Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

How to Fight Fair (Part 1 of 2)

How to Fight Fair (Part 1 of 2)

Husband-and-wife counseling team Les and Leslie Parrott illustrate how healthy conflict can strengthen marriage and offer practical advice for couples on learning how to fight fair. (Part 1 of 2)
Original Air Date: February 18, 2002



Man #1: My wife and I fight probably the most over home improvement.

Woman #1: Miscommunication.

Woman #2: Probably over chores.

Man #2: That I feel threatened by the situation.

Woman #3: Sadly, he lost his job recently, and so it’s like, “Please don’t spend any money.” And then I see something hit the checking account, and I’m like, “Grrr!”

End of Teaser

John Fuller: There are a lot of reasons that couples disagree, but so many of us shy away from conflict or just try to avoid it altogether. As you’re gonna hear though, conflict can actually strengthen your relationship. This is Focus on the Family, your host is Focus President, Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, our guests today are Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, and we’ll be hearing a very engaging presentation where they’ll share some funny stories from their own marital spats – that’s always interesting – and eventually these things drew them closer together. And they’ll describe that for us.

And I know for me, my personality, you know, sometimes I can barb and jab verbally. And – and you know, I know that, but it’s almost like those words are falling out of your mouth. You’re trying to catch ‘em as they’re going.

John: Yeah there’s a – there’s a little warning that says, “Don’t try this at home.”


Jim: Yeah, don’t do this. And I mean, it’s amazing. Even though we know the right things to do, how often do we still do the wrong thing? And I think what Les and Leslie are gonna share this time will really help us – equip us, really, to be better at catching those words before they escape your mouth.

John: Well the Parrotts speak at conferences in 40 cities a year, so a lot of married couples have benefitted from their wisdom. And Les Parrott is a clinical psychologist. Leslie is a marriage and family therapist. They’ve been married since 1984 and have two sons. And here now are Les and Leslie Parrott at one of their seminars, discussing the good and the not-so-good kinds of conflict in marriage.


Les Parrott: We’re here to talk about conflict.

Leslie Parrott: Yes, we are.

Les: How do you fight a good fight? In fact, we might as well ask it. What do you guys fight about? Just holler it out. What do you fight about? Money.

Leslie: Money.


Les: That is actually the number one thing…

Leslie: Yes, it is.

Les: …that couples fight about, more than any other topic, money. What else? Sex. Who said sex? Stand up, if you would.


Les: I’d like to hear a little bit more about that. What else? Money, sex. Kids, all right. I’ll identify with that. Time, how we spend our time. Isn’t it true, we fight about anything and everything? I mean, you know, how you drive. You know? “Get in the left lane!” “I am in the left lane!” You know, that kind of stuff? We fight about – it takes very little for the “fur” to fly in most marriages. In fact, you’re gonna think we were making this up. We were in a counseling session not long ago, talking with a couple…

Leslie: True.

Les: …and they were having a fight – continual fight – because she did not like the way he breathed.


Les: That’s the truth. That’s when we knew we’d fight about anything and everything.

Leslie: We had one of those times early in our marriage. It was a weekend away with our good friends, Randy and Pam, to the city of San Francisco. Now, for all four of us, we had never been to that great city. We are so excited. We’re having this time off. So the first thing we do, we pull into the city and we go right for the cable car station because we think, “Of course, that’s it. That’s what you do. You get the view of the city.” So here we are, and we’re waiting. And of course, it’s this long line. It’s a gorgeous sunny day and you know, we’re trying to have fun in line, but we’re impatient. Finally, Les, who is rather Type A personality in his style, he says, “You know, I don’t really think we need to be waiting in this line. I’m pretty sure if we just go up to the top of this hill, we can catch a cable car without waiting down here at the station.”

Les: They said, “Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?” I said, “Oh yeah, I know what I’m talking about.” And uh, you know, I’d seen the Rice-A-Roni commercials. I knew you could do this.


Leslie: So we’re very trusting. You know, we all trudge up the hill and we are waiting on the street corner and not long, Randy and Les turn to Pam and to me and they say, “Okay, you know, girls, are you ready? Are you ready for this?” We’re thinking, “Well, yeah. I mean, we’ve been waiting in line. We want to ride the cable cars. Isn’t that obvious?” But what we don’t realize…

Les: Let me just say – interrupt you just for a second. How many of you have ridden a cable car in San Francisco? Okay. You’ve all done something we haven’t done. I just want to clear that up.


Les: I just want to get that clear right at the top.

Leslie: So, you know, here comes this cable car zooming by. Well, Les and Randy understand the program; we do not. You know this. They don’t stop. They just kind of zoom by. They have to slow down at the crest of the hill and if you’re lucky, you can leap on, you know. All the people that waited at the station are already on the car, both hanging out and in. And if you can, you know, make a place for yourself, you can do it. So here comes the first cable car. We all scramble. Randy and Les make it on, of course. Pam and I don’t even come close. I mean, we didn’t even hit the cable car. So, they, you know, they’re all the way up two or three blocks away and they look back and go, “Oh, wonder where the, you know, our wives are?” And we’re kind of waving. And so…

Les: It – it dawns on us, they didn’t understand. You have to push people off in order to get on real quick.


Leslie: So they come back and we kind of regroup and you know, “Leslie, Pam, do you understand this? And let’s try this again.” And so we all revved up and Pam I are, you know ready and we’re gonna make a leap for it and we can do this. So here comes the next cable car. Well, Pam’s right in front of me and we all go to make a leap. She’s right in front of me, though and she slips. And when she hits the cable car and falls down, you know and so, I’m scrambling out of the way. Les jumps off. Tries to, you know, move her out of harm’s way.

Les: Randy doesn’t notice. Randy’s halfway up the hill…

Leslie: No, he’s oblivious.

Les: …before he realizes his wife has fallen off.

Leslie: So, here’s Pam now and you know, we wave Randy back. And now, she’s got a hole in her jeans. She’s got a bloody knee, you know, this whole thing.

Les: Randy comes back. She’s still sitting on the ground. Randy comes back to her and says, “Pam, are you okay?” And she says, “I don’t know. I – I guess so.” And so, Randy looks at me and goes, “Good, let’s catch the next car when it comes along.”


Leslie: Now, at this point, Les can see the fear in my face. My idea of vacation is not a bloody knee, you know? And so…

Les: I didn’t just see it on her face. I mean, she was telling me, “I’m scared to death. I’m not gonna do this.” And so, I just thought she needed some advice and I told her, “Listen. All you’ve gotta do is trust me.”


Les: I said, “I have made it on two out of two times.”


Les: I said, “All you gotta do is trust me.” I said, “As a matter of fact, just hold my arm when this next thing comes along.” So she says, “Oh, I guess. Okay.” And so this is the third time around. You with me guys? Third time. The car comes along. We jump onto this thing. I grab onto this pole and as I do so, Leslie’s going, “We’re not gonna make it. We’re not gonna make it.” And I’m saying, “Look, we’ve made it. I just pushed that guy off the thing. We’re here,” you know?


Les: And she’s saying, “No,” and she starts to pull me off, saying, “We’re not gonna make it. This isn’t safe.” And I said, “Listen, we’ve made it.” And she pulls me off of this car. I am so frustrated. You understand, we have spent half of our vacation now trying to get on this thing.

Leslie: The quick way.

Les: Yeah, and I am so frustrated. I just say the very first thing that registers in my mind and it just, you know, popped in there. I just – I yelled out at the top of my lungs. I looked at her and I said, “I have a brain, you know?” I just thought it was important people understand that.


And everybody’s cranking their necks to see who has the brain, you know?


And then the next thing that popped into my mind I hollered out, too. I said, “All you had to do was trust me!” And Leslie uttered back something that I’ll never ever let her forget in our marriage. You remember what you said, of course?

Leslie: Yes, of course. And you know, at this point, the tears are bubbling up, you know, so my voice is breaking. I don’t know how this came out, but I said, “Well, to be honest, I trust God for my safety, but I don’t trust you.”


Leslie: And so…

Les: People are really cranking their necks now as they – “Who’s the theological couple with the big brain?”


Les: Randy and Pam were coming back towards us when we were in the middle of this…

Leslie: Yes.

Les: …discussion and they kind of heard that and then just turned on their heels and walked the other way, you know. (LAUGHTER)

Leslie: And we never rode the cable cars.

Les: No, not to this day.

Leslie: And never have.

Les: Probably never will. A lot of warm memories there. But I don’t know, maybe – maybe you don’t have fights like that. I hope you don’t, uh, but we all fight, isn’t it true? I mean, we – it’s just a part of married life. If you’re – if you’re together long enough, you’re gonna have some tension. You’re gonna have some conflicts. And if you don’t, it’s because you’re tiptoeing around on things and you’re not genuine with each other, right? We all have conflicts. In fact, my favorite verse in all of Scripture on conflict, Romans 12, is it 18?

Leslie: Eighteen.

Les: And it says this: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, try to live at peace with everyone.” Isn’t that a good verse? If it’s possible – you know why I like – I love that verse because I don’t know of another verse in all of Scripture that has more qualifiers in it than that verse. “If it’s possible, as far as it depends on you, try, do what you can, you know?” But you can expect conflict to be a part of married life. It’s just there. I love what the great philosopher, Phyllis Diller said.


Les: She said, “Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.”


Les: Pretty good advice.

John: You’re listening to Les and Leslie Parrott on Focus on the Family. And you can get their book on this topic, called, The Good Fight, when you make a generous donation of any amount to this ministry. Just call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY – 800-232-6459. Or donate and request your book at

Let’s go ahead and return now to Les and Leslie Parrott.

Les: Carl Jung said something with a little more insight. He said, “Conflict is like fire.” He says, “It has two aspects: that of burning and that of shedding light.” And what we want to do with the time that we have with you this morning, as we kick this whole day off, is to kind of roll up our sleeves and talk about how do you fight a fair fight, a good fight? How do you do that? And we want to give you some new tools for doing that. In fact, what we want to do before we even give them to you, is help you identify what are you already good at when it comes to fighting a good fight? My hunch is everybody in here is pretty good at one thing or another when it comes to resolving conflict.

Uh, let’s hear from you. What do you guys do well when it comes to fighting a good fight? Somebody share with us what you do? Yeah, right over here. What do you do?

Audience member #1: Stick to the point.

Les: Stick to the point.

Leslie: Oh, good. That’s important.

Les: Really important because sometimes people fall into a trap.

Leslie: Yeah, in fact, we have a word for it as counselors. We call is “kitchen sinking.” You know, you get an argument going and then you just start bringing up everything you’ve been mad about and haven’t talked about and throw it all in there.

Les: “In 1974, remember what you did?” What else do you guys do well? Yeah, over here.

Audience member #2: Stay in the ring.

Les: Stay in the ring. What do you mean?

Audience member #2: Stay and work it out.

Les: You don’t check out and withdraw and get to that stonewalling stage. That’s great.

Leslie: That’s great.

Les: Good. If you know how to fight a good fight, you can use conflict to your advantage. And rather than allow it to burn up your love life, allow it to enhance that. And boy, I can’t think of any of us that don’t need to learn how to do that.

Leslie: In fact, and I loved that picture of conflict as fire, because it really is that powerful. It can burn up a relationship and it also can shed light and increase intimacy. And we know that. In fact, at the university where we teach in Seattle – Seattle Pacific University – it’s on a canal and right across the canal from us is a little place affectionately known as “The Love Lab.” And it’s where the work of a premier researcher in the area of conflict in marriage takes place, Dr. John Gottman. Now, in this lab, they simply invite couples to come and stay in this lab and then what they do – and they’ve done this for three decades now – is they just let them live their life and analyze what goes on in their conflicts.

Les: It’s just like any other day for these couples. They respond to an ad in the newspaper. They come in. They live in this – it’s like a little studio apartment for the day. It’s just like that, except that it has a camera in each of the four corners of the room that’s watching them for the entire experience. Behind one wall is a bank of computers and – and screens and so forth. And there’s a team of researchers back there that is noting every facial expression both of the people make throughout the entire day – every time they grin or whatever they – and they’re keeping track of all this stuff.

Uh, they’re also hooked up to biofeedback equipment, so that they have their – their heart rate is being measured. Their galvanic skin response, you know – the – the skin temperature. There’s little electrodes around their forehead, measuring their muscle tension. Other than that, it’s just like any other day for these couples.


Leslie: Now, I have to tell you that this research is powerful and let me tell you why. They have discovered now, after three decades of working with couples in conflict, that they can predict with a greater than 94-percent accuracy rate whether a couple’s marriage will succeed or fail based on nothing else but how they fight.

Les: Isn’t that amazing? With a greater than 90 percent accuracy rate, they can tell you whether a marriage will succeed or fail and we’ve seen them do this firsthand…

Leslie: Yes.

Les: …based on nothing other – they don’t know anything else about the couple except how they fight.

Leslie: And – and I think what’s good news for us as couples, it’s not how frequently you fight. Every couple has their own style there and it’s not even what we fight about; the amount is different for every couple. Those did not turn out to be significant things. But what they discovered, there are four things – elements in our conflicts – in the way we fight, that if we have these, they are very destructive to our relationship.

Les: They call them the four red flags. Or actually, Dr. Gottman calls them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, right?

Leslie: That’s a powerful picture.

Les: These are four things that kind of usher in doom…

Leslie: Yes.

Les: …for a marriage relationship.

Leslie: Right.

Les: If you – if he sees these in a marriage, then that’s what he bases his prediction on. Would you like to know what they are? All in favor say, “Aye.”

Audience: Aye.

Leslie: All right.

Les: Number 1…

Leslie: The first Horseman of the Apocalypse is criticism, just simply criticism. You know, Les said we had one of our fights right before we were speaking at a marriage seminar and I happened to be about 30 minutes late. Now you know, you wouldn’t think we had a genuine marriage if he wasn’t going to complain if I’m 30 minutes late when we’re speaking at a marriage seminar. And so, what do you do in those moments, you know? And it’s so easy to criticize. If I walk in the door and he says, “Where have you been? You always make us late!” That is a critical comment. Right there, that’s a destructive thing to your marriage, you know?

Les: Right. By the way, he found something very interesting. I think it’s very good news for a lot of us and that is there’s a big difference between criticism and complaining.

Leslie: Yes.

Les: In fact, here’s the good news. They discovered in this research lab that complaining is actually good for a marriage.

Leslie: I love that.

Les: Let me say that again.


Les: Complaining is actually good for a marriage. Isn’t that good news for all of us whiners? What is the difference? Well, it’s very subtle. The difference is that criticism almost always begins with a “You always make us late,” right?

Leslie: Right.

Les: Whereas complaining almost always begins with “I.” “I feel so frustrated when we’re late to something that really matters to me.” Right? So it’s just a subtle difference in the way it’s expressed, but they discovered it makes a big difference in how it’s received.

Leslie: Absolutely. And you can almost feel these as we talk about the mere progression. The second Horseman of the Apocalypse is the natural progression after you receive a criticism and it’s defensiveness, defensiveness. And you know, you just can feel yourself just almost reflexively responding to a critical comment and you’re ready to go. You know, if Les walks in the door and it’s the middle of the week and it’s late. He’s been teaching a class till 8 o’clock at night and he’s hungry and he drops his briefcase and says, you know, “How are you doing and what’s for dinner?” And I say, “You know what? I don’t know. Can you hop in the car and go find us something to eat tonight?” You know? And he says to me, “Man, I just – tonight I just wish I could come home and have a hot meal ready.” What do I say in that moment, you know? ‘Cause he hasn’t criticized me, but the defensiveness, I can just feel it winding up and it’s so easy for me to say something like, “Well, if we were ever home on the weekend like a normal couple and could shop or I didn’t have a 2-year-old and have to teach,” or whatever it is. You know, you just feel yourself going into that reflexive, defensive response. Gottman said that always escalates an argument. It never helps bring resolve. Defensiveness is really lethal to a couple.

Les: And it’s just a natural response. Once you’ve been criticized you’re gonna do that. In fact, some of us get so entrenched in that. It becomes such a habit that we – it’s almost like any response. I mean, it’s just, “Have you seen my car keys?” “Well, I didn’t take them.” We just defend ourselves against anything.


Les: And we can become what some have called “jellyfish in armor” and we’re so tough on the exterior, but inside, we’re just dying, because we’re so well guarded, defensive. Criticism, defensiveness, and the third of these red flags is contempt.

Leslie: Contempt. Now, contempt is like criticism, but it’s deeper and even more injurious to the relationship. Contempt is now not when you’re just saying something like, “You always make us late.” But now, you’re engaging in what we would call “character assassination.” You’re assigning a negative motive to them. “You always make us late, because you’re so irresponsible. You don’t care.”

Les: And it’s often sarcastic and “Oh, that’s brilliant, you know? Tell me what time we’re supposed to meet when I’m half asleep.” It’s that kind of tone. Sometimes the most contemptuous thing that we do is without words. Do you know what it is? Yeah, it’s just the rolling of the eyes, right?

Leslie: Right.

Les: You ever done that? You ever seen that on your partner’s face? “Oh, brother!” Right?

Leslie: In fact, you know, we talked about these couples in this Love Lab and it is so interesting. Whenever they’re wired up like that and they’re having a conversation, they’ll just give them a project like, say, “Oh, just talk about – you know, build a tower together or talk about some issue that seems a little unresolved for you.” And as they’re talking, if one partner rolls their eyes at the other, their heart rate goes crazy. I mean, we know when we’re on the receiving end of that nonverbal contempt. We know when we’re getting that message from our partner.

Les: Right, so, criticism, defensiveness, contempt. That leads to the fourth of these which is stonewalling, stonewalling. And let me tell you something about stonewalling. This is the experience of, you know, you just shut down emotionally. You no longer – it’s just like you’re talking to a stone wall. And let me just tell you something, men tend to get to stonewalling quicker than women do, all right? Now, also, women tend to…

Leslie: Right. More frequently tend to have a critical comment that they spark an argument with. You can kind of see how cyclical our fights can be sometimes as couples.

Les: But guys, you can feel this sometimes in your shoulders. It goes up and then the trapezius muscles here and up through the neck, right? And you just feel like a stone wall and you might say something like, “Okay, okay, what do you want me to do? I’ll do it.” “What do you want me to say? I’ll say it.” Ever done that? Raise your hand if – no, you don’t have to do that.


Les: Some of you did, wow!

Leslie: Boy, I like that genuineness.

Les: That one guy was really proud of it back there. “I have, I have. Is there a prize? What do I get?”

Leslie: In fact, the truth is all of us do have moments where we experience these things in our marriage. So, if you’re starting to identify with these, you know, four horsemen, don’t get nervous yet because the truth is, they – they happen for us as couples. It’s when it becomes an inevitable cycle: any time you guys, you know, have a disagreement, you know you’re going to inevitably start with a critical comment and cycle right into this withdrawal and with no resolve that you really need to start to feel the danger.

Les: All right, so, don’t feel too uptight if you have these from time to time. Everybody has some of these from time to time, but it’s when you start with the critical comment and “Oh, boy, here we go again. Set aside the next half hour, ‘cause we’re going to go through these four cycles.” That’s when it gets dangerous and you need to get some serious intervention for that.


John: And that’s where we’ll have to end this first half of a really helpful presentation from Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott about conflict in marriage. This is Focus on the Family and we’ll have more from the Parrotts next time.

Jim: You know, conflict is such an important topic in marriage. It’s kind of the critical building block or destroyer of marriage. And we need to be able to understand it and manage it well. And hopefully get to the point where you know what? It’s not going to destroy us when we have conflict. In fact, we can get through the day and deal with it. And that’s a much better place to be.

John: It is. And I really appreciated what the Parrotts shared about their successes and failures in regards to conflict in their own marriage, and of course, they also mentioned research, which was really helpful. You know, Jim, I think every couple just needs to take advantage of this reminder right now and ask, “What are those flash points? How do we manage those when they come up? And how can we do better?” And I appreciate what you said, it can bring us together or it can really ruin the relationship. Of course, here at Focus, our preference would be that it strengthens your relationship. We’re all about keeping families together and helping marriages be strong, and that’s really the key reason for this presentation today.

Jim: Well it is, John. That’s the goal, and it’s interesting how our different personality types strongly influence us. We’re extroverted or introverted. We’re compassionate or maybe a little more justice-oriented. Those are styles and types and temperaments that we’re born with or that we develop very early in our childhood. And so they play into our attitudes in this regard and how we fight and how we discuss matters that are deep and emotional.

You know, with Jean, I’ll confess it, I can often be kind of the verbal attacker. I’m responding and trying to make the point. It’s especially noticeable if I’m under stress or tired. I have started to realize that.

The classic that Jean and I laugh about now is the garage. And I know some of you have heard me mention this before, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better. But for a while, it seemed like on a daily basis almost, I’d come home from work and walk through the garage into the house. And even if I had just cleaned it over the weekend, it was already messed up. Boxes were thrown out there and you know, just mischief…

John: It’s the big collector of junk.

Jim: Either a big animal ran through there or something happened. I don’t know what. And I’d look at Jean and say something like, “Okay, I just cleaned it up. What happened?” And I’d have this downer attitude. And it was bad.

John: And she would take that and she would internalize that and say, “Oops. I’ve made a mistake here. I’ve done something.”

Jim: Yeah, and it feels, you know, like blame. And I get that now, and I think I’m doing a better job. It’s called just buttoning your lip and getting through that. And if it needs to get cleaned up, you know what? Just do it. Get in there and do it. It might be a messy house for somebody. Or it could be that dreaded question: “When’s dinner gonna be ready?” Or “What are we gonna eat?”

John: “What’s for dinner?” “What’s for dinner” is my line. I’ve gotta stop doing that.

Jim: And it could be, you know, discipline with the kids, too. I mean there’s a whole host of things that couples trigger each other with. That’s the point I think we’re trying to make.

Um, let me just remind you that we have caring, Christian counselors here who would be very happy to talk about some of these issues with you, and then, if necessary, refer you to even a local counselor who can continue to work with you and help you in your marriage. And we do have the Hope Restored intensive marriage program here at Focus. It’s a four-day program and it’s got an over 80-percent success rate in a post-two year survey. In other words, two years after couples have through this four-day event, their marriages, one, are still intact, and two, they’re doing better.

John: Yeah, which is phenomenal given that most of the people attending have really seriously considered or already started the process of divorce.

Jim: Here’s one example from Katie:

Katie: We just experienced an extreme miracle through the Focus on the Family resources. My husband is military and after his most recent deployment it was obvious that something was very wrong. And after about a month, came out that there had been an affair, um, while he was deployed. And when I went to your website and typed in “infidelity” a whole host of resources popped up. And that led me to your marriage intensives. And my husband and I attended one in February. We almost didn’t make it because the day we were supposed to leave, my husband left the house and did not want to participate and really had turned his back to the Lord. And we showed up the evening of February 19th, and just experienced a miraculous recovery that week. The therapists were nothing short of anointed. And the Lord just really showed up and honored the fact that we gave our marriage to Him. And we’ve really just seen life-changing differences in our marriage because of your organization. We know we have a ways to go, but we’re doing it with the Lord’s help and with help from Focus on the Family.

John: That is a remarkable story, but it’s not at all unusual. We get great feedback like that every day about broken marriages that God saves through Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored.

Jim: We do! And it’s all thanks to you, those who are donating to the ministry, to help save marriages that are in crisis. And we recently completed a survey that showed that over the past year, Focus on the Family, because of you, helped over 130,000 couples resolve a major marital crisis. That’s incredible!

John: That is a huge number of faltering marriages that are not just propped up, but brought back together and restored.

Jim: It’s so important. Let me encourage you, if you want to help save marriages, like Katie’s, please be a partner with this ministry at Focus on the Family. And the best way to help us is with a monthly pledge – that keeps our budget in a good place – kind of an even keel – throughout the year. It doesn’t have to be a big amount; it’s the consistency that rea

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Affair-Proof Your Marriage (Part 2 of 2)

Pastor Dave Carder offers couples practical advice for protecting their marriages from adultery in a discussion based on his book Anatomy of an Affair: How Affairs, Attractions, and Addictions Develop, and How to Guard Your Marriage Against Them. (Part 2 of 2)

Focus on the Family Broadcast logo

Balancing Gender Differences in Your Marriage (Part 1 of 2)

Robert and Pamela Crosby help married couples understand and celebrate their gender differences so that they can enjoy a stronger bond and deeper intimacy. Our guests offer practical tips for improved communication, successful conflict resolution and offering affirmation to your spouse. (Part 1 of 2)