At some time or another in relationships, conflict is going to happen. If one partner is feeling up while the other is down, an argument can arise from a lack of sensitivity. Or maybe a physical challenge — such as illness or just fatigue or hunger — is causing one person to be preoccupied with his own perceptions and needs. Whatever the cause, it’s useful to expect conflict and learn effective ways to cope and recover.
While the following vignette is fictional, it contains a few common communication gaffes that, although probably unintentional, can really hurt. How those wounds are dealt with can determine if the effects are short-lived or if they become part of the catalog of complaints that one spouse retains about the other. After the story, I’ve included two concepts that can help couples who need to improve communication and recover from conflict. If the story resonates with you at all, you might consider trying the tips.
Kitty and Joe, both in their early 40’s, have been married for 15 years, and have two children, Cathy, 12, and Bobby, 8. Both Kitty and Joe are attorneys; Kitty works part time for a local corporation, and Joe works full time in his family’s law practice. Their relationship has been strong, and its durability has rested on each one typically being mature and, above all, conscious of his or her own behavior and how it affects the other partner.
Recently, however, stress has mounted. Each spouse’s business has suffered an economic downturn; both of them are worried; their sleep is being affected, and Joe, being more inclined to put his stress into his body, has had bouts of diarrhea and headaches.
A tough day
On a Tuesday, not one of Kitty’s work days, she spent her morning doing bills; finished, she began to tackle some housework, carrying the laundry downstairs and putting the first of at least 4 loads into the washing machine. The house is not completely picked up, but Kitty is hungry and decides to have lunch and get to the house later, maybe between driving Bobby to and from soccer practice. Bobby’s bus drops him off, he has a snack, and Kitty loads him and his equipment into the car. Just as she says goodbye to her son, he begs her not to leave and to watch him play. She agrees, and stays at the field.
Meanwhile, Joe is driving home early from the office, having had his own frustrating day. When traffic on 684 slows to a crawl, he is struck by a wave of feeling that he just can’t get a break. He and Kitty have not been getting along as well as they used to; each of them has become more peevish and irritable, and the bad feelings have been circling with little interruption for weeks.
Kitty’s efforts to recognize what he’s been going through have not really hit the mark, and Joe’s continued irritability has frustrated her needs for love and attention; Kitty’s anger about this has been more in his face. Joe feels alone and misunderstood. His need for comfort has been growing along with resentment that he’s not getting it. Now there’s this miserable traffic!
Joe finally pulls into his driveway; Kitty’s car is not there. Given the recent emotional stalemate between them, he’s not sure if this is the good news or the bad news, and resolves to take a bike ride, thinking the exercise would help to reduce his stress. His bicycle shorts are nowhere to be found, and there are no athletic socks in his drawer. He finds them all in the washing machine, still wet.
He doesn’t count around here, he thinks, He can’t get even his basic needs met, and lately that’s included in the bedroom.
Kitty comes home with Bobby. She’s enjoyed her afternoon with her son, and her mood has softened. Seeing Joe coming down the stairs, she approaches him with an affectionate hug. Joe’s mood remains dark, and he rebuffs the hug and snaps at her.
“What have you been doing all day? The house is a mess. I need to go for a ride, and my shorts and socks are wet.
Kitty attempts to explain her day, and Bobby wanting her to watch the game, but he cuts her off.
“I can’t get anything around here. Bobby got what he needed, but not me! I’m working my ass off all day, and that’s not adding up to much. Do you have any idea the pressure I’m under to bring money into this house?”
Kitty backs up, feels like crying, but doesn’t. She’s no lightweight, and can defend herself.
“Don’t speak to me that way, like I’m a piece of trash. I have a life of my own, and I’m your wife, remember? Screw you!”
With that she storms past him, and he heads for the door, needing to get away from her. Before slamming it behind him, he fires a last volley, escalating their conflict: “That would have been nice last night,” Joe quips, referring their not having sex.
Tip: Use empathy
After Kitty and Joe have cooled down a bit and are able to talk to each other, they would do well if each could show some empathy — the ability to emotionally relate — to the other’s experience. People who do not experience empathy in their relationships feel unimportant and disconnected.
To convey empathy effectively, it’s important that the tone of voice matches content. For example, if both Kitty and Joe were able to say a heartfelt, “I hear what you’re saying, I appreciate now what you’ve been going through,” a significant level of healing will be achieved from just that comment!
Tip: Expect conflict
Remember that in a healthy family there is room for feelings, even negative ones. Anger should be expected as part of living together. But you will move past the anger and back to the positive connection if there is a deep belief that while “this feels really bad, and I don’t like you right now, we’ll get through this and be stronger on the other end.”