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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Provocation: Killer of Communication

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2011 15 Nov
Provocation: Killer of Communication

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The thirty-something year old couple sitting in my office were having a very good session. Jennifer had been sharing calmly about her need for her husband Tad, to spend less time with his friends and more time with her and their new daughter. He seemed to receive her requests easily. She spoke seriously, but with respect, and he seemed comfortable with her approach. While he had been reluctant to come to counseling, he seemed to warm to the process and was perhaps even enjoying it.

"I know I've been immature," Tad said non-defensively. "I like my friends, but spend too much time away from Jen and our daughter. I get that."

Suddenly, without notice, the tone changed.

"If you get it, why do you keep spending so much time with your buddies?" Jen snapped.

Tad bristled at the question, as I wondered what might happen next. He paused, mulling over how to respond.

"I guess I like spending time with them," he said. "Why else would I get together with them?"

"You enjoy spending tme with them more than with me and your daughter?" Jen said with an obvious bite in her voice.

"No," Tad shot back. "Not more than spending time with you."

"Well, I'd think you'd want to spend more time with your new daughter," Jennifer said sarcastically.

"This is why I wasn't sure about coming here," Tad said looking at me. "This is what I get for improving my actions."

So much for a calm couple, model husband and wife, and casual counseling session. In just a few short moments, Jennifer and Tad had effectively turned a cooperative relationship into a combative one, causing me to think quickly about how to bring things back into control.

"Jennifer," I said. "Did you notice the impact of what you just said? Did you see the impact of your provocative statement?"

She shot an angry glance at me.

"You don't know how many days and evenings he's left me sitting alone with our daughter when he's out playing golf with his buddies and then having dinner with them afterwards," she blurted. "I sit home with our daughter. He wanted a child too. It wasn't all my idea you know."

"I'm sure you're disappointed in him," I said, "but I thought he just said he understood the importance of changing."

"Words," she said dryly. "We'll see if he follows through."

Tad decided to jump into the fray.

"If you don't trust me, maybe I'll just stay away more."

"Yeah, that will really fix things won't it," Jennifer retorted.

"Folks," I said firmly. "We need to take a look at what just happened. We were having a cooperative session with agreements being made. Then, suddenly things shifted and we need to understand how that happens."

"I'd love it if you can help us figure that one out," Tad said. "We can go from zero to crazy in about ten seconds. Beats me what happens."

What did happen? How did Jennifer and Tad go from cooperation to combat in a few seconds? I encouraged them to take a very close look, and perhaps what they discovered will help you as well. Here is what we discovered:

• Jennifer had pent-up anger and chose a very poor way of expressing it;
• Tad responded to her provocation with provocation of his own;
• Neither saw the warning signs or took action to stop the angry outburst;
• Their conversation escalated into an argument.

The Apostle James aptly said the tongue has the power to destroy. "Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark." (James 3:5) Jennifer's comment was hardly anything new for her. She and Tad shared how they spoke this way with regularity, always with the same destructive "fire-setting" results.

Provocation: an act or word that incites a particular response. In this case, the use of an accusation, ("If you get it, why do you keep spending time with your buddies?") that provokes a response. Notice that Jennifer's question is not asked in kindness or for information. She attacks Tad, and while at first he is able to contain himself, he quickly succumbs to counter-attack.

Someone has said that we can determine the direction of a conversation within the first thirty seconds. While this is generally true, it is also true that a couple can be having a perfectly healthy, comfortable conversation and have it turn instantly by someone's provocation. Again, notice something—provocation by its very definition incites a response, often negative. It takes tremendous willpower, maturity and insight not to bite back after someone's biting attack.

What can you do if provocation has become part of your conversation? Here are a few ideas:

One, become more aware of your use of provocative language. You will not be able to eradicate it from your relationship if you don't see it. Agree with your mate that you will be on the lookout for words that have a bite to them.

Two, agree to eliminate them from your vocabulary. Pay close attention to words that are assaultive, demeaning, insulting or shaming. Be especially on guard for words that imply someone "should" have done something different/ better. Shame is powerfully provocative.

Third, don't bite on another's provocation. Yes, this is difficult to do, but with enough practice you can "let it go." Watch for the provocation, make note of it and let it fly by. Choose how you want to respond.

Finally, agree to lovingly call this behavior out. Gently point out to your mate that you feel provoked by what they have just said. Ask them kindly if they might say what they intend to say in a more loving manner. Let them know you will be much more receptive to it if said differently. 

What are some additional ways not to get hooked by provocation? Let's discuss this issue.

Originally posted January 12, 2010.

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recovery Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and When Pleasing Others is Hurting You. 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. You can also find Dr. Hawkins on Facebook and Twitter.