each other but never seeming to cross. You're both important, and you both carry your own burdens—but it's lonely to travel endlessly in the same direction just a few feet away from the one you love.
Much is written today about uninvolved parents, passive husbands, and irresponsible wives. But there's another problem that challenges marriages today, a problem that's rarely discussed. It's the problem of involved parents, active husbands, and responsible wives. But how can that be a problem? Aren't those qualities good for children, good for society, good for the world? Yes—but they're hard on a marriage. There are millions of couples today who aren't lazy or selfish or uncommitted; they are selfless and tireless and self-sacrificing. They put the kids first, the job first, the church first—they put everything first ahead of their own marriage. But when we invest in everything and everyone but us, marriage eventually becomes a cold, lonely, and disappointing business—and that's when the storm clouds of conflict begin to darken the skies above.
When you and your mate take time to be together, when you make a practice of encouraging and supporting each other, there is a confidence in the relationship that forms a buffer against misunderstanding and miscommunication—a buffer made of attitudes like:
I'm confident of your love for me, even if you haven't told me lately.
I know you're trying, even when it doesn't show.
I know you mean well, even when it comes out wrong.
I think the best of you, even when you fail.
I trust you, even when I'm not there with you.
When you firmly believe—when you really feel—that your mate loves, values, and respects you, it's easier to overlook the minor oversights and annoyances that dot the landscape of married life.
But when life gets too busy to allow time together, or when your mate makes no effort to fill your cup, then a vapor of coldness and discouragement begins to condense. Unfortunately, misunderstandings and miscommunications don't diminish just because your schedule is full. On the contrary, they increase; misunderstandings are an inevitable by-product of the breakneck pace of life. Why did he do that? What did she mean by that? How could he forget again?
When there isn't time or energy to discuss your hurts and misunderstandings, a sense of hopelessness begins to grow. Why bring up yet another problem or concern? There wasn't time to deal with the last one. It's easier to simply withdraw, and that's what many of us do, deepening our sense of isolation from one another.
Any idiot can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out!
It takes time, energy, and patience to learn what makes your mate feel loved and encouraged.
But when everything comes before us, there simply is no time. For many of us, our marriages have become functional, efficient business ventures—but they have little passion or depth behind them. Then that protective buffer against conflict evaporates and a dark cloud of negative attitudes takes its place:
Interpersonal climate is the overall feeling, or emotional mood, between people ... Two couples might live in the same apartment complex, have similar jobs, and distribute responsibilities for cleaning, cooking, and shopping in the same way. Yet in one of the relationships, there is constant tension, marked by short and sometimes cutting remarks and frequent flares of temper. In the other relationship the pervasive feeling is comfortable and friendly.... Because interpersonal climate concerns the overall feeling between people, it is the foundation of personal relationships.
—From Interpersonal Communication by Julia Wood, 245
Even if we had a recording of each conflict, we would still disagree on what the words really meant.
Sometimes it takes a few moments to sort out our feelings and the reasons for them.
It's best to have that thought through before opening our mouths.
The words "I am ..." are potent words; be careful what you hitch them to. The thing you're claiming has a way of reaching back and claiming you.
—A. L. Kitselman
I'm unsure of your love for me, because you don't express it.
I'm not sure you're really trying, because it doesn't show.
I think you do it on purpose, because it keeps coming out wrong.
I think less of you when you fail.
I don't trust you unless I'm there with you.
Conflicts come from the atmosphere of our marriage the same way lightning comes from the clouds of the earth. Think of this as an early storm warning. Take a look overhead; are there dark clouds gathering? Can you hear the air beginning to crackle, and do you feel the hair standing up on the back of your neck? Then you'd better head for cover, because conflict is on its way. Any topic will do; that negative charge that fills the air has to go somewhere.
Clouds of Confusion
Storm clouds gather in a marriage when there isn't time or effort made to spend time together to maintain a positive atmosphere. But dark clouds also gather because of conflict itself. Conflict is a mysterious and confusing process; once a conflict is under way, it can be incredibly difficult to sort out. Who started this? Whose fault is it? Who said what, and to whom? There are times when you can argue yourselves to a standstill, with no idea what to do or say next.
Excerpted from Fight Fair! by Tim Downs, Joy Downs, Cheryl Dunlop, Pam Pugh. Copyright © 2010 Tim and Joy Downs. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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