Communication Conflicts: The Dangers of Story-Starters
- Dr. David Hawkins Director of the Marriage Recovery Center
- 2008 10 Oct
Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to him at: TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
Every marriage has its ups and downs. That is to be expected. Some relationships seem to have more times of crisis than peace and harmony. Why is there such tension, you wonder?
During the worst of times the tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. You walk on eggshells, hoping not to make him/ her angry. You hope and pray for the best, wishing whatever has possessed your mate will disappear and you can have your mate back. All you want is a normal marriage. Is that too much to expect?
One of the primary reasons for conflict is story-starters—provocative statements of blame and criticism that start arguments. During difficult times, your mate blames you and you blame them. You “bite” on their angry attacks. You slip into non-productive conversations, wondering what happened. You feel like you’re going crazy because you can’t figure out exactly what’s going on. Are you really as bad as they make you out to be? Are you really the reason they threaten to leave?
As you survey the past, using a fine-toothed comb, you find times when you could have handled things differently. You’re certainly guilty of some wrong-doing. You’ve taken responsibility and apologized, but your apologies go unaccepted. What else can you do?
End the story-starters.
Ending your part in story-starting is a powerful tool, useful whether you are getting along fabulously or fighting like cats and dogs. I owe this concept to a client who is hoping his mate won’t leave, following months of threats to do so. He has become an expert at side-stepping story-starters.
Let’s imagine a possible scene from a man and wife, where she has moved out, but they have occasional contact. She feels angry about a bill he sent to her. It goes like this:
Wife: “I got the bill you sent me. Why did you send it to me? It’s your bill. You know I can’t afford this payment.”
Husband: “I sent it to you because you agreed to pay that bill. Don’t you remember?”
Wife: “I didn’t agree to pay it. Here you go again. This is the kind of stuff that drives me crazy. You’ve done this to me the whole twenty years we’ve been married.”
Feeling defensive and confused as to how to respond, the husband over-reacts.
Husband: “C’mon. The whole twenty years? We never fought about money the whole twenty years we’ve been married.”
Wife: “What about right before we separated? You tried to talk me into paying more than I could afford on the bills. How about five years ago when we had to file for bankruptcy? What about two years ago? It’s a pattern you don’t want to see.”
Husband: “Look, I don’t really want to fight about all this.”
Wife: “Right. And that’s why you sent me the bill, huh?”
And so it goes. One person launches a provocative attack catching the unsuspecting partner unaware, and the fight is on.
Let’s look at this interaction critically.
The husband in this case feels hurt and resentful about his wife moving out. The wife is tired of fighting as well, but can’t contain the resentment she feels for him allowing it to leak out at any and every opportunity and keeping him spinning in confusion and frustration. She feels hurt and upset about a bill being sent to her, but instead of sharing her feelings in a reasonable manner, she launches a story-starter.
I got the bill you sent me. Why did you send it to me? It’s your bill. You know I can’t afford this payment...This is the kind of stuff that drives me crazy. You’ve done this to me the whole twenty years we’ve been married...
Neither make progress at containing their emotion or conflict. Both react to story-starters. Both get “hooked” by the other’s barbs and provocations, taking them further and further from the peace and harmony they once knew.
Here is another example of a story-starter from a man struggling with the separation from his wife.
Dear Dr. David: I'm a lost soul. My wife of 19 years recently explained to me she has fallen in love with a family friend. We are now in the process of divorce. I never dreamed this would ever happen to me. I trusted in the promise to love for better or worse but now I must accept the reality that my wife doesn't love me anymore and wants to move on as she has moved in with her new man and our children. I'm supposed to just go on for the good of the children.
I've tried to do this but I miss my wife. When my wife talks to me, I know I react to things she says. She says things angrily and then I respond with the same tone, only adding to our tension. I am so filled with hurt and anger, and she seems so spiteful to me. I can’t stand the way she treats me, and it hurts to see her with this other man. We are both Christians. Should I just quietly move on, or should I call her out about what is right and wrong? When I tell her what she is doing is wrong, she gets even angrier with me. What should I do? ~ Hurt and Confused
Your wife has moved out and is with another man. Whatever has happened leading to this is in the past, but what you can control now is the present and how you interact with her.
One powerful way to change your interactions is to avoid getting hooked by story-starters—which are provocative statements tempting you to react in a negative manner. Story-starters are usually critical in nature, and our natural tendency is to counter-react, or offer a defensive response. This kind of reacting will not work! It is like adding gasoline to a fire—only further damage will be done.
You must anticipate story-starters, be prepared for them and be able to respond in a healthy manner. This, of course, is easier said than done. But, you must learn how to do it. A few guidelines may help:
1. When she criticizes or attacks you, take a moment before you respond. Never react impulsively. Watch for her attacks, imagining them flying over your head.
2. Never defend yourself. Empathize with her feelings, but don’t launch into your defense. This won’t help. Don’t go down those rabbit trails.
3. Never counter-attack, which is simply another form of defense. You are responsible for your behavior, and she is responsible for hers.
4. Stick with the main issue. Focusing on one issue at a time, stick with the solution, not the problem. Attempt to guide the conversation toward the here and now, and what can be done about the problem.
5. Set boundaries with her. Don’t allow her to vent her feelings on you. Share with her that you want to stick to issues, and seek solutions. If unable to do so without eruptions, let her know you cannot work on these problems without professional help.
6. Don’t criticize her unless she invites you to offer your opinion. Yes, this is nearly impossible to do given the circumstances. But let’s face it. Unless she is receptive to hearing your feelings and thoughts, what you say will be perceived as an attack and will only increase the distance between you.
7. Seek support. Find a helpful friend, pastor or therapist with whom you can vent and explore your feelings. Your wife is no longer the person with whom you can share your feelings.
Story-starters! Nothing can send a normal conversation spiraling out of control faster than provocative, angry statements. You can learn to anticipate, manage and reverse the negative effects of these critical barbs. And yes, one person can change the direction of a conversation.
Let us know how you’ve effectively managed story-starters.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center which you can read more about on his website at www.YourRelationshipDoctor.com. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.