Category Archives: Conflict

Six Words to Express Yourself while Keeping the Peace

“Imagination”—Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

Two people with different opinions can have an effective discussion if they listen to each other and speak in a way that will make them likely to be listened to. Here is an effective way to transition to your own point of view:

“Yes, though I see it differently.”

“Yes”

“Yes” shows that you have heard what the other person said. Of course it’s important to actually listen to the other person. “Yes” can be expanded to express what you understand the other person’s viewpoint to be.

For example, “Yes, I see that you think I criticized you.”

“Yes, I understand that you are really angry.”

“Yes, I recognize that she yelled at you.”

Tone

Tone of voice is key. A tone of condescension will cause the other person to bristle. A tone of hostility will cause the other to become defensive. A tone of weakness or victimhood will trigger the bully in the other person. So your tone should express self confidence as well as respect for the other.

“Though I see it differently”

Stating that you see things differently is quite different from saying one of the following:

“You’re wrong.”

“That’s stupid.”

“No, you don’t understand.”

It’s hard for the other person to argue against you simply because you “see things differently.” By approaching a difficult conversation in this way, you can politely and calmly introduce other considerations.

Your viewpoint

When you express your opinion, use terms such as “I believe,” “I think,” “My experience is,” “I have noticed,” “I want,” or “I need.”

For example, “I believe her anger comes from fear and not knowing how to communicate effectively. So I want to give her a chance.”

“To me, time alone is re-energizing; it’s not about being away from you. I simply need to recharge.”

“I really value compromise. I want to figure out a way to satisfy both of us as best as possible.”

Most discussions involve viewpoints rather than facts. So it’s best to avoid assuming a false dichotomy where only one person is right and the other is wrong. Others are more likely to really listen to you when you use words and body language that show respect and understanding for different points of view.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


Contempt, Lying & Outside Relationships

“Song of Maui” by Mimi Stuart ©

My boyfriend is texting, calling, and attempting to meet up with his ex or another new girl every time we have a (terrible) fight and he lies about them. I know he’s sick and tired of our constant fights and we have issues such as contempt/disrespect from my side and communication/withdrawal/leadership issues from his side.

Should I just be a big girl and ignore these behaviors as there is no physical cheating yet? Are these behaviors harmless?

M

Dear M,

The behaviors you are each engaged in are very destructive to the relationship.

Contempt and disrespect

You say you treat your boyfriend with contempt and disrespect. No relationship can withstand contempt for long. Often people are disrespectful because they blame their frustrations on their partner and don’t know how to effectively express those frustrations.

Let’s focus on you. You obviously do not feel good about yourself and your behavior in this relationship. Consider John Gottman’s research that shows that if 80% of communication is not positive between a couple, that relationship will disintegrate. As you really only have control over your own conduct, eliminate your disrespectful behavior and your life will improve whether or not you stay with your boyfriend.

To sustain a good relationship, you need to clearly and respectfully communicate your needs and expectations, while actively listening to your partner’s point of view. You need to learn to communicate effectively and respectfully, through counseling or effective communication classes, such as Marshall Rosenberg’s “nonviolent communication,” where you learn to express your desires without putting the other person on the defensive. It is very self-empowering to be able to clearly express yourself without judgment, contempt, or manipulation.

Seeking outside relationships and lying

I can see why your boyfriend would want to seek validation from others if you are treating him with contempt. But pursuing others without breaking up first and then lying to you afterwards shows that he is willing to deceive you and deny you your own life choices for the sake of his convenience.

You cannot trust someone who wants to continue a relationship while secretly exploring new ones. You cannot enjoy a committed relationship with someone who does not have the courage to be honest with you.

Thus, I suggest leaving this relationship to the realm of life experience and learning, and instead focus on the way you handle yourself in future relationships.

What now?

If I were in your situation, I would start by taking responsibility for my own behavior. If you find yourself treating anyone with contempt, apologize immediately and show a willingness to stop that harmful behavior. Find a positive way to express your needs and desires.

In the future, the main thing is that both partners learn to listen to one another without judgment and argument. You should be able to discuss anything, including hurt feelings and even breaking up while treating the other person humanely. Focus on speaking candidly in a compassionate way in order to make the relationship work.

Good luck.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Narcissism Part 5: How to Deal with a Narcissist.

“Roar of the Raptor” by Mimi Stuart©

Don’t Trust a Narcissist

Avoid seeking a trusting intimate relationship with a narcissist. If you decide to enjoy the narcissist’s charm and charisma, do not get carried away into trusting him or her with inner secrets. Do not set yourself up for betrayal and hurt by having confidence in his or her loyalty. Do not let your feelings of self-worth depend on a narcissist’s love, actions or behavior.

Speak to the Narcissist’s Self-interest

It is generally helpful in a relationship to express your feelings or needs. But if you are dealing with a true narcissist, do not expect empathy and understanding. You will be more effective in communicating with a narcissist when you show how certain actions or behavior might benefit him or her.

Don’t Disagree

Beware of disagreeing with or contradicting narcissists. They behave as though they are strong and confident but they are easily offended. They do not want to be viewed as inadequate. If you confront their weaknesses, they may become vengeful and punishing. Keep your discussion focused on practical goals rather than personal accountability.

Be on your Guard

Narcissists hide their own flaws and project problems on to other people. Beware of allowing them to blame you for too much. If you are doing business with a narcissist, keep a paper trail. In marriage or divorce, hire a good attorney.

Separating from Narcissistic Parents

It is sad to be raised by narcissistic parents, because they view their children as extensions of their own false self-image they present to the world. If the child disagrees with a narcissistic parent, that parent becomes hostile and volatile. If the child does not embrace the family image or the image the parent projects onto the child, the narcissistic parent rejects or loses interest in the child. It is helpful not to take this personally, but rather to see that the parent’s callousness and preoccupation with family image are caused by his or her own low self-esteem.

Don’t hope for Change

It takes a lot of motivation for anyone to change. Unfortunately, narcissists rarely have the desire to change because they don’t think they need to, as they are not self-reflective. Their underlying problem is a weak sense of self. Thus, they focus on developing a strong outer shell consisting of their image. They rarely seek counseling, but if they do go, they tend to manipulate the situation in order to look good rather than become self-aware to improve their lives.

If you are in relationship with a narcissist, it is helpful to recognize their traits in order to protect yourself. You can then choose when to encourage the narcissist’s self-image, when to fortify your sense of humor, and when to avoid dealing with him or her all together.

Avoid being Narcissistic

Note that it is natural and healthy for a child to go through a narcissistic stage. Even as adults, most of us still have some mild narcissistic tendencies. So while it feels good to be praised and complimented, we should beware of becoming dependent on others for their validation, admiration, and approval to boost our feelings of self-worth. Psychological dependence on others comes at a cost. Thus, it is important to be reflective to make sure we are considering and balancing our own self-interest with the wellbeing of others.

There is a big difference, however, between being simply insecure or self-centered and having the condition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you are self-reflective enough to even wonder whether you are a narcissist, let alone read a psychology blog, it is highly unlikely that you are!

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read Narcissism Part 1: Symptoms

Read “Dealing with the narcissist.”

References: “Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.”

When is “distancing” beneficial to your relationship, and when is it harmful?

“Romance of Flight” by Mimi Stuart ©

There are times when “distancing” — seeking more space between partners — is the best thing you can do for the relationship, and there are times when it is harmful. Ideally, there is a balance between distance and togetherness, that is, between being self-contained and sharing thoughts and feelings. Too much of either separateness or connection will cause relationship problems.

Usually people who resist distancing are the ones who need to learn to become more self-contained, and those who crave distance would benefit from learning to balance their need for connection with independence.

When too much connection is harmful and distancing is beneficial

In general, people who are needy and eager to pursue connection may have one or more of the following characteristics:

• they need a lot of attention, approval, or validation,

• they express their thoughts and opinions without discretion, either complaining too much or making perpetual observations even if tedious or uninteresting,

• they are afraid to do things alone—e.g., to see friends or family, pursue interests and hobbies, etc., or

• they don’t have control over their emotions, and tend to express too many negative emotions to their partner.

When people focus too much on getting their needs met by another person, the relationship becomes fused, boundaries dissolve, and anxiety becomes increasingly infectious. The assumption of people who tend to fuse emotionally is that others are responsible for their own well-being. Such expectations increase pressure, anxiety, and disappointment, because people ultimately cannot provide well-being to another person without diminishing that person’s selfhood and independence.

When two people focus on getting their own needs met and become more independent, their relationship tends to flourish and become more reciprocal.

When is distancing harmful

If you feel hurt, angry, or resentful toward your partner, you might need a little time to calm down (to withdraw or seek distance) to figure out if you need to talk to your partner, let the situation slide, or take some sort of action. Hopefully, you will only need a few minutes to sort it out. In more serious situations you may need more time, or you may even need to talk to someone outside the relationship to get help.

Make sure, however, to avoid distancing when it is motivated by a desire to punish, to manipulate, or to avoid conflict.

• Distancing to punish

Beware of using distancing in a punitive way. If you withdraw to punish your partner, you will only further exacerbate the negative relationship dynamic. Your aim should be to understand and respect each other, not to hurt each other.

• Distancing to manipulate

Beware of distancing as a means to manipulate your partner. Causing your partner to fear abandonment may get your partner’s attention, but it will damage the relationship in the long run. Controlling someone through their emotions creates resentment and prevents open, honest communication.

• Distancing to avoid conflict

If your fear of your partner’s reactions causes you to become distant, you deny yourself the opportunity to develop true intimacy, which requires honesty, trust, and openness. Don’t shy away from expressing your feelings and desires but do so respectfully and be ready to listen and discuss.

In conclusion, appropriate self-containment is an important ingredient of a healthy relationship but it’s important to avoid using distance as a way to hurt or manipulate your partner, to avoid conflict, or to get attention. Learn to balance your emotional independence with candid, caring connection.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

“Stop nagging me about watching the game!”

“Sweetness” Walter Payton by Mimi Stuart ©

While some sacrifices need to be made in any relationship, giving up what you truly enjoy will only lead to resentment. It won’t enhance the passion and vitality between the two of you.

Make sure you find a balance between spending quality time together and pursuing your own passions. Your relationship will flourish if each person supports the other in pursuing their interests, while also making an effort to come together to enjoy each other on a regular basis.

Yet don’t expect you or your partner to behave perfectly. If your partner becomes controlling, be civil while expressing how important your own interests are to you. For example,

“Please don’t ask me to give up something that I truly enjoy. I’d like to watch the game without feeling guilty about it. But I really want to do something with you later when the game’s over.”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Related article: “Were you out on the golf course again? I’ve been here alone all afternoon.”

When texting is no longer reciprocal.
“Does she still like me?”

“Duet” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

It would be a miracle to find another person to whom you’re attracted and who shares the same expectations and attitude toward relationships that you do. One person may feel hurt when his texts aren’t responded to often enough. The other person may feel dejected when she doesn’t get a gift for her birthday. The list of small frustrations that can cause disappointment is endless.

To have a great relationship, these differences are of minor significance. Partners can and should differ as to their preferences in how much to text, as they do in every other aspect of life. Relationships succeed best when both sides accept many of the harmless differences. What is important is communicating your more important desires and wishes in a way that avoids the following:

1. Attacking the other person, which puts him or her on the defensive and closes off productive and meaningful conversation. “You’re so rude! Why do you wait so long to text me back?”

2. Controlling the other person, which is belittling and demeaning and ignores the other person’s point of view. “When I text you, I want you to get right back to me. Do you understand?”

3. Whining about the situation — a childish and needy attitude — , which is used as a means to manipulate the other. “I miss hearing from you. Are you too busy for me?”

4. Silently holding a grudge, which builds up resentment and resolves nothing.

You can manipulate or badger someone into a desired behavior. But when someone’s actions are emotionally coerced, the strength and autonomy of the individual is undermined. The result is resentment in lieu of passion.

It’s much better to entice the other person with your independence and full life. If necessary, express your desires honestly while being mindful of the other person’s feelings and autonomy.

When addressing your frustrations, start the conversation with a sense of self-respect as well as consideration for the other person. Most important are a tone of voice and body language that embody your respect for the other person’s autonomy as well as your own desires.

In summary,

1. Respect yourself and the fact that you have personal needs and desires.

2. Respect the other person’s autonomy and right to have different attitudes and freely make decisions.

3. Express your desires with a positive specific request.

4. Ask the other person what he or she thinks about your request.

For example, “Hey, I really enjoy hearing back from you when I text you. Lately, you haven’t responded very much. Am I texting you too much?”

Or “It seems as though you’ve been pretty busy lately. What’s going on?”

Some people think they need to be aloof and hard-to-get to be attractive. Others wear their emotions on their sleeve. Both can be off-putting. What matters is how you manifest your feelings for someone. You can express your desire as long as you aren’t desperate and needy, on the one hand, or controlling and manipulative, on the other. There is nothing more attractive than someone who can express desire or love while still maintaining a sense of self and having the self-discipline to resist engaging in a mediocre relationship.

“I really think you’re special and enjoy spending time with you. Lately, I get the sense that you are backing off, and would like to know if that’s right.”

Whether this relationship works out or not, it’s important to start relationships with clear and positive communication to to be able to figure out how to reconcile your different expectations. Whether you’ve just been dating for a month or married for 25 years, communicating openly with respect is the way to keep the relationship improving.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD