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Getting the Most Out of a Good Family Fight

February 11, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

"You slob!

"You left your socks on the floor again! What do you think I am, your personal maid? Your mother was a total failure when it came to raising you!"

(Family Life this week is eavesdropping on the Joneses, a hypothetical, but not necessarily typical, Orange County family. They are showing us the wrong way to have a family fight. Now, let's get back to the action. Mary Jones is continuing her assault on her husband, John.)

"Of course, I found out long ago just how irresponsible and unreliable you are. Remember that Saturday night 12 years ago when you just had to go out with the boys, no matter how much it hurt me? We had only been married a month, but you didn't care. You don't care about anything, do you?"

(At first, John refuses to be dragged in. He struggles to keep his attention focused on the television. But the pressure builds, and by the next commercial, he's ready to launch his counterattack, interrupting Mary in mid-sentence.)

"You're calling me a slob? Look in the mirror, tubby! Or have you looked in your car lately? It's like a rolling trash can! And it wouldn't even be rolling if it weren't for me. You don't even know how to check your oil, let alone change it! I have to be responsible for everything in this family!"

(Uh-oh. Nine-year-old Billy has just entered the room to ask a question.)

"Can I ride my bike down to the park?" he asks.

"Sure," says his father, who has turned his attention back to the TV.

"Wait a minute," Mary says. "Is your room clean?" Billy looks down at his shoes and shakes his head.

"Then you can't go until it is."

"But Dad said . . . "

"Dad doesn't know what he's talking about. He hasn't even picked up his socks. I can see where you get your sloppy tendencies."

"You want 'em picked up?" John shouts. "No problem. Catch! You want my shoes too?" he asks, hurling a sneaker in Mary's direction. Then he walks out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Joining us now are our commentators, psychologists Marvin Rofsky of Orange, Rosalyn Laudati of Brea, Charles Browning of Los Alamitos and Don Steckdaub of Anaheim Hills. In their work with couples and families, they've seen more fights than Howard Cosell. Our fictional family fight was based on their observations.

First of all, let's put this in perspective. Fighting is an essential part of family interaction, isn't it?

Absolutely, Rofsky says. "People who don't fight probably don't communicate. If a couple comes in and tells me how wonderful things are between them because they never fight, I'm very suspicious that there is real avoidance between them."

Laudati agrees. The problem, she says, is that too many of us don't know how to fight. "The people I see are usually really terrible at it," she says. "That's one of the things I have to teach people right off the bat."

In many cases, Steckdaub says, fighting skills are lacking because "more often than not, at least one member has been raised in a dysfunctional family and never learned the skills of intimacy, of healthy give and take. Their parents did the best job they could, but too often it was not a very good job. They learned so much garbage that was just untrue and inappropriate." Steckdaub, by the way, prefers the term "disagreement" when referring to a healthy fight.

"It's possible to bring something worthwhile and meaningful out of fights," Browning says. "Look at the example of the oyster. It can take a small irritant such as a grain of sand and turn it into something beautiful and valuable--a pearl."

Let's roll the instant replay now and see what the Joneses could have done to make their fight constructive instead of destructive. Mary made the first mistake in the way she initiated the fight. "You need to get control of negative, angry thoughts and make up your mind that you are not going to attack, raise your voice, whine, complain or label the other person," Browning says.

But didn't John start the fight by leaving his socks on the floor in the first place? No, because there is nothing inherently wrong with doing that. The socks didn't bother him. But they did bother Mary.

Name-calling--"You slob!"--is definitely against the rules, all our experts agree. And Mary's complaint would have come across more effectively if she had begun her sentences not with the word "you" but with "I." That way, "you're talking about your feelings, not making accusations," Rofsky says.

"Never blame or use the word 'you,' " Browning says. "The words 'you,' 'always' and 'never' are poison. Cut them out of your vocabulary. Instead of pointing the finger at the other person, point it at yourself and talk about what you want and need."

Rofsky would have Mary saying something like this: "I'm upset that I'm left with the responsibility for picking up your socks." (You're right, it doesn't sound nearly as interesting that way. But we're not writing a sitcom here.)

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