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Five Secrets To Work Through Conflict

It was a rough day in the Hollander’s office. Lori and I had just finished a Couple to Couple Session with partners we would describe as “dripping with pain.” We gave them our best, but at every turn seemed to hit a wall. At the end, one partner charged out of the room screaming at her partner, “You never listen, F…you, I’m done!”

We felt exhausted and depleted and we were just the therapists. I can’t imagine what the couple was feeling after the session. Given the intensity of the feelings, chaos and hopelessness we had just witnessed, it is fortunate no one suffered a heart attack.

Feeling defeated and anxious, we processed what happened in the session. There were strong emotions in play. Despite our attempt to break through the tumult, there were only moments where we observed some insight on their parts. Their individual issues fit together life the perfect storm.

Later that day one partner called and said he had realized that in fact his partner was correct, he hadn’t been listening. He’d heard me say in session that validating his partner’s perceptions and feelings did not mean he necessarily agreed with them. He understood once his wife felt heard she would be able to listen to his point of view. His wife realized calling him names and walking out was very hurtful to her husband. We had made an impact. They made another appointment and asked for some communication strategies to continue their progress.

Here are the five “secrets” we shared to work through conflict:

  1. Move beyond anger to the connecting feelings of pain, sadness and fear.  Right below the surface of anger is the deeper feelings of hurt. When couples can’t see beneath the anger, nothing will get resolved. It’s vital to express the genuine underlying feelings to create connection.
  2. Accept the feelings of each partner as valid.  No one can tell us how we feel. Each person has a right to their feelings and the job of a partner is to recognize and work to understand those feelings, regardless of agreement or disagreement.
  3. Avoid arguing about who is right and who is wrong and instead seek to understand.  Debating who is right is a lose-lose proposition. The goal of communicating is to hear, understand, and validate each other’s point of view. Only then can you find mutually acceptable solutions.
  4. Persevere even if it seems you are not getting through.  Just as we did with our couple, don’t give up. It may take more than one conversation to reach the goal of understanding. If the conversation gets heated, take a break and come back to it. Commit to the process.
  5. Let go of the conflict and leave it behind.  It’s vital not to bring past conflicts into the present. Couples do have chronic conflicts, but it is important to stick to the present issue at hand.

Putting these secrets to work takes practice. And it’s not easy – we have been practicing for 25 years! We can tell you – it works!

Is There Enough Conflict In Your Relationship?

If there is one irrefutable truth Lori and I have discovered in our practice, it is this: We need more conflict in our lives, not less. Now this may sound strange coming from two relationship counselors – and no, this is not our attempt to simply drum up more business. So let me clarify.

What we are proposing is couples need to engage in more “constructive” conflict, i.e. conflict handled in a way leading to increased awareness of one’s self, one’s partner, and of the dynamics between them; conflict leading to resolution.

Fundamentally, we view conflict as a symptom of something going on more deeply within the relationship to be understood and processed through skillful investigation; and which you ignore at your own peril.

Reckless management of conflict through avoidance or chronic arguing, creates distance, destroys connection and puts the relationship at risk. Unfortunately, many partners opt to desperately hold on to conflict. They design to get stuck in anger, to expressly sidestep a deeper exploration of thoughts and feelings between them. In this way they circumvent the risky venture into trust and openness.

Such partners conspire to hold on to dysfunction at its very core, and sign on to a bargain that reads something like this:

“We the undersigned agree to remain in regular and everlasting conflict in order to avoid the deeper exploration of underlying hurt and fear that resides beneath our angry outbursts and/or withdrawal; and in doing so for the duration of our time together, and in consideration thereof, we hereby relinquish all hope for a genuinely deeper connection.”

When conflict is constructive, you peel back the outer layer of anger and withdrawal, and get right to the very core of the conflict.

You must recognize, understand and validate the pain, the sadness, and the fear to pursue a course of genuine resolution and authentic connection. It is at this level, just underneath the hard yet very shallow surface of discord, nearer than near, that our chance for the most intimate relationship resides.

The strongest relationships are possessed by those partners who press conflict, go beyond anger and condemnation, move beyond “right and wrong,” and work toward a more global understanding of each other’s world of thoughts and feelings.

The challenge is that you have to work on developing a trusting relationship to accommodate you and your partner’s investigation of each other in an atmosphere of openness and support. Conflict then becomes that vital “entry point” to a meticulous examination of thoughts and feelings of you and your partner – slowly, “frame by frame,” which will lead you past conflict into connection.

If you want connection within your relationship, you must do connecting things. It’s the most difficult work you will ever do, but it is the most rewarding.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on conflict in your relationship. Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments on our Facebook page.

Listen In: How Two Relationship Therapists Used Time-Out

Lori was preparing to have 23 people at our home for her step-dad’s 90th birthday. Being the organized person she is, the plans were meticulously laid out in her head – and on her lists. The help she needed from me was to execute certain critical tasks in preparation for the party, like sending me out for just a few last minute items. But alas, I had my own ideas about the party, which I neglected to share with Lori.

When I returned from my “junk food shopping spree” with much more than was on the list, Lori, shall we say, raised her voice. (Lesson: Never go shopping when you are hungry.)

Though I am not much of a party planner, I have learned what to do when Lori gets upset. The sensitive part of me did not become hijacked by my emotions, for I had a plan in place, which I executed to perfection.

First, I recognized that Lori’s response was more about her stress, and really had nothing to do my efforts. My going “off script,” in good faith, triggered Lori’s feeling that I didn’t do the job she had asked me to do. Before the situation became combustible, I knew further dialogue at that time would not help; so I stopped talking and took a time-out.

During this time-out, I chose not to escape into victim-hood, i.e. “become ‘little Bobby’ being scolded by my mommy.” It was critical to not express an angry response. Of course, I felt angry and hurt, but I processed the feelings instead of allowing them to capture me. I was able to enter not only my world, but also Lori’s world, and understand the thoughts and feelings she was experiencing.

I left Lori alone and trusted she would recognize her overreaction and come back to me, which she did. (We have both learned to own our parts of managing conflict.) Within minutes, Lori apologized for snapping at me. And I responded as the take-charge guy, protecting the relationship when Lori was in turmoil.

We did not do an analysis about “who was right, and who was wrong,” as we have learned it doesn’t really matter. We were both right from our perspectives. We came from a place of understanding and genuine concern for the other.

I really didn’t even think an apology was needed, although it felt good – maybe as an acknowledgement of the effort I made to protect the relationship, and Lori. It made sense that Lori would snap given the pressure; and I just felt fortunate I was able to help out with the relationship at a critical time.

As it turned out, the party went off without any further hitches, we worked great as a team, were terrific hosts, and all had a wonderful time.

Here are some Time-Out tips when either partner feels he/she is becoming hijacked by his/her thoughts or feelings:

  1. In a non-emotional manner tell your partner:
    •   I need a time-out. (All discussion must cease at this time.)
    • But, I will be back shortly.
  2. Pursuit of the partner calling the time-out is a “crime,” against the laws of relationships. When one partner needs a time-out, it is not an avoidance of the conflict. It is avoiding an escalation of the conflict. No one can work through conflict when they are highly charged.
  3. During time-out, both partners must satisfy the duty of introspection, trying to grasp the presumption that the problem between the couple is primarily a failure of understanding each other.
  4. Both partners (the one withdrawing and the one withdrawn from) must unilaterally return within 15 minutes.
  5. The partner adjudged to have experienced the greater emotional upset speaks first, with the other assuming their duty to protect the relationship. Although such a determination is clearly subjective, it is usually quite obvious at the beginnings of conflict.
  6. If either partner is thereupon hijacked, another time out is called immediately, and the process repeated, doubling refraction time (time away).
  7. When the partners are able to re-engage on the level of underlying hurt and fear, rather than on the level of anger, the duty to protect as well as the duty to “return to the scene of the crime,” are again triggered. (See our blog post from 2/26/14 for more on “returning to the scene of the crime.”)

If you practice these tips, you too can manage conflict and not allow resentment to grow. This is one of the secrets to a happy and healthy relationship for a lifetime.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on managing conflict. Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments on our Facebook page.

The Secret to Effectively Communicating Your Needs

Which one of these statements would you rather hear?

“I’ve asked you a thousand times to clean up after yourself. I’m not your mother,” OR “I would appreciate you remembering to put your dishes in the dishwasher.”

“All you do is yell and complain that I never do anything right. You are so critical,” OR “When you raise your voice and criticize me, it hurts my feelings.”

“You never share your day with me. It’s like you have another life,” OR “It would mean a lot to me to hear about your workday, so I feel like I’m a part of your everyday life.”

“I asked you to put the shelves up 6 months ago and you never follow through,” OR “When would be a good time to put up the book shelves?”

We often speak in anger when we are unhappy or dissatisfied with something our partner is doing or not doing that upsets us. While this may accomplish venting our frustration, it rarely gets the result we truly desire.

The statements above show two ways of communicating what you need, one in a negative, hostile way and the other in an assertive and direct way.

In times of frustration or anger, the secret to effectively communicating your needs is to own what you need and ask for it directly.

Owning your need means using “I” statements such as, “I need you to,” or “I would appreciate it if,” or “It would mean a lot to me if,” or “It hurts me when you.” The elements of being direct may include stating your need factually without judgment; identifying the behavior you need specifically; and telling the other person the impact their behavior has on you.

It takes patience and practice to change the way you communicate. But the effort is worth it. It can make or break your relationship.

You can change your world by changing your words…Remember, death and life are in the power of the tongue.   – Joel Osteen

We’d love to hear your thoughts on effective communication. Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments on our Facebook page.

7 Steps to Resolve Conflict with Conscious Communication

When couples communicate during conflict their strong emotions often derail the conversation. Accusations and blame beget defensiveness, and the argument escalates from there. Voices get raised; hurtful statements are hurled; emotional temperatures accelerate. Afterwards, people withdraw and separate.

What happens next is the pivotal point that can make or break a relationship. If couples sweep the disagreement under the rug, they will create emotional drift. The couples that come back together and “return to the scene of the crime” to process the argument will be able to resolve the issue and build emotional intimacy.

The skill needed to accomplish resolution is conscious communication, i.e. communication with awareness.

When Lori and I have an argument and “return to the scene of the crime,” we share our perceptions about what happened and what was said. Often times Lori will say, “I felt you weren’t listening to the meaning of what I said.” Or I will say, “I felt like you were yelling at me.” Our partner’s unconscious, automatic response to statements like these is to become defensive, e.g. “I heard every word you said.” Or “I wasn’t yelling.” We are wired to defend when attacked, so left to our own this is what happens.

Conscious communication means recognizing your automatic responses and choosing to reply non-defensively. This involves accepting and validating your partner’s perceptions. I might say, “I’m sorry I didn’t get it. Tell me what the meaning was behind your words,” acknowledging that I must not have received the message she was trying to send me. Lori might say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was raising my voice.”

We don’t challenge the other’s perceptions, even if we don’t agree with each other’s perception.

Does it really matter if I think I understood Lori, if she felt misunderstood? Does it really matter if Lori thought she didn’t yell, if that was how I heard it? No. We accept each other’s perceptions, not as “right” but as “real” to the other person. Then we own our part and move on from there to have a calmer conversation.

Here are the steps to consciously communicate with your partner:

  1. Return to the scene of the crime calm and ready to listen.
  2. Allow your partner to express his/her perceptions fully without interruption.
  3. Validate your partner’s perception even if you disagree.
  4. Own what you did to hurt him/her, whether or not it was intentional.
  5. Apologize genuinely for your part of the hurt.
  6. Thank each other for listening.
  7. Hug.

We’d love to hear your thoughts or answer questions on conscious communication. Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments here or on our Facebook page.

Do You Know How Your Partner Sees You?

How does your partner see you?

  • Strong or fragile
  • Aggressive or passive
  • Caring or cold
  • Clueless or smart
  • Supportive or critical
  • Emotional or rational
  • Trustworthy or suspicious

The “filters” through which we see our partners affect how we perceive their actions, expressions and words; and subsequently affect how we respond. The powerful lenses of perception can have a dramatic impact on our relationships since once you become accustomed to those lenses you may not even be aware of them.

Glen and Toni came to see us after Glen’s heart attack. (Names changed to protect privacy.)

Bob: What brings you here today?

Toni: Two months ago Glen had a heart attack. When the ambulance arrived, the paramedic asked me if Glen had any history of heart problems; I said no. It was only later that I learned Glen’s cardiologist had recently found a heart murmur. I can’t believe he hadn’t told me. Aren’t we supposed to go through everything together?

Bob: That is a pretty important issue to not have discussed. What happened Glen?

Glen: I’ve known Toni for twelve years. She is a worrier and doesn’t handle stress very well. I didn’t tell her to protect her from worrying about me.

Bob: Why do you see Toni as fragile?

Glen: When her dad died suddenly last year she was a wreck – didn’t eat or sleep for weeks. She cried every day for a month. So how could I lay this on her?

Toni: Just because I grieved for my father doesn’t mean I’m weak. I need to know everything about you. I gave the paramedic the wrong information when you had a heart attack.

Glen: I know; I know.

Bob: Glen, what you did was “stereotype” Toni by seeing her through a lens of weakness; and you made a critical decision based upon this.

Toni: What is “stereotyping?”

Bob: Stereotyping is consciously or unconsciously viewing your partner in a way that simplifies and limits how you see him/her. Glen labeled you as “fragile.”  Seeing you through that lens, he withheld vital information from you about his health and avoided his feelings about burdening you.

Stereotyping can be harmful to your relationship since it:

  1. Labels partners simplistically in rigid and unchangeable ways.
  2. Lacks sensitivity to the complexity of humans and the interplay of our thoughts and feelings.
  3. Reduces partners to a caricature as a way of satisfying our need for predictability, security and control in relationships and our world.
  4. Creates judgment and blame.
  5. Compromises the opportunity for mutual problem solving, individual and couples growth and ultimately a deeper connection.

Now ask yourself again, “How does your partner see you?” and “How do you see your partner?”

We’d love to hear your thoughts on stereotyping. Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments on our Facebook page.

Resolve Conflict by “Returning to the Scene of the Crime.”

Happy couples find ways to resolve conflict, rather than allow arguments to continually escalate, or sweep them under the rug. Working through conflict is the most difficult and the most unpleasant job couples have to learn. When you have anger or hurt toward your partner, there is a strong desire to get away from those feelings rather than go back and review them. However, repressed feelings are sure to return at another time, in another form, and possibly in a more intense way.

The only way out of conflict is to go back, i.e. “return to the scene of the crime,” embrace the feelings and methodically walk back through what happened.

When you have conflict it is as if you feel a stabbing pain in your heart, similar to a heart attack. If you had chest pains, would you ignore them or go workout? Of course not. You would have them checked out by your doctor, and treated right away to repair the heart and minimize any further damage.

In relationships, it is no different. When your heart hurts, you are having an “emotional heart attack.” If you ignore the pain in your heart or continue to put more strain on it, the beating of the emotional heart will cease, and the relationship will die. However, if you check it out and treat it right away you can contain and repair the damage.

Every couple has a responsibility or “duty” to protect the health of their emotional heart by practicing the following after an attack:

  1. “Return to the scene of the crime.” After conflict, take a break to calm down, so you can rationally come back and investigate what happened. After 15 minutes ask your partner if he/she is ready to talk. If not, wait another 15 minutes and ask again. Each person has to be responsible for bringing him/herself back to the table to communicate.
  2. Review the facts of the case. Analyze the scene based solely on the chronological, sequential and factual events as they unfolded within the episode in question. Walk through what happened and what was said, “frame by frame,” with each person having a chance to say what he/she was thinking. During this review of the events assignment of blame, or determining right or wrong are forbidden and are considered illegal.
  3. Investigate one another’s feelings. Each person has a chance to describe his/her feelings during the episode. All feelings are accepted and validated as real to the person expressing them. It is illegal to challenge, refute or question the other’s feelings. A better way is to probe further and be curious about feelings that are not understood, for the purpose of clarification.
  4. Identify what “crimes” or hurts occurred. Each partner must “own” and confess his/her role in the crime, and  genuinely apologize for the pain he/she may have created, whether  intentional or unintentional.
  5. Determine how to prevent the crime from happening again. Go back to the scene of the crime and brainstorm ways that each partner  could have handled or approached this or responded differently to increase the likelihood of this not being replayed in the future.

Creating the practice of regularly resolving conflict makes it easier to do. And it will result in their being less conflict and more harmony.

We’d love to support your efforts to resolve conflict. Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments on our Facebook page.

To Your Relationship,
Lori & Bob

7 Steps to Connect & Protect Your Relationship

“Communication, intimacy and trust. Three of the most important ingredients that make a relationship last…without these main staples, a couple can stay together but the relationship will end up being hollow, never reaching that deeper meaning that was created specifically for two people in love.” – Elizabeth Bourgeret

An invisible loving “connection” is the heart and soul of every relationship. It can’t be seen or heard; it can only be felt. Though at first this obscure “connection” feels effortless and powerful, over time it becomes strenuous and fragile. Putting forth effort to communicate, especially when conflict arises, is the best way to perform the “duty” each partner has to protect and fortify the connection.

Communication is the vehicle that allows partners to become intimate – head, heart and hormones. We have identified seven steps for communicating during times of conflict.

Sit in her chair (metaphorically). As your partner expresses strong thoughts and feelings, even if you feel attacked, move from your world of thoughts and feelings to that of your partner’s.

  1. Put your feelings on a shelf. Refrain, during this time, from articulating your own feelings and thoughts, concentrating solely on your partner’s. You’ll have a chance to be heard later.
  2. Just listen. Encourage your partner to articulate her thoughts and feelings, much as a therapist would. Give your partner the gift of uninterrupted time for free expression of thoughts and feelings.
  3. Do not agree or disagree. The goal of actively listening is to deeply understand her thoughts and feelings from her point of view, not to judge or evaluate her feelings.
  4. Validate and affirm your partner’s thinking and feeling. This does not mean agreeing; it means, “I understand that you have these thoughts and feelings and that they are quite real for you.“
  5. Be curious. Ask questions and be genuinely interested in understanding her world; ask about hurt and fear, which always resides beneath anger.
  6. Brace yourself. Prepare for your partner’s anger, directed at you. Even if every cell in your body wants to fight or run away, contain this reaction and keep listening.
  7. Empathize. Your partner will sense that you finally understand, and she is no longer alone with her pain; this moves you closer to what is really “going on” within her.

Now that you have focused on and heard your partner’s perceptions, she must move over to sit in your chair. It’s your turn to be heard, repeating the steps above.

If you each fulfill this duty, a more in depth understanding of yourself, your partner, and the “flow” of the relationship will grow.  The “stereotyping” between partners will weaken and past adversaries will be easier to let go of.

With practice you will arrive at that delicate place where trust can begin to grow anew.  And thus begins your most powerful work in connecting more deeply.  You will find that the very issues that formerly separated the two of you will now serve to unite you.

We’d love to support your efforts to protect your relationship. Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments on our Facebook page.

To Your Relationship,
Lori & Bob

VALENTINE MEN

It is not that most men fail to make this a special day. Some pull out all the stops and make it a time of unique closeness and connection. We men can display a love we do indeed feel so deeply inside.

But for VALENTINE MEN, when “V-Day” wears thin and concludes there emerges a great danger as our normal routine descends upon us.  For after the sudden outpouring out of our hearts and upsurge of “genuine and real connection,” there occurs a corresponding fading of this closeness just as quickly.

Why after all our efforts, care, diligent preparation, and attentiveness, bringing us to the very love we so deeply crave – - why then do we withdraw?

I think the answer may lie with VALENTINE MEN falling back upon their penchant for habitually constructing and maintaining invisible walls throughout the year.

Why do we do this to ourselves and to our partner?  Why do we need to continue to erect “castles of separation” serving only as our prison.  Could it be our fear of what continued closeness and vulnerability may bring?

For those who have never experienced such a world – both its promises and its perils – this concern really makes a lot of sense, for such a world may seem quite alien and unpredictable.

But we shall never really know what such a world has to offer, unless VALENTINE MEN face these fears of intimacy.  Do we have the courage to experience what exists just beyond our fears?

Hopefully our partners will continue to believe in us – to comprehend our difficulties when it comes to feelings and vulnerability.  Hopefully they will remain steadfast in their dreams; and hopefully our psychological absence will not too quickly wither our relationship and drive our partner to a place from which they will not return, despite our most futile efforts.

VALENTINE MEN actually tread on very thin ice, and remain unaware of terrible misfortune that may be fast approaching.

We must overcome our apprehensions and reverse our direction “post V-Day.”  We must endeavor to preserve the connection we have broached and utilize it as an essential foundation for deeper connection throughout the year.  And if we want to persist in our quest for this deeper connection, we must continue to do “connecting things.”

So VALENTINE MEN, I challenge you to maintain and reinforce your efforts, to honestly look deeply inward, to proactively affirm your love by making your partner the priority which she truly is.  But, needless to say, this will not be easy, for no relationship worth keeping ever is, and it is a “narrow and demanding road that leads back to your partner.”

We’d love to support your efforts to reinforce your relationship. Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments on our Facebook page.

To Your Relationship,
Lori & Bob

How Valentine’s Day Can Be the “New Years” of Love

How intimate is your relationship on the levels of head, heart and hormones? With Valentine’s Day approaching, love is in the air. It’s a great reminder to check in with your partner and talk about ways you would like to connect more deeply.

Having an upbeat and positive conversation with your partner about the three levels of connection – Head, Heart and Hormones, is a great way to take charge of increasing your intimacy. Instead of complaining about what you’re not getting, frame your conversation by asking each other what you would like more of.

Here are some questions to get you started:

Head – What do you like about the way we communicate? How would you like us to more deeply share intimate thoughts and feelings?

Heart – In what ways are you receiving love from me the way you want it? How would you like to be loved more?

Hormones – What is fulfilling about our sexual connection? How could we make it even better?

Think of Valentine’s Day as the “New Years” of love – a time to assess how we have loved and been loved over the last year and what we will do to improve it this year.

After this conversation, write down what each of you will consciously do more of and commit to making some positive changes. Small changes can make a big difference.

Remember, love is a verb. When you consciously do acts of love, your intimacy and connection will grow.

“So it’s not gonna be easy. It’s gonna be really hard. We’re gonna have to work at this every day, but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever, you and me, every day…”

Ryan Gosling, The Notebook

We wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day and a happy new year of love!

We’d love to hear how this works for you! Write to us at info@RelationshipsWork.com or post your comments on our Facebook page.

To Your Relationship,
Lori & Bob