Beware of the Shift!

Dr. David B. Hawkins

“Are you two ready to put this issue behind you?” I asked the couple anxiously. They had practiced some of the communication tools we had been rehearsing but still seemed quite contentious.

“Yes,” Tim and Sondra said in unison, relieved after nearly 20 minutes of bickering over Tim’s recent anger outburst, which had left Sondra hurt and reeling. To Tim’s credit, he had taken responsibility for saying hurtful things and had apologized. Sondra said she had forgiven him.

No sooner had they agreed to move forward then Sondra, apparently not completely finished with the issue, picked it back up again. I was surprised, as was Tim.

“I’m willing to let it go,” Sondra said haltingly, “but I just don’t understand why he said those things to me in the first place.”

Bam! There it was. The deadly SHIFT! The moment when conversing becomes contentious. The SHIFT when accommodating becomes accusatory. The SHIFT when compassion become complaining.

Tim started to respond, but I stopped him.

“Are you folks sure you want to rehash this issue?” I asked. “It seems like this will take you back into arguing.”

“I just don’t understand why he said what he said,” Sondra stated again.

While it is easy for me, as a bystander, to notice this SHIFT, it is much less apparent to those who are in the middle of it.

Perhaps this is the case for you. You may not notice when you move from The Sanctuary to The Courtroom, from loving encounters to bitter battles. Sometimes it is readily apparent, sometimes not. However, it is critical that every couple be able to recognize when they are no longer in a reconciling mood and take appropriate precautionary action.

I looked back at Sondra. “Can you see how your question of Tim will take you back into arguing?”

“I just want to know why he would say those hurtful things,” she exclaimed innocently.

“Yes,” I said. “But asking that kind of question has an accusatory bite to it. It will put Tim back on the defense, and then no matter how he answers you, you’ll be in an argumentative state.”

Sondra and Tim didn’t fully understand what I was saying. They had yet to fully discover their patterns, and still needed to learn how they could easily provoke the other.

Scripture, of course, has a lot to say about contention and quarreling. Solomon said, “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop a matter before a dispute breaks out” (Proverbs 17:14). Imagine the breaching of a dam—floodwaters rushing out, destroying everything in its path. This is much the same as a contentious spirit. Contention becomes provocative, inciting anger, defensiveness and arguing.

Here are some further considerations regarding The SHIFT:

One, we must become experts at noticing The Shift. Each of us must recognize when we are no longer able to listen to our mate. It is our responsibility to manage our emotions so we bring our Best Self to the conversation. We must be in an emotional state to completely listen. When we are no longer able to effectively listen, we must share this with our mate.

Two, we must end all provocation. Much of the time we believe we are talking reasonably, when in fact we are accusatory and provocative. There is a bite in our voice. We are making a complaint without realizing it. We believe we are in a space to talk, when in fact we feel defensive and hurt, ready to defend ourselves or attack our mate. 

Three, when provocative, we must take responsibility for it and apologize. Much can be remedied if we quickly take note of our attitude and actions and apologize. Likewise, we need to note when our mate is provocative and gently -- and this is critical -- bring this to their attention. “Could you say that a little differently” can be a gentle nudge in a better direction.

Four, know when to drop an issue. Too many couples argue an issue to death. They engage in power struggles when it is best to simply agree to disagree, or honor the validity of the others position. No one needs to be "right" and certainly no one needs to be proved "wrong." Let the matter go and learn to live in harmony.

Finally, celebrate peacefulness. Be a peacemaker in your relationships. Even when feeling wronged or attacked, choose peace. Even when feeling provoked, choose peace. Listen carefully to what your mate may be trying to say, even if not said in the most effective manner. Be an effective listener and most important, stay away from The Shift!

Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website and You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

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 Life90 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.

Publication date: June 5, 2012