“Happy families resemble each other, but unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way.” – Tolstoy
Like the law of gravity, universal laws govern healthy relationships. Ignore them at your peril. They lie beneath social norms and taboos which vary from place to place and reveal a design for relationships. These rules sometimes elude us because they cut against the grain of self interest. When instinct pushes for “win-lose,” a principled response seeks a win-win opportunity. Here are the first three habits which align with design.
1) Stay out of hot water
Ever heard of flooding? Psychologists use this term for the rapid onset of negative emotion (i.e. anger, fear, anxiety). Flooded moments make constructive interaction nearly impossible. Too much fight-or-flight instinct is in play. We think “me” not “we.” So, decide ahead of time what to do when you get flooded. If a face-to-face discussion triggers it, then press pause. If an email sets you off (and this takes discipline), write an angry reply today if you must, but send an edited version tomorrow. Personality or ethnic heritage might make you a passionate communicator. But I have never heard anyone say they regretted a delayed response. I do hear people express regret about a flooded reaction.
“A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” -Prov. 29:11
2) Stay off your high horse
Beware of four poisons to communication. John Gottman calls them “The Four Horsemen” (…of the Apocalypse). Disagreements can be healthy and important. As someone quipped, “If two people agree on everything, then one of you may be unnecessary;” but the way we disagree matters much. Unresolved or poorly resolved conflict is toxic. It is like a dark, threatening presence on horseback. The key is to reign in your own, rather than those trotted out by someone else.
Here are the four main offenders to healthy communication:
- Criticism: A complaint, used to injure. “You forgot? Typical!”
- Contempt: Criticism plus insult. “You forgot? Jerk!”
- Defensiveness: Dodging responsibility. “Me forget? You didn’t ask.”
- Stonewalling: Passive-aggressive. “So what if I did forget?”
These are essentially fight-or-flight reactions. The first two represent “fight” and the second two signal “flight.” Instead, the ideal of love is the accurate assessment and the adequate supply of another person’s need. If your words do not build up, you may need to get off your high horse.
“Accurate information offered without love carries no weight.” 1 Corinthians 13:2.
3) Stay between the ditches
“Haven’t we been over this before?” A lot of marital conflict reveals differences in VALUES. Some couples keep finding same ditch because they do not yet understand what drives their differences. They don’t agree to disagree. They avoid, and it kills intimacy.
Conflicts should help us discover underlying differences. They are outward signs of some distinct, inward value. For example, let’s say that a family member is in trouble financially. One of you wants to lend a hand and the other does not. Either response can be criticized. Add negative emotion and you are almost guaranteed to judge the other person’s position. Feelings can blind us to the constructive value underneath an opinion. The more you learn what drives your differences, the more you can come to respect and appreciate them.