Conflict: Wrapped Up in a Bow

By Robin Delaney, Ph.D.

                I can almost hear the Christmas carols. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Is it? Are the Hallmark movies a true depiction of the holiday season? We are supposed to be thankful for all of our blessings while happily making a turkey dinner and then moving on to celebrating our Savior’s birth while joyfully decorating the perfectly shaped Christmas tree and wrapping presents with the perfect paper and a matching bow. Then reality sinks in. There is so much to do and so little time. There are a lot of expenses with traveling, hosting, buying presents for family, friends, teachers, and more. There can be added stress when there is tension with in-laws or extended family. Who should sit next to whom? What if someone brings up politics or…. religion? All of these physical, emotional, and financial stressors can cause high conflict in a marriage.

                We tend to take out our stress on those with whom we are closest. Sometimes the holidays bring about a struggle resulting in incompatible or opposing needs or desires; that’s the exact definition of conflict. Conflict may also occur due to what feels like a limited supply of love, attention, and energy. We get pulled in so many directions that we don’t have the patience or the ability to react in a loving way. We get tired and worn out and we are not our best selves. The bottom line is: conflict happens.

                Scripture has a lot to say about conflict and how we choose to respond when a conflict arises. Proverbs 12:18 (NIV) says, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” James 1:19-20 (NIV) instructs, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” The apostle Paul warns, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Ephesians 4:26-27 (NIV).

                The concern is not with eliminating conflict but, rather, with effectively managing the conflict. Dr. John Gottman, a psychological researcher, studied couples over decades looking for what differentiated couples who stayed married versus those who ended in divorce. After years of observing couples, Gottman concluded that successful marriages had a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction (a 17% negative communication rate) while couples who were headed for divorce had only 1 positive interaction for every 0.8 negative interactions (44% negative communication rate).  The four main negative interactions seen in the couples Gottman observed were: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Criticism is attacking a person rather than saying how you feel about what that person said or did. For example, saying, “You are so lazy! What is wrong with you?” A more productive and less critical way of communicating the same frustration would be to say something such as, “I know you have a lot going on but it would mean a lot to me if you would help me pack for our family for this trip. I am feeling really stressed out.” Defensiveness is not listening to what your spouse is saying in a highly tense conversation but, rather, focusing on how you are going to attack next. Remember, this is the person you love most in the world. If you win the argument, that means your loved-one loses. You don’t want it to be a battle to be won but a time to connect and be there for each other. Contempt is disregarding your spouse by being disrespectful and/or sarcastic. Eye-rolling is a way of showing contempt. Stonewalling is completely shutting down emotionally and being unresponsive when your spouse is trying to communicate with you, especially around areas of conflict. An example of a stonewalling response is, “Ok, ok, un huh, uh huh.”

                It may seem like a good idea to just avoid each other and not communicate at all during times of high conflict, especially if you are the distancer in the relationship. Distancers would rather hide and hope the conflict just fades away. They would prefer to just wait for the holidays to pass and then talk about things. Now, if you are the pursuer in the relationship, that is just torture. You will stew about it and those small conflicts will grow into a huge problem! So, avoiding stress and possible conflict is not the answer.

                The answer is to work on cooling down your conflicts. Don’t let them escalate and get bigger than they need to. Start by not criticizing your spouse (or your spouse’s family). Soften your start up when you present an issue. For example, approach a possibly high conflict issue with a compliment or something positive such as, “I am so thankful we will have some quality time together over the holidays. I would really appreciate it if you could help me with the cooking this year so I don’t get too overwhelmed and stressed out.” Communicate. Ask for what you need rather than criticizing what has not been done or maybe what was done in years past. Talk about issues you are concerned about before they are a conflict. For example, “I am really anxious about spending time with your mother.” Show respect for your spouse even when there is a conflict. Don’t use sarcasm. Make sure you have a buffer of positive interactions.

                Positive interactions are very important during times of stress to prevent conflict in your marriage. Some examples of interacting positively include humor, laughing with each other, affection, really listening to each other when you are talking, and taking an interest in each other’s lives. Savor your friendship. Appreciate your spouse, be sure to say, “thank you” even for the little things, and take time to give each other a hug. Gottman found that when couples were able to have positive interactions, even during a conflict, they were most likely to have a stable marriage and to be happy.  Take advice from your financial advisor, deposit more than you withdraw. Your marriage is well worth the investment. Make sure that your marriage is a soft place for both of you to land. Especially during the stresses of the holidays, take care to be each other’s strength and comfort. Love one another well and it will be “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Dr. Robin Delaney earned a Masters degree in Clinical Community Counseling from Johns Hopkins University and her Doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy from Ohio State University. She recently joined the clinical team of Life Resources, a Christian non-profit organization in Mt Pleasant dedicated to emotional and relational wellness. For more information about Dr. Delaney and the services she offers, call (843) 884-3888 or go to www.myliferesources.org.

As seen in the November 2018 edition of The Carolina Compass.