(adapted from Practical Divorce Solutions by Ed Sherman)
Reducing conflict never means that you have to compromise your rights or self-respect. It can be hard work, but making the effort can help you a great deal, personally, whether or not it reaches your spouse or gets you an agreement. Those are by-products; the real benefit is inside.
Conflict is what happens when two people have a different way of looking at the same facts or have to reconcile different goals and interests. It happens all the time; so what?
Healthy conflict leads to solutions. It’s not always easy, but you can usually work things out through discussion and compromise.
Unhealthy conflict is when negative emotions pervert or displace an otherwise honest disagreement. The emotions that fuel unhealthy conflict are a combination of each spouse’s own ancient attitudes, experiences, and habits coupled with all the patterns and distortions built up in the relationship. Untangling any part of this terrible can of worms will be a blessing for the rest of your life.
If you are like most couples — not just divorcers — you have a predictable pattern of interaction that doesn’t work. You have your own personal set of triggers that will set you off more or less the same way every time, over and over again. You have habit patterns for dealing with disagreements that do not serve you well or solve any problems. It may not be intentional, it may not even be conscious, but you know each other’s buttons and you both push them automatically, without even thinking, especially when feeling angry, frightened or guilty.
Don’t do that anymore.
Maybe it doesn’t take much of a push on a button to get your bell to ring; maybe you are so upset that it rings almost by itself. Maybe your spouse is in a highly emotional condition too, acting like someone you wish you never knew and you are taking it all very personally. Don’t do that either.
Stop letting your mate’s moods dominate your life. That’s over. You don’t need to do it any longer. You are not divorcing just your spouse, you are also divorcing yourself from all those old patterns that didn’t work.
The divorce starts to work for you when you learn to untangle yourself from all those ugly dances you used to do. If you just stop (not easy to do), your mate may keep on, but will eventually have to notice that it’s a solo performance. If not, too bad, but your ex-mate’s problems aren’t yours. Your problem is how you act, how you feel, and how to handle your own life.
You probably can’t control your mate, but you can concentrate on healing your own emotions and controlling your own actions. That’s your whole focus now.
We are talking about controlling actions here, not feelings. Don’t try to control your feelings — they are real and valid. Observe your feelings, accept them, but express them some other way.
Stop. Breathe. Don’t react.
Pay attention to what’s going on for you. Are you angry? Hurt? Afraid? . . . What?
Be curious; investigate yourself and the scene.
Stop. Breathe. Don’t react. Say this over and over to yourself whenever things start to pop loose.
Even while an event is in progress, you can be trying to figure out what the anger is all about. Anger is the flip-side of fear. When someone is afraid, the least little thing will set them off into a crisis of reactive anger. Fear is mostly unconscious and usually about not having enough — not enough security, power, respect, love or stability. Fear is about loss of face, not being in control, not having enough money, fear of change, fear of responsibility, things like that. What is your spouse afraid of? What are you afraid of?
To figure out what anger is about, you have to listen. Honest, open listening is the best thing you can do when someone is angry. You don’t have to buy into their anger or agree with their point-of-view, just understand. If you are sincerely trying to hear what the angry person is saying and understand what’s behind the anger — if you are not reacting to it, defending yourself from it, arguing, denying, dismissing or patronizing — then their anger will have nothing to feed on and will spend itself sooner. The angry person may save face by staying huffy and self-righteous, but your attitude will be noticed and will have a cumulative effect over time. If not fed, anger collapses from its own weight.
Curiosity is a great attitude and a great tool. The most constructive thing you can do is to try to figure out the mutual patterns that never did and still don’t work. More particularly, you want to understand the part you play.
Don’t try to change anything, not at first; just observe when it’s happening. Stop. Breathe. Even if you don’t untangle the web, taking this attitude will be a big improvement.
Just observe, don’t respond. Notice how easily you fall into the old routine, how bad you feel after. Oops, did it again! It’s hard to stop, like asking a trout not to flash at splashing flies; like quitting an addiction cold turkey, only harder because you probably aren’t always aware when you are doing it. Breaking old bad habits will greatly increase your future happiness. You may be able to do it by yourself, but some good professional help could be very useful at this point.
Working on your self is the most interesting of all possible paths. It may be the hardest — and most rewarding — thing you will ever do. This is when you develop your sense of personal responsibility. You are breaking your psychological dependency on your spouse, no longer depending on your mate for your own sense of well-being and worth; you will no longer let your feelings be determined by your mate’s moods and actions.
You and only you are responsible for your feelings and your actions. It isn’t your fault when you are down, or anyone else’s, but it is your responsibility to get up.
When times are hard, pay special attention to your body. Take care of it; relax it; be good to it. This is a healing time. Eat well, get healthy. Slow down, be quiet, hole up, nest. Get massage, work on those knots. Take hot baths and/or cold showers, whatever works. Feeling bad isn’t so bad if you don’t feel bad about it. Just let it happen; it’s proof you’re alive and learning.
You know how sometimes it’s easy for you to see what’s really going on between two arguing people? Or how you can observe other people’s patterns when they can’t? What if someone could do that for you now? This is a good time to get some third person to listen, observe, give you feedback and advice. That’s what professional family counselors are trained to do. Counseling and how to choose a counselor are discussed below.
Friends are wonderful moral support, but don’t take advice from just anybody. Listen only to people who have wisdom and experience. Being a friend and caring about you doesn’t make that person qualified to give good advice. If your friend is helping you get worked up, dwell on grievances or wallow in your stuff, get your advice somewhere else.
- Anger is not reasonable. When someone reaches the flash point, the ability to reason gets less as anger increases. Don’t bother trying to talk sense until the anger is well past. Anger always passes. It runs its course faster if you don’t feed it, faster yet if you use defusing techniques (below).
- Deal with the problem, not the person.
- You do not have to give in or be a doormat.
- Rights: You have the right to act in your own best interest; to respect and stand up for yourself; to politely express ideas and honest emotions; to ask for what you want; to set limits; to be treated with respect and dignity; to make mistakes and accept responsibility.
- Responsibilities: It is your responsibility to respect and honor the same rights for your mate; to take responsibility for your own behavior.
- Be assertive and constructive:
- Confront the problem, not the person.
- Defuse the hostility, don’t play at patterns that don’t work. Your goal is to keep things calm so you can deal with the problem or complete the business at hand.
- Disengage from the conflict. Pay attention to your own anger level; when necessary, express your need to interrupt the cycle and allow a cool-down period. Reschedule another time to work on the problem, then get up and quietly leave.
- Defusing: Here are some techniques for defusing anger when you run into it:
- First, remain calm yourself. Don’t react. Instead, use your sense of curiosity; become an interested observer. Encourage talking by listening openly.
- Show that you understand or are trying to. Nod, paraphrase and mirror what you hear (“Let’s see if I have this right; you are saying that ______?”). You must be sincere in this for it to work well.
- Talk to your spouse with “I” messages instead of the accusing “you.” For example, “I can’t discuss this when the TV is on so loud,” instead of “You are noisy and totally inconsiderate.”
- Make statements about yourself when necessary, but not about your mate personally. Be specific and concrete, be positive not negative.
- Set your limits (“If you keep yelling, I am going to leave,” or “If you are more than 30 minutes late picking up the children, I will have to leave with them.”).
- Don’t defend or attack, don’t generalize (“You always do this to me”), don’t be sarcastic or discuss your mate’s motives or dig up old history.
- Deal with the specific matter now at hand.
- Reassure your mate; help him or her to save face.
- Remember, your goal is to reach agreement, not score points.
- Work with the attitude that you want to find solutions that allow you both to get what you want and need. Avoid the win/lose attitude.
- Don’t expect a quick fix or miracles. You can do all the right things and not have immediate results. It’s like erosion, the sort of thing you have to chip away at. It takes time, but you will succeed if you keep at it.