Archive for the ‘Marital Conflict’ Category

Happy Holidays and Healthy Arguing!

December 16, 2009

Look familiar?

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of your family’s dispute – trying desperately to calm the storm on both sides of an argument?  Whether your answer is yes or no, you can take comfort in the fact that people across all generations, classes and races have some type of recurring conflict in their family; and they often flare up – especially during the holidays.  Failed relationships, troubled family members, death, tough financial times and a myriad of other issues all add to a family’s stress level and inability to maintain healthy relationships.  Unfortunately this leads to arguments, disagreements and sometimes not communicating at all.  When these types of things happen in my family, I’m often tempted to try to solve the issue or run to comfort people on one or both sides of the issue.  What I didn’t know for a long time is that this isn’t the best solution!  Instead of always trying to solve the issue for the dueling pair – I should step back and let them work it out.  By stepping into the argument, I have triangulated myself into the problem.  And, instead of forcing those two to come to an agreement or an agreement to disagree, I have enabled them to let me work it out – never forcing them to develop the skill of arguing effectively.  The Healthy Marriage Handbook offers several tips that are essential  for arguing effectively with spouses – but if you think about it these tips really apply to any relationship argument – especially your family.  Here are a few that I think are important:

1) Describe your feelings using “I” instead of starting with “you….”.

2)  Focus on the specific and current behavior , and don’t label the person in a bad way.

3)  Use kind words and a kind tone of voice.

4)  Don’t keep things inside until you feel filled up and then dump everything out at once.

5)  Don’t fight dirty, i.e. physically, emotionally, or verbally abusive.

6) Don’t give the silent treatment.

7) Chill out!  If your “stress response” has kicked in, it’s only going to get worse.  Take a break, disengage, and re-visit the issue when you can think clearly and act reasonably.

Perhaps next time instead of trying to solve the problem, I can teach the arguers (after the argument) how to argue more effectively and keep the health of the relationship in mind.

Happy Holidays and Healthy Arguing to all!!

Charlsey Mahle

GRA, Auburn University

The Blame Game

October 9, 2009

How many times have you found yourself thinking, “There’s no point in talking to him about this because he won’t listen,” or “If she would just stop overreacting, this wouldn’t be a big deal!”? My guess is you can probably think of quite a few times when this, or something like this, has happened. It’s human nature to put the blame on someone else, but in reality, it’s probably not 100% the other persons fault. Playing the “blame game” may seem like the easy solution, but it ends up being very harmful to the relationship. Say a problem arises in your relationship that causes a disagreement between you and your significant other. Your first thought is probably, “I’m right.” Well guess what, they are probably thinking the exact same thing. Taking this position leaves no room for actually addressing the problem at hand, and talking about the issue becomes useless because there is no way to resolve it. If the issue is serious and remains unresolved, then you both might start to pull away from each other and, after awhile, no longer reach out to each other for emotional support. So, is being right worth losing the person you love? If the answer is no, then next time something comes up, take a deep breath and try to remember these tips:

  1. Bring up tough issues softly. If there is something you want to discuss, bring it up at a time when both of you are calm and not highly emotional. Think about how you would like to be approached in this kind of situation and don’t start by blaming the other person! If you partner feels attacked, he/she will respond with defensiveness.
  2. Avoid using the word “you” to blame. Instead of blaming, try talking about how the issue affects you by using “I” messages. For example, rather than saying, “You never make special plans for us!” try, “When we don’t do special things together, I feel unimportant and wonder if I’ve done something to upset you.”
  3. Make messages short during disagreements. Don’t address multiple issues at once! By bringing up multiple issues, you lose the ability to have a productive conversation by overwhelming your partner.
  4. Be respectful. Even when it is hard to do, it’s important to be respectful towards the other person. Avoid calling each other names, or bringing up issues from the past only to criticize. The point is to have a beneficial conversation that ends well, not make each other shut down and cause more damage.
  5. Take a time out. If things start to get heated and out of control, take a time out and allow both of you to cool off before starting again. This is important because you don’t want to say something you might regret later.  Being able to stop yourself is a key relationship skill. Be sure to set another time to finish the conversation and work on maintaining positive thoughts about the other person rather than dwelling on conflict.
  6. Finally, remember you love this person. Keep in mind that in the end the relationship is more important than the argument. Each person has to be willing to compromise and come up with a solution that makes both people happy. Remember that even though you may feel strongly that you are correct, so does your partner, and it is not easy to admit your own fault.

Remember, healthy relationships have conflict.  These tips are from research on strategies that work!

Kate Taylor Harcourt, Graduate Research Assistant

Alabama Community Healthy Marriage Initiative

Laughter: The Best Medicine

July 12, 2009

Do you find your serious romantic relationship getting a little too serious? Maybe it’s because you and your significant other are lacking an underrated but key ingredient: humor. Oftentimes we get so caught up in our busy lives that we will laugh when the opportunity presents itself, but we fail to actively create opportunities for laughter.

Research has shown that laughter has many health benefits, such as improved heart rate, circulation, and immune system functioning. Because laughing uses multiple muscle groups, it creates the same benefits as aerobic exercise. It also causes the release of endorphins, our natural “feel good” chemical that buffers physical pain and prevents depression. When we feel good physically and mentally, we are better equipped to have healthy and happy relationships.

Humor is beneficial not only in everyday interactions, but can also be a great tool for diffusing tension during a conflict. Humor allows a more positive reframe of the situation that decreases the anxiety associated with conflict. As emotions are running high and the blood pressure is up, laughter is one of the quickest ways to bring the conflict down to a more manageable level. After all, it’s difficult to stay mad at someone when he or she makes you laugh (believe me—I’ve tried!).

You might not be naturally gifted at this strategy (like myself), but speaking from experience, I believe it can be learned. My significant other happens to be great at thwarting my attempts to engage in petty conflicts by using humor. One of his favorite tactics is public embarrassment. For example, during a silly grocery store argument that had turned into stony silence, he purposely bumped into a stack of boxes and theatrically fell to the ground, making a loud commotion. As concerned onlookers checked to make sure he was ok, I had to walk away laughing and red-faced in embarrassment, forgetting all about my frustration.

I’ve tried to learn from his example, and found that while I’m inclined to be more serious during a conflict, if I look for the humor I can find it in most situations. There are certainly times when making a joke during a fight might not be appropriate, and you shouldn’t expect humor to diffuse every conflict. It’s important when utilizing humor that it does not mock the other person or his/her viewpoint, or push buttons. It’s always a safe bet to take the one-down position by poking fun at yourself, which is a great way to disarm the other person and make him or her more open to seeing things from your perspective.

Each couple will develop their own unique sense of humor using their knowledge of each other, inside jokes, and shared experiences. Take the humor challenge today and try bringing a little more laughter into your relationship. There is good reason to think that the couple who laughs together, stays together.

*Below are a few ideas to get you started on things to do with your partner that will get you both laughing:

-Each person rents his/her favorite funny movie and watch together.

-Playing board games such as Guesstures, Imaginiff, Mad Gab, and Outburst.

-Taking funny photos together (Try Big Face/Little Face: First make your face as small as you possibly can by scrunching it up, then try making it as big as you can—I guarantee you will be laughing as you review your work!)

-Randomly text or e-mail your partner funny quotes from your favorite movies or t.v. shows.

-Check out the humor section of your favorite bookstore and browse together.

-Karaoke your little hearts out—or just watch others if you aren’t the performing type.

Kristy Malone, Master’s student in Marriage and Family Therapy and Graduate Research Assistant for the Alabama Healthy Marriage Initiative

Dealing with Conflict: The Power of Empathy

March 7, 2009

Although romantic relationships often start out blissfully and are characterized by long walks (if not on a beach, then some other romantic setting), sharing feelings, and displays of physical affection; it’s only a matter of time until that first fight occurs. Maybe John wants to watch the football game tonight, but Jane wants to see who gets kicked off Dancing with the Stars this week. Whether it’s big, little, or something in between, experiencing conflict is very normal—even healthy!—in relationships. Each person has his or her own conflict style. He might prefer to deal with conflict by taking time out to think, while she likes to talk things out in the moment rather than letting it go unresolved. Research indicates that there is no one right way to resolve conflict, but there are certain skills and strategies that anyone can use to improve their ability to work through fights with a partner.

As a therapist in training, one of the strategies I use with clients to help them resolve long-standing conflicts or issues is empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognize and share in another person’s emotions and experience; or as it’s often said, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” It’s very common to feel like you just don’t understand your partner during fights; however, the other person’s behavior is perfectly reasonable and justifiable  – to him or her. If you don’t understand why, it’s important to find out. It’s as simple as (sincerely) saying, “I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from on this, but I want to.”

When confronted with a situation where you and your partner disagree, it’s easy to immediately take a defensive position. Why shouldn’t John watch the football game—he’s been looking forward to it all week because his favorite team is playing the biggest game of this season. How could she be so insensitive to make the comment that it’s “just a game”—especially when he turned down watching it with the guys so that they could still spend time together?! It’s obvious she just wants everything to be her way. Meanwhile, Jane’s wondering how he could care so much about football when she has never missed an episode of her favorite show, and has been wanting him to watch it with her ever since they started dating. She now knows that he doesn’t care about the things she’s interested in; he’d probably rather be hanging out with the guys!

Each person becomes enraged at their partner’s perceived offenses and begins to list all of the reasons why he or she is being wronged, even assigning traits to their partner’s character. However, neither one is using empathy in this situation. Underneath the anger in conflict is often an underlying emotion, such as fear or hurt. The key to empathy during disagreement is recognizing the underlying emotion your partner is experiencing and understanding why he or she feels that way. John and Jane are both feeling hurt, even though they are expressing anger. Their motives are actually to get closer to each other by sharing something that is important to them. Uncovering these underlying emotions and using empathy during conflict is a valuable tool that will resolve disagreements a little less painfully, and will likely make the relationship even stronger.

In conclusion, it might still be a challenge to decide what to watch on t.v., but it will be much easier to work it out when both partners understand where the other person is coming from, and both are able to respect and empathize with the partner’s position. Being in a relationship is like going down a road together, and putting yourself in your partner’s shoes will allow you to get a lot more out of the journey.

Kristy Malone, MFT Student

Graduate Research Assistant, Alabama Community Healthy Marriage Initiative

A Year Long Gift!!

December 17, 2008

With Christmas just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this time of year when we show others how much they mean to us by the time honored gesture of gift-giving. Having always been a “gift-giver” myself, I enjoy bringing the Christmas spirit into the lives of others during this time of the year, ensuring they know how much I appreciate them. However, I also believe in telling and showing others that I appreciate them all throughout the year as well.

Research has shown that this quality is necessary in order to have healthy relationships, not just with a significant other, but with all life relationships. With regard to marriage, research points out that people who feel appreciated by their spouses report stronger feelings of happiness and satisfaction in their marriages compared to people who do not experience appreciation in their marriages. Findings like these suggest that acts of appreciation are crucial to the well-being of relationships!!

Do you know people who are in an unhappy marriage or dating relationship? I bet that they, their partner, or both of them do not participate in acts of appreciation often. I have previously been in dating relationships where I felt I was not appreciated and felt taken advantage of. A simple “thank you” was rarely spoken, much less larger acts of appreciation shown. You know when you feel like someone is treating you like a doormat? After a while, people in these types of relationships become resentful and unhappy, which spills over negatively into the relationship itself and can be a contributing factor leading to divorce, abuse, break-ups, and other relationship troubles.

Do you know people who feel slighted or not appreciated at work? By friends? We all know people that feel this way. People who feel unappreciated at work are often less productive. Friendships are often damaged when one or both friends feel they are not valued by the other. I say we all, in the coming New Year, should plan to show some act of appreciation to at least one or two people in our lives on a daily basis. I have seen and experienced first-hand how much acts of appreciation mean to the recipients. So, while we show others through giving gifts this time of year that we appreciate them, let’s give a more meaningful and lasting gift in the coming year- the gift of appreciation every day!! J

Brittny Mathies, M.S.

Ph.D. Student and Graduate Research Assistant for the Alabama Community Healthy Marriage Initiative

The “Dirty Bird” Effect

October 15, 2008

October 14, 2008

When I was engaged to be married to my wife we once visited her great-uncle. He and his wife had a wonderful marriage and seemed content and loving in their older years. At the end of the visit he pulled me aside and said, “I understand that you want to marry into our family.” I reported in the affirmative, expecting some sage advice. What he said next will always remain seared to my brain. He said, “If you want to be happy in your marriage you need to remember, . . . It is a Dirty Bird who poops in his own nest.” This advice caught me off guard, but as I have passed through 17 years of marriage it comes back to my memory on many occasions.

While the advice relates to many aspects of marriage and marital interactions I want to speak to the issue of couple conflict and the effects on children. I previously wrote that marital conflict is strongly related to coronary heart disease and the build-up of plaque in the arteries for adults. However, the impact on children is equally devastating. When we look closely at marital conflict, we see an important linkage between the quality of the couple relationship and the quality of the parent-child relationship. Aspects of the couple relationship “spill over” into the parent-child relationship, which then directly affects children’s outcomes. Likewise, the positive aspects of the couple relationship appear to promote positive parenting. However, what has not received as much attention is the fact that the negative conflict within the couple relationship also directly affects the physiology of children and adolescents.

El-Sheikh and colleagues at Auburn University research the effect of mild to moderate couple conflict on children’s sleep patterns, and subsequent health indicators. The results are astounding. Conflict impacts the amount and the quality of sleep for children, which in turn is associated with physical and emotional problems. Marital conflict negatively impacting their children’s amount and quality of sleep had devastating repercussions on academic performance, behaviors, and health. El-Sheikh and colleagues found that these children scored lower on IQ and academic tests, had lower academic performance, were more inattentive, poorer concentrators, and more hyperactive. In other research, Redline and colleagues recently reported that adolescent who sleep less than 7 hours a night doubled the risk for high blood pressure, while those with troubled sleep have triple the risk. The culprit for many of the adolescents with disruptive sleep was family conflict.

It seems that the conflict impacts the physiological functioning of the children and changes the body. Exposure to stress and conflict for the children changes the way the body metabolizes food, leading to greater fat storage. Sleep disturbances are related to imbalanced hormone levels, affecting appetite, especially carbohydrate cravings, and metabolism. It should be no surprise that sleep problems are associated with higher BMI (weight gain), and immune problems with children. Children experience digestive problems, chronic health problems and acute illness more frequently. When conflict becomes more severe and couples turn to physical violence children exhibit lower resistance to illness and greater overall health problems.

Chronic marital conflict is also related to emotional and behavior problems in adolescents, lower school performance, higher truancy, and greater drop-outs. It is also related to increased substance abuse, criminal activity, and delinquent behaviors.

It is essential to remember, however, that not all marital conflict is bad. The existence of conflict is not necessarily detrimental to the marital well-being. It is how each partner engages the other in conflict, whether both participate, and whether it is managed.

There is definitely constructive and destructive conflict. Constructive conflict involves listening, attempting to understand, looking for solutions, compromise, expressing positive humor. Destructive conflict includes name calling, yelling, interrupting, threatening to leave or hurt others, hitting, slapping, pushing, and conflict avoidance. While neither list is exhaustive it is apparent that there is a qualitative difference in constructive versus destructive conflict. Happy couples regulate the emotional negativity within the conflict. Couples who are able to regulate their marital discords reported more satisfaction. These couples are also get less physically aroused, which decreases the ever destructive pattern of the “wife demanding-husband withdrawing.” This pattern of behavior is a killer of positive relational affect.

If you find yourself in a negative spiral of destructive conflict – and you, your spouse, or both of you are behaving like a “Dirty Bird” – then take a marital enhancement class or communication seminar. They are not only beneficial to the marriage, but also greatly impact how well your child or adolescent is doing. For more information about such courses call 1-888-together.

To Be Continued: Skills Training for constructive conflict.

Dr. Scott Ketring, Co-Principal Investigator, ACHMI and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Is Your Relational Glass “Half Full” or “Half Empty” ?

October 4, 2008

You’ve all heard the old tried and true question about whether someone sees their glass as “half full” or “half empty”.  This refers to whether a person tends to be optimistic, focusing on the positive, “my glass is half full” or whether a person tends toward pessimism, focusing on the negative, “my glass is half empty”.  Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship researcher at the University of Washington has published research that gives us important insight into this age old question.  He has been able to predict, with frightenly high accuracy patterns of interaction that lead to divorce and relationship dissolution.

One factor that regularly is associated with relational problems and divorce is something he calls a negative cascade.  A negative cascade is occurring when partners in a couple relationship regularly and overwhelmingly label each other’s actions and motives as negative. Interestingly, this “cascade” can become such a powerfully distorted tidal wave that even actions others see as neutral or even positive get labeled negatively or just ignored. Most all interactions become evidence of the limitations, shortcomings, even evil intent of their partner. It can get to the point where not only is the glass half empty, it feels thrown, crushed or stolen by the partner.  A relationship like I’ve just described is a relationship in BIG trouble, likely well on its way to ending.

Thank heaven there is another option! In sharp contrast, Gottman has found that relationships characterized by positive cascades include partners who expect and look for actions on the part of their partners that are positive, indicating love and thoughtfulness on the part of their partners. These folks usually shrug off actions by their partners that feel negative as out of character, exceptions.  Relationship positive people tend to see negatives as neutral at worst. Most importantly they keep close score creating in their minds a mountainous pile of positives.

I hope that at this point in my blog you’re absolutely sure that you desperately want positive cascades for all of your close relationships! Well, friends here is the really good news…………everyone can create positive cascading, not only regularly seeing their glass as half full, it is possible to honestly experience your glass as regularly running over. How?  Become a dead serious, totally committed, Sherlock Holmes issued master sleuth for detecting ALL possible signs that your partner cares about you. Become a total believer that your partner is ALWAYS doing something that you can choose to experience as a sign that they want to be with you. It is up to you.

Strive to become a person who truly experiences their glass as half full, because half full is well on the way to getting there, while half empty is no where most of us really want to be.  Good luck. You deserve the best so don’t settle for less!

Dr. Tom Smith, Co-Principal Investigator, ACHMI and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Wedding Planning 101

September 15, 2008

I recently became engaged and entered the vast world of wedding planning. Never in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine the details (and the costs!) that go into planning the “perfect day.” From “Save the Date cards” to reception favors, planning a wedding can be a daunting task. I see how one can become so involved in the details that they forget about the big picture. Although I grew up dreaming that I’d have an elaborate wedding, replete with a horse drawn carriage, I have come to the realization that it’s the love I share with my fiancé and the commitment we have to each other that will endure after the invitations are thrown away, (because only the bride is interested in framing one), the “I do’s” are done, and the band has stopped playing. Working on the ACHMI project has opened my eyes to the value of marriage education and its positive impact on strengthening marriages. How do we manage conflicts? How do we balance home and work? Do we have the foundation necessary to build a successful marriage that will inspire generations to come? I have come to value not the how, or the where, or the when, of getting married but rather the WHO. Who is this person that I have decided to marry? Who is this person that I am pledging a lifetime commitment to? Who is this person I want to grow old with, working in our garden while our grandchildren run around in the yard? Unfortunately, neither the calligrapher nor the caterer will be there to help us with these questions along the way. Rather than focusing on the details of the wedding day, I’d rather focus on the details of our relationship. So despite the lure of hand-crafted invitations, elaborate cakes, and designer dresses, my focus has shifted from planning a DAY to planning a LIFETIME.

Eugenia Parrett, M.Ed.

Graduate Research Assistant, Alabama Community Healthy Marriage Initiative

Marital Arguments: What You Don’t Know Can Kill Ya

August 8, 2008

At the beginning of my marriage I remember a fight which was intense for both my wife and me. It came to the boiling point when my spouse said, ““Go to Hell,” with my response being, “I live there.” Being quick witted she replied, “That’s because you’re the devil.” I was left befuddled, but not wanting her to have the last word I blurted out, “Oh ya, you’re the wife of the devil.” She then burst out laughing. Luckily for us she knew how to diffuse the situation with humor. A time or two later when things became heated she would say, with a twinkle in her eye, “Go to hell,” and we would follow the routine, until we started laughing.

I was reminded of these exchanges after reading several articles by Tim Smith from the University of Utah along with several colleagues who focus on marital conflict and heart health. It seems that how a couple fights is strongly related to coronary artery disease. In fact woman who fight with their husbands in a hostile manner have arteries twice as clogged as their non-hostile counterparts. The clogs are worse for those women whose spouses routinely responded in like manner. Men who use controlling or domineering behaviors show arterial clogs 150% greater than their non domineering/controlling counterparts.

While married couples exhibit better health than their single counterparts overall, it appears that those who are “happily married” are even more benefitted health-wise. However, for so many it is difficult to change their style of fighting when pushed to the edge of anger and frustration. The rhythm of the argument style needs to change or it will kill you, literally. Remember, those couples who can refrain from seeing their partner as the enemy on the battlefront, do better at resolving problems. Those who use appropriate humor to dislodge those stuck moments do better. We have also discovered that your mother’s mantra of “don’t go to bed mad,” is one of the worst words of advice she could have ever provided. Go to bed MAD!!!, because the next morning hardly any argument seems as worthy a subject as the night before.

Finally, take a marriage enhancement class or communication seminar. They are beneficial and actually help in other areas of marriage such as romance and sex. For more information about such courses call 1-888-4together.

To Be Continued: Relationship Conflict and Children’s Health. The findings will surprise you.

By Scott Ketring, Ph.D., Alabama Community Healthy Marriage Initiative (ACHMI)