Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How We Handle Conflict Determines Relationship Survival

How we handle conflict in our relationships determines whether the dating relationship or marriage will survive. Back in Kenya, I knew pastors who would not marry a couple unless they had fought once or more in their courtship. They were determined to establish that couples knew how to handle inevitable conflict that would arise in the relationship. Fighting is normal and a healthy part of relationships - how we fight however, makes the difference.

When I was dating my husband back in the 90's, I mistakenly believed if he loved me his opinions would mirror mine on issues. If we fought about anything, I expected him to immediately agree with my point of view without realizing he was a separate being with separate thoughts and opinions. I studied alot of relationship books on communication and began to see the error of my methods but old habits die hard. We dated for four years and it wasn't until our second year of marriage that I got the hang of fighting fair and learned to respect his opinion in the fight.

In my premarital education work, the couples who show extremely low scores on conflict resolution tend to have the toughest time adjusting to marriage, struggle with abuse issues and/or dissolve the marriage. I have become even more committed to asking couples to postpone their wedding ceremony if they want to save their future marriage. If there are unresolved issues causing conflict during dating, the same issues will be magnified in marriage with stronger consequences. Don't ignore warning signs - they are similar to yellow lights turning red on your relationship.

Name calling, yelling, belittling and threatening do not solve conflicts. We've all yelled at some point, the problem is what words we yell because we can't take them back. Yelling is sometimes equating to blowing off steam but is hardly ever constructive. I can't recall who taught my husband and I to use our pet names for each other while fighting but its worked over the years. Its hard for me to attack his character and the essence of his being while yelling "honey - you are such a bla bla bla". Oh, we do fight - trust me on that one. We both have strong opinions and believe in expressing them when necessary but we have fighting rules that keep us in check so we don't destroy each other with careless nuclear words.

Our fighting rules run along lines of: stick to the issue at hand, do not drudge up old fights, identify on a scale how vital the issue is to both of you, 1 - not a big deal to 10 - over my dead body. I love Dr. Les & Leslie Parrot's conflict card and have used it in our marriage and with couples. Avoid name calling and nuclear words (maximizes emotional damage), do not threaten break-up/divorce - it only makes the situation worse, introduces the bailout option and unless you mean it becomes an empty threat. Feel free to call a time-out and postpone the fight if its unproductive and not solving the original issue causing conflict. Agree to bring up the issue for example on Saturday morning when you jog together because you will be less emotional, more logical and open to seeing it through the other's eyes. It sounds impossible but it works, my husband or I will say "lets talk about this another time/Friday" etc or "I can't talk about this right now" which is a code word meaning we will not have a productive end to our fight.

Agree on a code word to indicate when the fight is escalating beyond repair - when one of you uses it, its time to take a step back, walk out of the room/house or shut yourself in a room to cool off. The time-out concept only works if you are both committed to discussing the issue at an agreed future date - otherwise it becomes a cop-out. Do not use physical force on each other - a small shove can easily escalate into violence. When all else fails, involve a third party - seek professional help if the issue you are trying to resolve remains unsolved, is causing considerable tension in your relationship and is threatening your marriage. Avoid trying to shame your partner by describing the issue in lurid details to close friends and family who you hope will put pressure on him/her. True friends will try to be objective and call you out on mistakes. When you make up with your partner, you want him/her to be able to face your friends and family. Think ahead and remember you love this person, you are not trying to destroy them.

If you are reading this portion and you are in a physically abusive relationship please call the national domestic violence hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Your situation requires professional help - your safety and that of your children is of utmost importance. They will do crisis intervention and connect you to local domestic violence shelters in your community.

Some great resources on conflict resolution that I personally use or refer to my couples are Real Relationships (great video clips), Family Life, Marriage Builders and the classes I offer for premarital education and marriage enrichment. Happy fighting to you and may you achieve productive results!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jon & Kate plus 8 - Back Off This Couple!

I recorded last night's season premiere of Jon & Kate Plus 8 for the first time ever! I've watched about 15 episodes before but never used to record them. I'm in my 30's married with two boys and relationships are tough period. I cannot imagine juggling marriage, 8 kids, TV series, book signings, speaking tours, stay at home dad etc and having it all go smoothly. Did Jon make a mistake? Yes! Is Kate too hard on him? Yes! My unimportant opinion - BACK OFF THIS COUPLE and let them salvage their marriage.

For some crazy reason, folks seem to be salivating at the prospects of a divorce. Half the people giving opinions on TV, in magazines and online are they themselves victims, causers or children of divorce. They know the hurt surrounding the issue, instead of hoping for the worst in a twisted way, back off this family and send them encouraging vibes, notes, comments etc. Jon is not the first husband to do something stupid/flirt with other women/cheat if he did, Kate is not the first wife to nag and belittle her husband. Talk to any marriage therapist - couples do alot worse and still manage to make their marriage work. THERE IS HOPE people! Stop wishing Jon & Kate ill - wish them well as they huddle through a tough period in their marriage. I learned about Michele Weiner-Davis' work while in grad school and her emphasis on giving couples hope through any situation is incredible. Jon & Kate are not as badly off as some in the media would have us believe, their marriage does not have to collapse if only one of them is willing to work on it.

I am strangely attached to Jon & Kate because they are in my Generation X cohort. We consider marriage an egalitarian affair where both partners put in equal effort or appear to put in equal effort, our relationship roles are based on gifting and not gender etc - the wife might be better at family finances, the husband might be a better cook/cleaner. We have also left corporate America in droves to stay home with our children despite having advanced degrees etc. We strongly believe in the wellbeing of our children to a fault - hence the debate over excessive 'self-esteemed' children. Back to the show.

My heart broke last night watching the pain they are going through trying to sort their feelings, their responsibilities as parents, their marriage relationship and a hounding media all at the same time. I have serious reservations about the way Kate treats Jon on the show, but I learned the show is only taped 3 days a week and its edited down to an hour. They probably don't show the times she's decent with him. Jon is always potrayed as the docile 'yes, dear' kind of husband and loving dad, maybe the other 4 days of the week - he actually yells back and takes charge in decision making. In other words - its a TV show - we don't see everything! I don't let Kate's behavior towards him off the hook - it bothers me a great deal and my husband will not watch the show after seeing her talk to Jon in only one episode. I also believe Jon (unless its edited that way) should take more charge and speak up on his needs etc.

I have no earthly idea how they will pull off saving their marriage, raising the kids, working while hounded by the media and our incessant comments. Some folks suggested the show should be cancelled, that's a knee jerk reaction. It's a great teaching moment if the producers edit accurately and fairly. I hope they are seeing a marriage friendly marriage therapist instead of one who will tell them to split because "their happiness" is too important. I also believe they might benefit from taking a couple's vacation just the two of them to reconnect emotionally.

Life is tough and tough choices sometimes require happiness tied to happenings to take a back burner to important decisions that will shape the destiny of our families. I'm not sure they should show any episode with the therapist if they are seeing one. In my books - they should do whatever it takes to save the marriage. In the meantime, I am in their corner, cheering them on towards healing in their relationship. I haven't focused on the kids because the naysayers are using them as bait and yelping without considering this - the greatest gift to our children is seeing their parents attempt to make their marriage work and thrive.