How a couple deals with relationship conflict may be the single best measure to the success of that relationship. The reason is simple; it’s those raw moments that typically reveal who we are as individuals, and as couples. We can’t hide harsh tempers or judgmental natures, sharp tongues or condescending attitudes in the midst of severe and passionate disagreements.
On my laundry list of overdue personal development needs, dulling a sharp mouth is near the top. In the blink of an eye I can go from expressing understanding and acceptance to spewing selfishness and intolerance. I’m not certain where this habit came from; best I can guess it’s a birthright passed down from the men in my life. My father and maternal grandfather both held personas that made disappointing either the worst thing imaginable. You wanted nothing more than to please them. This is because anytime they weren’t; you might well be cut down for the mistake. It wasn’t through verbal abuse or personal attacks. It was merely their razor sharp tone and how they expressed that discontent making you want to crawl under a rock. I can best describe it as an overwhelming gust of impatience and frustration for not living up to what they imagined possible, or more likely, what they would have achieved had they done it themselves. I’ve inherited this trait in its undiluted form, nearly as raw and pure as if it came overnight FedEx.
It’s typically unleashed whenever I am on the defensive or trying to prove what I believe is an unquestionable point. It’s my way of leveling the field or crushing the competition, and I’ve witnessed the recoil from my children, coworkers, and the Queen when the ugliness surfaces. Most go into immediate shutdown or hiding for fear of provoking the beast further. This leads to more frustration and impatience on my part because it quickly stifles further conversation. No one cares to listen to or talk with an A-hole.
Being a predisposed trait, the Queen witnessed it early in our relationship and by Providence didn’t leave because of it. Instead, she has assumed the thankless task of counseling me on keeping the beast under control. I’ve still got much to learn.
In this series we have considered how a remarriage, which results in a blended family, is destined to experience issues that a nuclear (or traditional) family can’t fathom. While every couple may struggle with cash, complacency, and children, when those dangers are planted in the soil of a second marriage, bad things often grow. This makes the relationship ripe for conflict to flourish.
I think most divorced people contemplating remarriage have this generally rose-colored notion that they have learned the lessons from their prior marriage and divorce. They are convinced they know enough now not to repeat the same mistakes again. I may be guiltier of that than anyone. It looks like this, because I have worked so diligently to move beyond my divorce, I believe I have moved beyond whatever may have led to it. The problem with this way of thinking is it’s naive and stupid. It leaves me unprepared for when inevitable issues arise and conflict ensues, which by the way is natural and at times healthy. No amount of planning, regardless of how self aware I may believe I am, will prevent old habits, and the conflict that follows, from seeping into a new marriage.
Notwithstanding the universal assumption that ‘communication’ is the solution for every relationship ill, managing conflict in a marriage or relationship is tantamount to the secret ingredient. Appreciating its importance has necessitated the need to be much more intentional about conflict in my own new marriage, which wasn’t even on the radar in my first one.
This started by recognizing how the Queen handles conflict herself, which flies directly in the face of that mouthy trait of mine. Being someone who balks at unreasonable or surprise aggression and would rather avoid conflict altogether, her style is contrasted by my own. Living for over two decades in corporate America, in management, I’m as comfortable with conflict as I am sitting in front of the fire. Being opposites of each other, this has meant her and I must move outside our default conflict positions if we hope to resolve the source of that issue. In truth, I’ve had the greatest distance to travel.
Each couple must not only understand the importance of communication in managing conflict, they need to have a clear appreciation for how each other works through those intense problems. If she leans into the disagreement while he would prefer to lean away from all friction, the result will be a relationship that spins it wheels and achieves nothing. It’s been my experience and observation that when it comes to conflict, men have the heaviest lifting. Considering the high probability that our own fathers, if they were around at all, were equally weak in the area of conflict management, we had no positive models to learn from. This inherent problem seems best illustrated in the reoccurring theme of ‘verbal abuse’ by a husband for the primary cause of marital discord and ultimate divorce.
As men, we can’t simply put a stake in the sand to be better communicators, and be satisfied that since will listen to her and tell her what’s on our mind, that our problems are resolved. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned the hard way that how we say something may be more important that what we say, which makes my earlier character shortcoming all the more troubling.
For most of us, and by us I am talking directly to men, the best place to begin is by asking our spouse or partner to describe how we manage conflict and the impact it has on them, which may require resuscitation at her initial fainting . Since they are the recipients, good or bad, there is no better mirror. Are we too harsh or demeaning? Are we more interested in winning the argument or solving the problem? Do we exhibit patience and grace, or impatience and cruelty? Are we quick to apologize when crossing the line or do we make excuses and turn the attention elsewhere? If there was one thing they would like to see changed about how we handle conflict, if so what would that be?
This represents the level intentionality that’s necessary, especially by us men, if we hope to keep conflict from making our marriage just another statistic. When talking about conflict in a relationship, the best place to start isn’t with ‘you’ or ‘we’ – it’s with ‘me’.
Click here to read the other essays in this five part series.