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You Can Reduce Negative Reactions in Conflict

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People often adopt a reaction to stress when they're kids, and the patterns continue into adulthood. But couples can learn to discuss nine points to deepen their understanding of each other.

“So not only are you late for dinner, but once again you come home and head straight for the mail,” Leslie complained to her husband, John. “It’s unbelievable! Maybe I should become a piece of mail and put a stamp on my forehead. Then I might get some attention and feel important.”

John rolled his eyes and sighed, continuing to sort through envelopes. Here we go again, he thought, turning his back to her.

Leslie’s anger intensified. “John, don’t ignore me.”

John walked away. “I’m going to the gym,” he said.

Like many couples, Leslie and John came to us for counseling because they were unable to resolve conflict. “We have communication problems, and we never solve anything,” Leslie complained on their first visit.

Most couples have patterns of reactivity that block communication. There are three basic responses to stress: fight, flight or freeze. People often adopt one of these reactions when they’re kids, and the patterns continue into adulthood. Your marriage problems probably started early in your childhood years.

Leslie is a fighter. She is vocal and complains when she’s upset. John’s response to stress is to flee. He minimizes and avoids conflict with Leslie and looks for an escape route when she’s angry. Some people freeze — they become anxious and paralyzed when they feel stressed or face conflict.

Your reaction to stress

What do you tend to do? Protest and fight? Flee and detach? Freeze in fright? To communicate effectively, you have to become aware of your automatic responses to stress and conflict — and develop new skills to stay present and engaged.

Couples can learn to discuss nine points to deepen their understanding of each other and improve listening skills. The listener initiates all nine questions, pausing and repeating his or her spouse’s ideas and checking for accuracy. The listener cannot disagree, correct, judge or dismiss anything the spouse says. The goal is to increase understanding, not to fix or solve problems. The listener takes notes and summarizes at the end.

Choose who will listen first. Then reverse roles. You’ll need a list of soul words, words that help you identify emotions. Here are the nine discussion points:

1. Stressful event

Describe one event, circumstance or experience that is causing stress, pain or unhappiness.

This topic gives your spouse a chance to ponder and explain things of concern that cause him or her stress. Summarize your spouse’s answer.

2. Identify feelings

Use the list of soul words and pick three feelings you experience when you encounter this stressor. Try to use more than one category on the soul words list. If you aren’t sure, make your best guess.

Many times we don’t ask about or contemplate feelings. Some people are only aware of one or two feelings and never explore beyond those. Feelings of anger or anxiety, for example, might be easy to recognize, but this exercise works better if you dig deeper. Summarize your spouse’s answer.

3. Rate intensity

Rate the intensity of each of the three feelings from 1 (low) to 10 (high).

This question helps you understand the intensity of your spouse’s feelings and which of the three feelings may be the strongest. Summarize your spouse’s answer.

4. Physical reactions

How does your body respond when you have this stressor and resulting feelings? Describe places of pressure, tension or tightness, or changes in breathing.

This question helps your spouse become aware of his or her physical reaction. Many people ignore their body’s response to stress. Summarize your spouse’s answer.

5. Behaviors and actions

What did you do (behaviors or reactions) because of these feelings? How did you express the emotions or what actions did you take?

This question helps your spouse think through what he or she does when stress hits. When people are stressed, they’re generally dealing with difficult emotions and need relief. Summarize your spouse’s answer.

6. Beliefs and assumptions

When you have this stressor and resulting feelings, what do you believe about yourself or how do you view yourself?

This question helps your spouse explore assumptions or beliefs about having certain feelings. Summarize your spouse’s answer.

7. Childhood feelings

Did you experience any of the feelings you picked in topic No. 2 when you were a child? If so, how old were you and what happened?

If the answer is no, skip to No. 9.

If the answer to this question is yes and your spouse rated the intensity of the feelings as 8, 9 or 10, then your spouse may be triggering and current stressors are reminding him or her of painful childhood experiences. Triggers are the root of reactivity and may help you understand places of unresolved childhood pain in your spouse that need compassion and comfort.

8. Consider how past relates to present

If the current stressor and resulting feelings remind you of difficult or painful childhood events, how much of what you currently feel is about the past versus the present? Try to give a percentage.

Many times people are not aware that the past is a part of current reactivity. This question helps increase awareness.

9. Help your spouse

When you have this stressor and resulting feelings, what do you need from me? How can I help?

After thoroughly listening, you may be more open to helping your spouse find relief from difficult emotions.

Look back through your notes and summarize everything you learned. Check for accuracy. If your spouse makes a request, make sure it’s clear and that it’s something observable you can do. Finish by telling your spouse what you can do to help. Then change roles.

We have to control our reactivity to be a great listener. We can’t fight, disengage or freeze. If we do, we won’t finish asking all the questions.

Learning to stay in the listener role is one way to learn to manage these patterns of reactivity.

Compassion for your spouse

As John listened to Leslie, he learned that she looked forward to his homecoming and felt ignored, invisible and unimportant when he went straight to the mail. Leslie had these same feelings when her mom picked her up from day care and was too tired to engage with her in the evening. During her teen years, Leslie often picked fights with her mom to engage her.

John explained he felt overwhelmed, afraid and hopeless when Leslie became angry. When he was growing up, his family was emotionally disengaged and never expressed anger. He hadn’t learned any skills to deal with the emotion of anger. Disengaging was his way of coping.

Leslie and John gained compassion for each other as they understood how their histories affected their marriage relationship. John realized he had the power to help heal Leslie’s childhood pain by greeting her and engaging when he came home after work. Leslie realized she could ask for a hug and a few minutes to check in rather than becoming angry if John forgot or was distracted.

By using the nine steps, most couples discover their patterns of reactivity that block communication. Like John and Leslie, they improve their listening skills and grow into a deeper understanding of each other.

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