Conflicts — 08 June 2007
Couples conflicts are inevitable- rifts are avoidable

Many couples feel distress about having disagreements about their dissimilar reactions to life. Some erroneously believe that these are signs of being poorly matched. Actually, the annoyance about some of the mate’s ways is normal – allowing them to cause a relationship rift is avoidable.

When mates pair up they bring to the union their personalities, preferences, ideas and habits. It is impossible and undesirable to have partners match each other on every human parameter.

We are commonly attracted to individuals whose strengths compliment our less developed traits. Of course, these personality variances, as desirable as they are, tend to become annoying when experienced on a regular basis. For example, a mate who chooses an assertive, direct and forceful partner to complement his/her shy and retiring style may become overwhelmed when these behaviors are directed at him/her.

In addition to personality traits, habits and life styles differences cause mates some discomfort. Living together requires that we extend the love and acceptance of the person to his/her annoying ways and negotiate cooperation about those habits that unnerve us the most. For example, listening to the mate’s displeasing music is an act of love. Modulating the volume can be negotiated so it is not painful to you and can still be enjoyed by your partner.

Another source of couple battles stems from the different parental modeling each partner experienced while growing up. Most people accept what they saw in their original family as the behavioral norm and tend to emulate it in their adulthood. Whether it is about holiday traditions, money management, parenting styles, daily habits or conflict resolution methods, any unfamiliar way tends to be viewed as “wrong” and thus “unacceptable”. For example, adults whose parents often argued may expect this to be the natural response to conflict. If the mate refuses to engage in a battle and elects to be silent and nurture grudges, as was done in his original family, detachment and distance between the mates may be created. Neither early programming is necessarily correct – it only appears that way due to its familiarity.

The content of common couple conflicts may be about chores, money, sex, child rearing, unmet needs, power, control or fairness. The essence of all these and many other conflicts is not about the issues, but about not feeling sufficiently respected and cared for by the mate.

Research done by Don Peterson at Rutgers University details the four most common triggers for conflict in couples: criticism, unfair demands, cumulative annoyances and rebuff or rejection. He states that the arguments that pursue these triggers are repetitive and often unresolved.

It is understandable why these triggers create fights: criticism damages the recipient’s self-esteem, unfair demands violate the presumed equality of both mates, cumulative annoyances engender hurt about being disrespected, and being rebuffed or rejected devalues one’s significance.

Only when partners deal with their conflicts not by the content but by the emotional pain caused by the perceived disrespect, lack of caring or love, or not being sufficiently valued, can they continue to differ and stay intimate.

To honor the differences and prevent rifts couples must realize that:

• Their differences are not a problem, hurtful behavior is.
• They are friends and lovers – not enemies, even after their feelings have been hurt.
• The anger they feel is not about the issue at hand but about the discount of their personal merit.
• Stating the feeling generated by any hurtful behavior is wiser than engaging in the above triggers. For example, your partner repeatedly forgets to introduce you to his/her acquaintances. You feel ignored and disrespected. You may say: “You are so rude and have no social manners”. (criticism) Or insist that the partner call the people and apologize to you in front of them. (Unfair demand). You may say: “You always disregard me to annoy me” (repeated annoyances) or you may retaliate by ignoring or rejecting your partner.
• The rift preventing way is to describe your feelings and create a safe atmosphere for discussion. “I have noticed that last night you did not introduce me to your friends. It has happened before and it makes me feel unimportant. What do you think can be done for this not to happen again?” The partner, not having been attacked, is encouraged to problem solve with you.
• Your issues will recur but the rifts can be avoided by managing the issues through sensitive acceptance of each other’s feelings and cooperation about resolutions.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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