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You know how it can go—a sharp word, a wince, a quick but perfectly aimed retort, and there you go—like a row of dominoes crashing down.
One couple I worked with recently during a Marriage Intensive said:
"We seem so competitive with each other. He tells me about the car he's buying and if I say anything to disagree with him, he gets testy. I don't start out meaning anything by it, but he's so competitive."
"What do you think about that?" I asked the man.
"I don't think of it as competitive," he said. "She's critical but doesn't see it. She thinks she's just telling me something, but there's always a bite in it. She says hurtful things or is trying to control me. I don't want to be micro-managed, and I tell her so."
"You see?" she said quickly. "That's competitiveness. He's so competitive."
I could sense things quickly escalating out of control, though the couple seemed unaware they were heading into quicksand.
"Do you folks notice what is happening?" I asked. "Can you feel the change of tone in our conversation?"
"Yes," she said. "This is what I mean about him getting competitive."
He rolled his eyes and let out a huge sigh. I watched her to see if she showed any signs of what she was doing to escalate their conversation. She didn't. I watched to see if he could see his part. He couldn't.
We've all been there, done that. We've had Tiny Little Disagreements (TLD's) that quickly escalated into huge blowups, and sat wondering how we got there.
Consider this email from a frustrated man:
Dear Dr. David. My wife and I can't seem to talk about anything without it leading to a larger disagreement. Why can't we seem to talk about the smallest things without it leading to a fight? I'm sick of fighting and I'm sure she is too. When things are good, they are very good. But when we slip into these fights, they are bad. Please help us keep the small things in perspective.
There are thousands of couples who don't recognize or understand how they let a Tiny Little Disagreement (TLD) lead to a larger fight. Because they don't understand the part they play in the process, they feel powerless to change it. This feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness can lead many to abandon their marriage, believing something is drastically wrong with the relationship, when in fact they simply haven't learned the art of keeping a TLD a TLD!
Let's learn how to do this!
First, problems will happen, and we need to anticipate them. Don't be surprised when problems develop in your relationship. Anytime two objects, or beings, come into contact with one another there will be friction. Don't expect unending times of bliss, though certainly there will be times of intimacy and wonderful connection.
Second, watch carefully how problems develop and your response to them. Problems don't occur in a vacuum. The way you talk to your mate, and their response to you, creates problems. These problems can be predictable, and since they are predictable, they are largely preventable. BUT, you must know how they develop and this requires a keen eye on your relational process. Notice how you talk to each other; times when you judge and shame each other; times when you speak disrespectfully. Replace these troubling behaviors with words of encouragement and respect, even during conflict.
Third, rehearse talking about issues without emotional voltage. Perfect practice makes perfect, and this goes for dealing with conflict. TLD's will remain TLD's only if you learn to talk about issues when they are small, not allowing them to fester and grow. Practice talking about issues when you are able to do so with moderate emotion, rather then intense anger. If you're already angry, drain off the anger before going to your mate.
Fourth, don't try to deal with issues all at once, or even necessarily at the time they develop. Healthy conflict involves talking about one issue at a time. Paper-clipping one issue to another is a sure way to create chaos. Our brains cannot handle too much emotion, and talking about several issues at once overloads our brains. Keep talks clear, calm, concise and conciliatory.
Fifth, keep problems in perspective. Most problems can be whittled down to bite-sized proportions. Most often couples really can find a place of agreement, keeping you on the same team rather than shifting to an adversarial position—certain to take a TLD and making it into a monumental problem.
Sixth, talk about problems assertively, with good boundaries. Talking about problems can be HARD, and that's a good thing.
H—talk about issues honestly;
A---talk about issues appropriately;
R---talk about issues respectfully;
D---talk about issues directly.
Finally, remember the good times. Every couple has problems, but problems can be counter-balanced by remembering, and actually rehearsing, the good times. Your marriage isn't over if you have a bad fight. The grass isn't greener and you CAN learn to keep Tiny Little Problems, Tiny Little Problems.
I'd like to hear your opinions about TLD's. Please send me your responses.
June 21, 2010
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. 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.