Being in conflict is not the same thing as having differences or disagreements. Disagreements and differences happen all the time. Couples can disagree when they want to go to the movies. They can differ over how to discipline their children. They can differ on when to have sexual relations. They can disagree on where to get the car serviced.
Conflict is another matter. Conflict occurs because of the way in which (how) you go about achieving what you want (e.g. seeing a movie, disciplining children, having sex, career choices). The content is the what of the interaction between the two of you. How you go about getting what you want in marriage is called process. People often refer to process as communication but communication is an overused, imprecise term. The graphic CONTENT AND PROCESS IN MARITAL INTERACTION shows the difference between Content and Process.
The process that occurs between you and your spouse will be affected significantly by your own personal insecurities. We all suffer with feelings of insecurities of various kinds. Feeling insecure is not a sign of some psychological malady or impairment; it is a consequence of the cognitive and emotional limitations of childhood.
These insecurities show up in marriage as defensiveness (I prefer “self-protective strategies”) and overreactions to each other (“taking things personally”) instead of responding to each other. Taking something personally happens when you portray your spouse’s action only in terms of how you experience it. How you experience your spouse’s actions, while important to you, is not the only way to describe his/her actions. Accusing your partner of “ignoring” you when he/she is inattentive in a given situation is an example of characterizing an action rather than describing it.
The graphic ANATOMY OF A CONFLICT demonstrates a conflict between Jesse and Sarah over how she spent money on a new couch for their apartment. In this situation, Sarah spent more than she and Jesse had agreed upon. When she told Jesse about this, he immediately got angry at her, seeing her as acting “irresponsibly”. He then verbally criticized her, calling her “irresponsible”, likely raising his voice at her. Jesse may very well “make a case” about Sarah’s “irresponsibility” by highlighting past times she spent over budget, probably on minor things.
Sarah, in turn, thinks Jesse’s characterization of her as irresponsible is not justified, feels hurt and angry. In her mind, she characterizes him as “insensitive” and “domineering”. She is unwilling to “defend” herself because she does not believe her actions warrant this kind of reaction. She makes no attempt to explain why she spent more than they had agreed upon.
Jesse and Sarah are now having a conflict, which goes unresolved. They went their separate ways for the remainder of the day. Later that evening, Jesse, feeling less angry, approaches Sarah amorously. She still feels hurt and misunderstood and is not feeling responsive to him. She still sees him as unkind and unfair.
Jesse’s reaction to Sarah spending more for the couch than they had agreed to is “taking it personally” because:
- He characterized her action (she is “irresponsible”) rather than describing it (she spent more than agreed to)
- He did not ask for an explanation for spending more than they had budgeted for the couch
- His anger is “justified” because she is “irresponsible” not because of what she actually did (what she did is a problem to Jesse)
- When you characterize someone’s action, you are going after him/her personally, not addressing what they did
- When you react (because you take something personally) you increase the likelihood that your spouse will react too (as Sarah did in this case, characterizing Jesse’s action as “insensitive”, “domineering”)
Here is how this conflict could have been just a disagreement (even a big disagreement).
- Jesse is aware that his initial reaction of being angry at Sarah is a personal reaction and he needs to step back for a moment to reflect
- Once he is feeling less angry, he affirms that he is concerned that Sarah has spent over what they budgeted, he sees this as a problem (rather than a character trait of “irresponsibility”)
- He asks what her thinking was in spending more than they had agreed upon on the couch (It turns out the couch was an expensive couch that was significantly reduced in price)
- He talked with Sarah about his concern about spending over their agreed upon budget without “cross checking” (not asking permission) with him
- Sarah made the case for the couch, letting him know that she had planned to use her discretionary money to pay partly for the extra cost of the couch and was willing to return it if needed
- From this discussion they both agreed to keep the couch and set a limit on what they could each spend over budget in a given situation without talking to the other
- Thus, they were able to reach a win-win solution to their disagreement over Sarah spending over budget on a new couch for their apartment
Conflict is not resolved through negotiation because when you are in conflict with each other, you are not capable of being collaborative, a prerequisite to negotiating. You can only characterize and accuse. If you don’t stop and reflect, you will end up arguing about the content which is impossible to address when either or both of you are reacting to each other.
To be self-reflective means being willing and able to take a hard look at your own personal motives when you interact with your partner, i.e. when you are “taking things personally“. You can learn to be more aware of your own part in and more accountable for what goes on in your intimate day-to-day interactions. As you become more aware of you “personal take” in an interaction, you can learn to manage it more effectively.