Tag Archives: conflict

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

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


Contempt:
“You’re always scowling at me!”

"Forlorn Heart" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Contempt breaks the heart, because it implies that one person considers the other as undeserving of respect. Studies have shown that people who make sour facial expressions when their spouses talk are likely to be separated within four years. The dissolution of the relationship may take longer, but contempt will steadily and painfully eat away at a relationship, even when there are a few good times in between. In an atmosphere of contempt, partners find it difficult to remember any positive qualities about each other. So the vicious cycle of disdain and hurt gets worse and more irreversible with time.

It is crucial to break this cycle before it gets a stranglehold on the relationship. If your partner talks down to you, express your desire and need to be treated with love and respect. Be firm, but compassionate enough to be listened to. Try saying something like, “You may not be aware of this or mean anything by it, but you look as though you dislike me. Your facial expression makes me feel defensive and bad. I would love it if you could look at me with love and kindness.”

If your partner doesn’t get it, show him or her the research on relationships and contempt. Get any of John Gottman’s books, such as “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” that show the mathematical research on the effects of contempt on a relationship. Tell your partner that life is too short to spend time together if both of you are not willing to try to bring the best of yourselves to the relationship.

While you can’t control another person, you do have control over what kind of behavior you are willing to accept, and whom you spend time with. If your partner knows that you have the desire and courage to leave an unsatisfactory relationship you will retain power over your own life. If you’re determined not to let contemptuous behavior slide, your partner will be hard pressed to continue to treat you poorly. If the behavior continues despite your ongoing efforts, the only solution may be to limit or end the relationship before heartache and misery overwhelm you.

A loving relationship based on respect requires a sense of self-respect on your part. People who exude self-respect by stopping or withdrawing from others who talk down to them are more attractive than those who accept contempt. Expecting respect can be a more powerful aphrodisiac than unconditional acceptance. But it has to be backed up by the courage to remove yourself from an unhealthy relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

John Gottman’s website.

Read “Criticism and Contempt.”

“How can you be so naïve! Don’t get mad at me when I’m just pointing out how he takes advantage of you!”

"Syncopation" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

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

John Gottman’s research shows that the first three minutes of a discussion determines the tone and direction of the remainder of the discussion in 96% of cases. Criticisms, such as “You’re so naïve,” or “Why are you so selfish?” do the most harm at the beginning of a discussion. So be careful how you start a conversation.

Gottman found that happy couples express near zero contempt toward their partner even in times of conflict. They usually discuss their problems in a neutral way. Moreover, when they do experience conflict, they have fewer emotional exchanges during the conflict than unhappy couples.

Thus, it is critical to avoid expressing negative emotions during a conflict or an argument. This includes thinly-veiled contempt or an air of superiority.

The following behaviors are very predictive of a doomed relationship:

1. escalation of conflict

2. negative interpretation of comments

3. invalidation of the partner

4. withdrawal from the partner

How to approach your partner to talk about a problem

It’s best to startup the conversation in a positive way, particularly if you’re dealing with someone who tends to become defensive.

1. Be positive. “Honey, I love you and care about you very much. I’d like to talk to you about a concern I have. Is this a good time?”

2. Neutrally and briefly mention the facts, your feelings and your wishes without being critical, superior, or controlling. “In the past, I’ve seen your friend not follow through on his end of the deal. I appreciate that you want to see the best in people. Yet it makes me sad and frustrated to see you disappointed and aggravated when he disappoints you. I don’t want to tell you what to do. I am just reminding you that he has taken advantage of you in the past, and I hope that you can avoid letting a similar situation happen again.”

3. Stop and listen carefully to the other person’s response without jumping in to clarify or defend yourself.

4. When the person’s finished, try to be understanding. Repeat his concerns back to him so he knows you are listening. End the conversation with humor and/or appreciation. “Thanks for listening to my concern.”

5. If the time comes when your partner complains about being used, simply use humor or compassion, and say, “Yep, that’s too bad,” without being drawn into any drama.

6. If he continues to complain, say “I know. It’s disappointing. But let’s focus on something we can change. Hopefully you will not trust him in the future. ”

Finally, it’s important to avoid trying to control another person. You can give a warning to him and protect yourself as best you can. But remember that if you allow differences in personality to lead to an escalatiion in conflict, the resulting negativity is likely to become more damaging than the issue you are arguing about.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Reference: John Gottman’s “The Science of Trust.”

Read “I end up arguing with him because he’s usually too busy working to talk.”

Watch “How to Respond to Rudeness: ‘I TOLD you to get it for me!!!’”

Read “Dealing with conflict and volatility: ‘You’re being irrational!’”

Dealing with conflict and volatility: “You’re being irrational!”

"Question"—Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Question”—Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

Be a skilled listener

“Talk to me” is the motto for the New York City hostage negotiations team. When dealing with extremely dangerous, volatile, and emotionally-laden situations, the most effective skill is active listening. The best negotiators interrupt less and listen more. They ask questions, generally simple ones. The same can be said for negotiating differences of opinion in any relationship.

There is a universal desire to be heard and understood. Often people become angry and irrational because they can find no other way to be heard. When people shout, repeat themselves, withdraw, or attack, you can surmise that they feel and resent not being heard.

Hold off responding to their actions or behavior. Do not argue. First you need to really listen and understand their underlying interests.

Skilled listening will satisfy their desire to be heard, build trust and connection, and buy time in a difficult situation. Skilled listening is more likely to win the other person’s consideration toward you and is one of the best ways to find out the other person’s interests so you can find creative solutions.

Ask simple questions

Rather than arguing, ask questions to uncover the other person’s underlying desires and needs. Often the most powerful question is the simplest question, and may even feel like an obvious one. Rather than objecting, arguing and responding, just truly listen in order to understand the other person’s perspective.

Minimal prompts are best, “Hmmm.” “Go on.” “I see.” But it’s critical that body language conveys that you are interested in what they have to say. Demonstrate curiosity and understanding, not skepticism or contempt. For example, lean forward, look at the person, and demonstrate a relaxed interested demeanor.

Check your understanding

Every now and then repeat back and paraphrase what the other person says to make sure you’re getting that perspective right. Mirroring the other person should be neither a linguistic trick nor compliance, but a true effort to reflect back the other person’s perspective.

Many high stakes professions involve active listening and mirroring. Think of pilots talking to the control tower and how each repeats what the other has said. Think of doctors and assistants during surgery, as well as lawyers and court reporters in court proceedings.

Showing that you understand and that you are addressing a person’s interests calms everyone down and makes problem solving possible. Mirroring the other person also builds rapport. The goal is to get the other person to say “Exactly!” when you paraphrase him or her.

Start with broad open-ended questions that don’t have a yes or no answer.

1. “Talk to me.”

2. “Would you explain to me your situation.”

3. “I would like to understand what your perspective is on the matter.”

4. “Tell me about your needs and desires and what you’re hoping for.”

Insights emerge from what the other person says and doesn’t say.

Then ask narrower questions, such as,

“You say you want to have more time together. Can you say more about that.”

Eventually you can ask more specific yes or no questions.

“Would you feel happy if we could a weekly date night and Saturday afternoons together?”

While hostage negotiations are much more explosive than typical day-to-day negotiations or relationship conflicts, the same principles hold. Research shows that the most successful sales people talk less and let the buyer talk more. Happy couples spend more time trying to understand and support their partner than trying to drive home their point and get their way. So, to become happier and more successful in your relationships, move away from the football metaphor of offense and defense to that of a scientist and focus on curiosity and understanding.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Reference: Professor Seth Freeman’s “The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal.” Thanks to Professor Freeman and his excellent Audio course from The Great Courses.

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Read “Didn’t you hear what I just said!”

Watch “Dealing with Angry People.”

Negotiating and resolving conflict: “I’m buying a new car and that’s that. ”

"Formula Farley" by Mimi Stuart©

“Formula Farley” by Mimi Stuart©

Some people face conflict by becoming overbearing while others become overly accommodating. The key to problem-solving is to get away from focusing on positions and move to focusing on underlying interests and concerns.

Interests vs. Positions

Interests rarely conflict, whereas positions often do. To avoid taking positions and getting nowhere, you need to take the time to figure out what the other person’s interests are. It’s best to start out by gaining rapport and being willing to truly understand the other person’s perspective.

Here are five key steps in successful communication when facing opposing positions

1. Show respect. Build trust by being respectful and honest. When people feel disrespected or mistreated, they will act irrationally even if they hurt everyone else as well as themselves.

2. Listen. Give the other person a chance to be heard. Allow the other person to fully express concerns without your interrupting or being dismissive of those concerns. Often people become more flexible and accommodating when someone takes the time to understand his or her point of view. Moreover, when you understand another person’s perspective, you will be able have a more productive discussion.

3. Find out the other person’s underlying interest or concern. Avoid focusing on the position, for instance, “I’m buying a new car,” and find out what the underlying desires and concerns are, for instance, “I don’t want a car that might break down on the highway,” or “It would look better to my clients if I drove a nice car,” or “I’ve had a rough year, I need to do something nice for myself.”

4. Figure out what your own underlying concern is and explain it to the other person. Your position might be, “I don’t want you to buy a new car,” but your interest might be “I want us to minimize spending money because I want some financial security,” or “I want to make sure we have enough money to go on vacation,” or “I don’t want to buy a new car that loses value the moment you drive it off the lot.”

5. Creatively search for solutions together that satisfy both parties’ interests and be open to discussion. In the car-buying case, an effective discussion might involve considering concerns about long-term financial security, driving safety, and the pleasure of owning a nicer car.

Successful negotiations and dealing with conflict require patience and work. Yet the benefits of handling conflicts effectively are enormous. When you learn to collaborate with someone who has different interests than you and to handle impasses with wisdom and principles, you mitigate anger, resentment, and anxiety while enhancing your relationships and everyone’s contentment.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Read “When she gets angry, I feel overwhelmed and have to withdraw.”

Reference: Professor Seth Freeman’s “The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal.”