|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
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We Need to Talk
How To Successfully Navigate Conflict
By Linda Mintle
Baker BooksCopyright © 2015 Linda Mintle
All rights reserved.
You Can't Get Around It
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
Jesus, John 16:33
Rachel practically ran to her usual chair in my therapy office. She plopped herself down, crossed her long legs, and took a deep breath. "We need to talk," she announced as she took a quick sip from her large coffee cup. I laughed. "Isn't that what we always do when you come to my office? That is my job, you know."
She cracked a quick smile but wanted to get to it. Something was on her mind. I could tell because she was twirling her long brown curls with her finger. That was her signal to me. When Rachel talked about her mom and dad fighting, she twirled her hair. When her boyfriend pushed for more of a commitment, she twirled her hair. "I haven't told you something that happened. It's big and I have to talk to you about it."
"Okay, you've got my attention. Do I need to lie down on my couch?"
This time, she didn't smile but stared intently at that large coffee cup in her hand. Rubbing the side of the cup, she looked up and began her story.
"Something happened to me in the two weeks since I've seen you. It's great and not so great. I'm confused, which is why I need to talk. You know I have been feeling kind of empty this past year. My relationship with my parents is strained because of their constant fighting, and I'm not sure about my boyfriend. He's great in so many ways, but I just don't know, something is missing there." She continued, "So I was hanging out with a friend, talking about needing something more in my life, and she invited me to her church. You know my parents are atheists and my boyfriend doesn't have any interest in religion. But I was intrigued, and she is a really good person, so I decided to go. I can't really explain it, but in the quiet of that service, I felt God. So I gave my heart to him. Someone explained it all to me, led me through a prayer, and told me my life would change. Honestly, I felt changed. The church gave me a Bible and told me to start reading it. I did. Since then, everything is messed up. When I told my parents what happened, they laughed at me. My dad said religion is for fools. My mom believes it's just a matter of time until I come to my senses.
"Then I talked to Mark. Based on what I was reading, I didn't think I should be living with him so I told him that, and he was hurt. When I told him that I thought we should probably stop having sex, this whole faith thing didn't sit well either.
"People at the church told me my life would change. Boy, that was an understatement. My parents think I've joined a cult. I'm moving into my own place, and Mark is not happy with me. Things have changed. But finding God has only brought more conflict to my relationships. It's weird because I feel better inside, but outside, things aren't going so well. Please explain this to me!"
Rachel sat back, folded her hands, and waited for me to make sense of all of this.
"Rachel, that good feeling inside is God's peace. He promises peace even when things are problematic. Knowing God does not give you a ticket to escape conflict. Sometimes, like you are now experiencing, knowing God can bring more trouble because it creates conflict in your relationships.
"So when you decided to follow Christ, it went against everything your parents believe and the life you and your boyfriend were living. Even though that change is what you wanted, the people involved didn't embrace it. These differences created an opportunity for conflict.
"The way your parents and Mark want you to resolve the conflict is to stop this 'nonsense' and go back to the way things were so that nothing changes. People are comfortable with the familiar, even when the familiar is not healthy. Change is scary. Your change is uncomfortable for these people. Instead of working through these differences, they prefer to pressure you to keep things the same. This is a common reaction to change that brings conflict."
The smile returned to Rachel's face. "Thanks for the warning. And you'll help too, right?"
"That's why you pay me the big bucks! So now, how are you going to respond to your parents and boyfriend when your new life conflicts with their expectations? It's your response that matters. That's the part you control."
The conversation ended on an important note. Even though we can't always prevent conflict, we can choose how we will respond to it. We aren't victims of our pasts, circumstances, or temperaments. We can lovingly deal with people and respond in ways that promote healing, not damage.
Jesus himself addressed this with his followers when he walked the earth. In Matthew, he tells his followers that he will soon be leaving them. I'm sure they didn't want him going away, because their lives would dramatically change. But Jesus knew what was coming—that he would be denied by them, crucified, and then resurrected. He knew the conflict that was coming. And he knew they would not want him to leave.
Because of his great love and compassion for them, he warned them of the changes to come and then added, "In this world you will have trouble." The message is still true today. Expect trouble. But when we face it, we have help.
"In this world you will have trouble ..." will probably not become your favorite Bible verse to quote. I've never seen it on a kitchen magnet! We don't want trouble. We prefer peace. We especially want peace in our personal relationships. Sometimes conflict gets in the way of that peace. However, it doesn't have to get in our way. Instead, it can be a road to change.
Conflict Is Not a Bad Thing
When most of us hear the word conflict we think trouble, problems, or something bad. Merriam-Webster defines conflict as a fight, a battle. It is a competitive or opposing action of incompatibility or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.
Relationship conflict, then, is about struggle, disagreement, argument, or debate between people. It erupts because of the way we handle different views, interests, goals, backgrounds, and expectations of those with whom we do life. When we don't handle these differences well, relationship problems result. But conflict itself is not a bad thing. It can help us grow in our relationships.
People ask, "Does there really have to be so much conflict?" The answer is yes because people are different. Every moment is a conflict opportunity. Think about it. I just woke up to begin my day. During this time, conflict can come over breakfast choices, the way I greet my spouse, what time to actually get up, who goes into the shower first, is breakfast ready on time, who is helping the kids, etc. Any of these small moments could turn to conflict because there are several people dealing with life on their own terms. Sometimes that process goes smoothly, other times it creates friction between people. When we try to do life on our own terms, like Rachel, this often conflicts with the ideas of others.
Remember, though, conflict is not a bad thing. It is normal. Expect it. Don't waste energy wishing it would go away. It won't. It is better to understand it and know how to respond. In this world, we will have trouble.
When a leading marital researcher was asked on the Anderson Cooper television show what most couples fight over, his answer made people laugh. He said that most people fight over nothing. Yes, the answer was funny, but also true. As a marital therapist, I know he is right. The subject of a fight hardly matters. What is more important is how we treat each other during a fight. Still, there are hot buttons that seem to set us off. These hot buttons usually include conflict over affection and sex (chapter 10), power, personality issues (chapter 11), closeness needs, social issues, and trust. And these conflicts can be fueled by stress or even a lack of knowledge.
Take Jim, for example. Jim has a short fuse when it comes to dealing with conflict. Being demoted, watching his finances dwindle, and dealing with mounting bills put him over the edge. All this stress made things worse. As a result, Jim was not an easy person to work with during this pressured time. Now, that doesn't excuse the way Jim treated his co-workers, but the outside stress certainly accentuated his already problematic conflict skills. Stress makes things worse if we aren't aware of it and allow it to manage us.
Along with stress, ignorance can make conflict worse. One wife I worked with fought constantly with her husband over the care of their young children. The wife believed a number of health-based old wives' tales about illnesses and insisted she was right even though her husband was a medical doctor. She refused to educate herself on the facts. Neither partner would compromise. She was convinced she was right, and he knew he was right! A lack of knowledge fueled this conflict. So while conflict over hot-button issues is normal, it can be worsened by stress and ignorance.
Power Struggle Conflicts
When you ask people if they want an equal relationship with others, most will answer yes. But people have widely different ideas about what equal means in a relationship.
Power usually relates to a person's ability to influence the other toward their own interests or goals. Power sharing means both people's needs are heard and met. Equal influence means people accommodate each other. It doesn't mean that one person is always right. And it certainly doesn't mean that one person must convince the other of their rightness!
With couples, most power struggles involve the sharing of household work, parenting, decision making, and other aspects of family life. Hurt and frustration around these issues can build when spouses believe all things are equal but experience a different reality.
Until I ask questions like, "Is each person able to express personal goals, wishes, and needs? Do you influence one another? Whose interests are shaping the relationship? Does one dominate the other? How are menial tasks like housework viewed? How are decisions made? Do both of you in a relationship feel entitled to follow your dreams, calling, or personal goals? Do you think that the source of your conflict could be related to a power imbalance?"
Jack and Amanda struggled with power imbalance. Amanda had the higher-paying job, so Jack agreed to be a stay-at-home dad. At first, Jack thought the plan was fantastic. He wanted to spend more time with his children. His dad was rarely around when he was growing up.
As the months went by, Jack felt like Amanda was taking advantage of him. She rarely helped when she got home from work, claiming she was too tired and needed downtime. Jack began to feel like money was driving this arrangement. He thought Amanda used her job to get out of sharing responsibility around the house. He also noticed that Amanda stopped asking his opinions regarding family decisions. Power was not equally shared, and Jack became resentful, insisting he return to the job market and Amanda make changes to help with the kids. The couple was at a standstill. Neither talked about the power imbalance and how they would work it out. Instead, each insisted on doing things their way. A year later, the couple divorced.
How people approach power issues impacts intimacy and relationship success. One researcher tells us that equal power is related to relationship satisfaction for both men and women. Specifically, when mutual support is shared in relationship responsibility, vulnerability, attunement, and influence, people feel good. In other words, when a person feels heard, is able to influence the other, and shares responsibilities, the relationship feels more satisfying.
As two people form families, work, and develop a deeper intimacy, power struggles surface. Laura and Peter experienced this. Laura didn't mind staying home with their children until she realized that her husband, Peter, didn't value her role. His constant comments about other working wives contributing to the finances of their homes made it clear that he wanted her to work outside the home.
We know that when women's work is valued and role differences are understood and accepted, this creates fewer conflicts. This was not the case with Peter and Laura. He did not value or understand his wife's role of staying home and taking care of the kids.
Peter wouldn't directly talk about it either. Instead, he made sarcastic comments. When Laura tried to talk about the decision to stay home, he told her that she was trying to manipulate him. What Peter didn't realize was that when couples listen to each other, both genders do better with power conflicts. The couple could have worked this out.
This point was driven home in a conversation I had with a young pastor recently. He was married and had two young girls. The pastor asked for my help because he was getting annoyed with his wife. She complained about how hard her job of raising the girls and keeping up with the house was, and those difficulties caused her to feel depressed. The pastor was not feeling empathy for her and said, "I know this sounds bad, but how hard could it be to take care of a house and two kids? To me, this seems like an easy job, and I don't get why she complains."
As the words left his mouth, he said, "That doesn't sound good, does it?" No, but I was glad for his honesty He expected his wife to assume the role of housewife and mother and never complain. After all, she agreed to the job, and in his mind, it was an easy one.
If you have ever been a housewife and mother of two young kids, you know it is not an easy job. Furthermore, the job is not valued much in our culture. The pressure to be successful outside the home leaves some women feeling inadequate. This young mom needed validation from her husband. Her complaints were a bid for his attention. He was missing the point and becoming annoyed, and setting the stage for more conflict.
He didn't understand his wife or her world. He also didn't try to get her to talk about her discontent. I asked him what it would be like every day to take care of the physical needs of two young girls, not have conversations with adults, focus on menial tasks of housework, and hear the stories of friends who were in the work world and having adventures.
He thought for a moment. "I never really thought about it from her point of view."
"Maybe," I said, "she has dreams that she thinks will never happen. She has agreed to put them on hold for now, but being with the kids needs to be valued. How often do you tell her how much you appreciate her decision to be with the girls? How often do you comment on how hot she looks in those sweats and T-shirt? She's probably not feeling like the most attractive woman in the world while changing diapers and cleaning up vomit! How often do you talk to her about her dreams?"
It was like a light went on. Motherhood is often a thankless job. He took it for granted. He hadn't listened to his wife's heart or understood her needs. He had lost touch with the woman he knew before they had children. Maybe she was missing that connection with him.
The brewing conflict could be nipped in the bud if they talked about her role, if he valued her contribution to the family, and if they worked on the relationship. She needed time with him to feel like an adult again, to be refreshed and reminded of the parts of her that were not just Mommy. The tension between the two had everything to do with him not valuing her role and not seeing her as his equal partner.
You see, power inequalities undermine relationship success. When power is unequal, both people are motivated to hide thoughts and emotions. The powerful one thinks they cannot be vulnerable or show weakness. This then limits communication. This is what happened to our pastor. He was the powerful one, not depressed and complaining but doing great things in the church. However, he admitted missing the intimacy with his wife as well. For months, she had hidden her thoughts until she finally started to complain. His response was to put her down and think she had no reason to complain. In his mind, she had a cake job.
Excerpted from We Need to Talk by Linda Mintle. Copyright © 2015 Linda Mintle. Excerpted by permission of Baker Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: We Need to Talk, 11,
1. Conflict: You Can't Get Around It, 17,
2. Can We Trust Each Other?, 29,
3. I'd Rather Not Talk, 41,
4. Differences Make a Difference, 49,
5. Living Under the Cloud of Negativity, 67,
6. A Clash of Styles, 81,
7. Solvable and Unsolvable Problems, 95,
8. All in the Family, 115,
9. Parenting, Divorce, and Blended Families, 129,
10. Sex, Affection, and Conflict, 149,
11. Dealing with Difficult People, 177,
12. Anger and Resentment, 191,
13. Forgiveness, 211,
14. We Can Work It Out, 227,
Final Thoughts: Navigating the Storms, 241,