Posts Tagged ‘conflict resolution’

The Five Levels of Attack

June 9, 2010

A fight often begins because one partner is critical of the other and sends a disapproving message that comes across to the other as an attack.

This article focuses on the different forms of attack that are damaging to relationships. Couples therapist and author Dan Wile describes five levels of attack in his book “After the Fight” that I find to be very useful in my work with couples.

Often people aren’t sure exactly what happens in their communication that leads to an escalation. Fortunately, Wile’s levels make it very clear why this takes place and why it’s so difficult to resolve issues.

A Level 1 Attack – Being Critical of Behavior

Here you are saying that there is something wrong with what your partner does. An example of this is, “You never express your feelings” or “You drink too much” or “The way you act when you’re with your friends drives me nuts.”

When our partner criticizes our behavior, we don’t like it much. Sometimes we may recognize some truth in the criticism, but we often get defensive anyway, due to the way it’s presented: in the form of an attack. It’s often second nature to get defensive when we feel attacked. It’s the rare person who can say, “You’re right, I do act like a jerk when I get around my friends. I’m sorry.” It might be nice if your partner could do this, but it would also be nice for your partner if you could change your critical approach.

You would be better off taking responsibility for your feelings and to stop being critical. Don’t just blame, give your partner information that they can use and tell them what you want. This might sound like, “When you get around your friends, you often ignore me. I feel really disrespected. I’d like to feel more included no matter who you are hanging out with.”

A Level 2 Attack – Being Critical of Your Partner’s Feelings

We do this when we tell our partner how they should or shouldn’t feel or noticing how they feel and implying there is something wrong with it or with them. This can sound like, “You get so upset about every little thing” or “You’re so angry all the time” or “Stop crying” or “Don’t get so mad” or “You’re such an angry person.”

We understandably get upset when our feelings our criticized. We feel how we feel and our feelings are there for a reason. When someone tells us how we should or shouldn’t feel, it can be frustrating and invalidating. A better option would be for you to notice your partner’s feelings, and instead of implying there is something wrong with them, instead ask why they feel how they feel and just be curious about those feelings and give your partner the space to feel them. Often when our feelings are acknowledged, they transform. When we are told we are bad for having them, we feel even worse.

A Level 3 Attack – Being Critical of Who Your Partner Is/Name Calling

This can sound like, “You’re a jerk” or “You’re a ditz” or “You’re a bitch” or “You are so immature.”

Statements like these go beyond the other attacks because instead of saying something is wrong with your partner’s behavior or feelings, now you are saying there is something wrong with your partner that goes straight to who they are–their character.

The person on the receiving end of an attack like this will most likely get very upset. Such disapproving messages from the person who is supposed to love and support us the most feel really terrible.

Ideally, our relationships are free of name-calling and similar Level 3 attacks. Otherwise, we cannot feel emotionally safe with our partner and intimacy will likely suffer.

A Level 4 Attack – Making Interpretations

This is when you tell your partner that they aren’t mad at you, they are really mad at their parent because of their childhood. Or that they aren’t really mad at you, they are mad at their boss. Or any other number of explanations you come up with to not have to take a look at your contribution to the problem and how your partner’s feelings may be perfectly valid.

While it may be true that your partner did have a bad childhood or a bad day at work, it doesn’t mean that something you are doing isn’t really triggering your partner in the here and now. Even if your partner is carrying around emotional baggage (aren’t we all?), it’s not your place to make interpretations or act as their therapist and psychoanalyze them. Leave that to the professionals. Instead, try to find what’s valid in your partner’s behavior and look at how you are likely contributing to how your partner is feeling and possibly even provoking them.

A Level 5 Attack – Criticizing Your Partner’s Intentions

This is when you decide YOU know why your partner is doing or saying a certain thing better than they do. For example, you may say, “You are saying this because you want us to fight–you enjoy it.” You try to tell your partner what their own reality is, and you ignore them when they tell you that your interpretation is off or unfair. At the same time, you are also sending the message that their intentions are bad. It can be very frustrating when we try to express ourselves and someone tells us that they know our real intentions better than we do. And even worse, that there is something really wrong with those intentions.

If you do feel that your partner truly has a blind spot when it comes to their emotional baggage and that they are acting out their stuff with you, then you might want to try saying something like, “I’m really confused. I’m wondering if you are feeling this way because it reminds you of something from your past. Perhaps due to the rejection you felt when your dad left?” This is more tentative and sounds like you are curious about your partner’s experience as opposed to outright telling your partner YOU know how they feel and why. Remember that you may be neglecting how your behavior triggers your partner. In that case, see my blog called, “Know Your Relationship Sensitivities and Own Them”.

Additionally, make sure you are not setting your partner up to be rewounded in a similar way than they may have experienced in their past. If your partner has trust issues due to being cheated on, don’t be secretive with your phone or email and don’t cheat! If your partner grew up feeling abandoned, don’t threaten the relationship whenever you get frustrated.

Aim to be a healing presence in your partner’s life, not someone who is going to hurt them the same way they have already been hurt. We all have sensitivities based on our emotional wounds from the past. It’s healing to have a partner who tries to work with us on those and to be sensitive to those raw spots. It’s rewounding to have someone who is constantly treating us in the same damaging way.

If your communication with your partner includes any of these attacks, you most likely have arguments that escalate and don’t get resolved. Your partner is probably defensive all the time and you may not even realize how provocative your attacks have been. Read my article, “Stop Fighting and Start Confiding.”

If you and your partner can’t find your way out of these negative patterns on your own, find a good marriage and family therapist in your area who can help.

This article was written by Relationship & Communication Coach, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

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How to Self Soothe

February 5, 2009

girl-looking-out-window2After a fight with our partner, it’s nice when we can come back together and process the argument, take responsibility for our parts, comfort each other and move on. Often, however, that is not what happens. Instead, couples fight, go their separate ways, and rile themselves up about how wrong their partner is. And when they finally do come back together they usually 1) apologize without really understanding what happened or 2) don’t apologize or process the fight and just try to move on, all the while holding onto resentment.

When you and your partner fight without resolution and you don’t have the chance to comfort each other due to the anger and resentment keeping you apart, the best thing you can do for yourself is to self-soothe. Self-soothing consists of giving yourself care and comfort that calms you down and helps you regulate your emotions. It doesn’t help you or your relationship to go to your own corner and dwell on what a jerk your partner can be. It’s better to remind yourself that both you and your partner are good people and that everyone has conflict.

Here are some more suggestions for self-soothing:

1) Take responsibility for your part. Did you attack your partner? Did you get defensive? Did you name call? Think about the piece that you contributed to the argument. This will give you more of a sense of control. Don’t keep thinking about your partner’s piece or what he/she did wrong. Focus on yourself only.

2) Take care of yourself physically. Be sure to take slow, deep breaths. Often when we are upset, we breath very shallowly, almost holding our breath. This increases anxiety. Take even and slow breaths for several minutes.

3) Do what makes you feel a little bit better. Fighting with loved ones is stressful. I realize that it’s not realistic to expect you to feel good while fighting with your partner. But there is always something you can do to feel a little better. This something is different for everyone. For some it’s listening to music, or even playing music like the guitar or piano. For others it’s going for a walk or jog. Some of my clients say that praying is comforting to them. Also, it’s been proven that petting an animal is soothing, so if you have a pet, cuddle up! Yoga or meditation may help you calm down. Additionally, talking to a close friend or family member can be soothing. Just be sure to reach out to those who will be of comfort to you and not someone who will make you feel worse. Lastly, don’t resort to abusing drugs or alcohol, as that will most likely rile you up or numb you out, instead of actually soothing you.

4) When you come back with your partner, talk about your part and how you contributed to the conflict. Without anger or criticism, your partner will likely be more responsive. Be willing to apologize for your piece and be forgiving of both your behaviors and your partner. Nobody is perfect.

5) Ask your partner for what you need. Focus more on what you want from him/her and not what you don’t want. We all respond better to positives (“Please put your phone down and talk to me,”) than negatives (“I hate when you text while we are out to dinner.”)

If your partner really IS being a “jerk”, see my blogs about how to stand up for yourself or how to take an uncompromising stand. Also, you can still use some of these self soothing techniques if you are recovering from a break up or even if you do not have a partner at all, but just need help managing your own emotions.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

Stop Fighting and Start Confiding

January 11, 2009

woman-hitting-boyfriend2One of my favorite couples therapists, Dan Wile taught me a simple way to help couples improve their communication and create more intimacy in their relationships. This is often a matter of just a few sentences.  At any time we can 1) CHOOSE to fight with our partner and turn them into an enemy or choose to 2) avoid them and turn them into a stranger or choose to 3) confide in them and create intimacy. The differences in these approaches are enormous.

#1) We can say something that will start a fight or we can get defensive. Either attacking our partner or defending ourselves from attack turns our partner into our enemy

#2) We can not say anything at all which leads us to avoid conflict, but it also turns our partner into someone who doesn’t know us very well and causes us to build resentment

#3) We can confide in our partner. We can tell them how we really feel (in a nonblaming way) and turn our partner into our confidante and support system

Here are a few examples of each of these 3 communication styles based on examples I have heard from couples I work with in private practice.

THE HOUSEKEEPING

If you want to turn your partner into an enemy you can scream “You are so lazy, you never help out around the house!” This will likely start a fight and your partner will likely either attack you back or become defensive. Or he/she may start cleaning the house, but he/she will build resentment along the way. This does not solve your problem.

If you want to turn your partner into a stranger you can just do all the housework yourself without mentioning that you would like some help (and build your own resentment).

Or you can take your partner into your confidence and say how you are really feeling such as, “I feel really taken advantage of when I get stuck doing all the housework.  What I’d like is for you to take out the trash and help me dry the dishes.”

JEALOUSY

You are at a party and it seems to you that your partner is spending a good amount of time talking to his new secretary and ignoring you. You can turn your partner into your enemy by saying, “How could you ignore me like that all night and spend all your time talking to that cow? You need to fire her immediately!”

You can turn your partner into a stranger by saying nothing and ignoring him on the ride home, and every time he asks what’s wrong you can say, “Oh nothing, I’m just tired.”

Or you can turn your partner into your ally by saying something like “I felt really jealous tonight watching you talk to your secretary for so long. I suppose I felt a bit abandoned. I would have liked it more if you could have spent more time introducing me to your co-workers and hung out with me more tonight.”

GUYS NIGHT OUT

If you want to turn your partner into your enemy you can say, “You never want to hang out with me, you just want to be with your friends all the time. Why don’t you marry them?”

If you want to turn your partner into a stranger, when he comes home from his guys’ night out you can say, “Hey, Dave Letterman’s on TV” or ignore him. Both are avoiding the issue.

Or if you want to take your partner into your confidence and open up an opportunity to possibly create intimacy you could say, “I probably should have said something earlier, but I feel like I haven’t had a lot of time with you lately, and I would have preferred if we could have hung out tonight. I guess I was hoping you would read my mind and just know that’s what I wanted, but I suppose that’s unrealistic. I miss you!”

In order to have the confiding conversation we have to a) be on good terms with our partner and trust that they will support us when we let down our guard and confide something that leaves us vulnerable b) we have to feel entitled to whatever it is we are feeling.  If we don’t feel entitled to have a hand with the cleaning around the house, or entitled to our momentary lapses of jealousy, then we will feel too ashamed to confide those feelings, and instead, we will usually choose the avoiding or attacking route.  Confiding can be a risk, and it’s often one that pays off.  There is no real risk in attacking or avoiding each other.

Confiding often helps create  intimacy with our partner. Our partner gets to see our softer side that we may often hide. When we are sad instead of angry, it’s easier for your partner to approach you and may make him/her able to reach out and soothe you. They probably don’t do that when you are lashing out at them.  Also, if you are taking responsibility for your own feelings and do not automatically blame your partner for how you feel, then your partner is less likely to have to defend themselves or attack you back.

But remember, if you want a great relationship with your partner you get to choose.  Are you going to start a fight, avoid the whole thing, or take your partner into your confidence?  Whatever you choose, you are also choosing the corresponding action—turning your partner into your friend/ally, a stranger, or an enemy.

The key to a great relationship is both partners trying to understand, respect and support each other.  It is not helping either of you or your relationship to attack each other, get defensive, or avoid each other.  To get intimacy with our partner, to be known by them, we need to tell them how we are feeling and what we think about things.  We did all this when we were falling in love, but somehow, along the way, we stop sharing our thoughts and feelings.

It’s easily for our partner to tune us out when we yell, blame, criticize or don’t speak up. When we feel threatened we automatically go into fight or flight, so your partner has to decide to either attack you back or flee the situation. When this happens, neither of you get your needs met and it erodes the safety that is necessary in relationships.

Yelling “You’re lazy,” or “You want your secretary!” or “You care more about the guys than me” is going to push your partner away, when want you really want is your partner to respect, understand and support you. But he/she probably can’t do that due to the approach you chose which is not respecting them, supporting them or understanding them.

The good news in all of this is that you get to choose! So start practicing confiding in your partner and see how your relationship becomes a more safe and intimate place.

If you find this difficult to do on your own, don’t hesitate to seek couples counseling to help you have more of these confiding conversations and less attacking or avoidant ones.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

One Simple Thing You Can Do to Improve Your Relationship

January 11, 2009

couple-on-beachAs a therapist, I am often asking clients what things mean to them. For example, when a client describes an event that happened, it’s important to ask what that meant to them, because people assign various meanings to the same exact events in their lives.

Nowhere is this more clear than in couples counseling. One recent example that comes to mind is a client who told me that his wife became furious when he asked her if the chicken they had at home was boneless or not. To him it was a simple question with very little meaning attached.

To his wife, it was a much different story. “He KNOWS I only keep boneless chicken in the house. That’s why I got so angry,” she said as if that explained everything. He protested that this wasn’t a dumb question and said that there was a good possibility that there could be other chicken in the house besides boneless chicken.”

This argument started to take off again in my office, but I finally interrupted and told them this was so NOT about the chicken. They were stumped. What else could it possibly be about then?

I asked the wife what it meant to her that her husband asked her about the chicken. She was confused about the question so I asked her again. (It’s sometimes hard for us to look deeper when it can so easily seem like it really is about chicken).

Once she looked inside and asked herself what this all meant, she came up with it. “It’s like he doesn’t even know me if he could ask a question like that. I only eat boneless chicken.” Once the client comes up with the meaning, it’s important for me to keep them there and help them explore their meanings and to help the other partner hear them too. It turns out the “He doesn’t know me,” meaning was a common theme behind most of their fights along with similar themes such as, “He only thinks of himself,” and “I’m not important to him.”

Once the husband understood the meaning his wife was ascribing to some of his seemingly mundane questions or actions, he was instantly able to empathize with her. He was not able to do that earlier, when all he saw coming from her was anger over what he thought was an innocent question about chicken.

If they had a better connection, he could get away with asking questions like these. But because the couple is already distressed, his wife is less tolerant of any hint of one of those themes coming up.

When we don’t stop to ask our partner what our question, comment, or behavior means to them, then what we see on the surface (usually anger or withdrawl) becomes the focus of the argument and not what’s going on emotionally for each other underneath it all. We lose an opportunity to really get to know each other when we don’t understand our partner’s meaning.

The next time your partner is mad at you or withdrawing from you or engaging in some other behavior that doesn’t make sense to you, ask a variation of the following:

“What did it mean to you that I…asked about the chicken?”
“What happened for you when I told you…(add yours here)?”
“Help me understand what it means to you that I…(add yours here).”

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.