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Birds and Bees

Turning Your Back on Conflict Is the Real Culprit

July 30, 2001|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the first years of marriage, Nancy Silverman panicked at the signs of marital conflict.

"I thought, 'This is it. It is going to be divorce,"' recounted Silverman, who lives in Calabasas with her husband of 11 years, Mark, and their 4-month-old twins. "My tendency was to avoid it, stuff the emotion, store it and then blow."

Since then, Silverman has learned a few things.

"I still hate conflict, but at least I don't have this panic that 'Oh, God, it is over,' or the feeling of wanting to flee when it happens," said Silverman, who with her husband learned conflict resolution skills in a couples education course called Pairs.

Blame mythic romantic ideas about love for contaminating couples with the popular belief that perfectly matched lovers (i.e. soul mates) don't fight. That's pure hogwash, say psychologists and therapists.

"Conflict is not a sign of a bad marriage, it is a sign of marriage," said Michele Weiner Davis, a Woodstock, Ill., therapist.

Indeed, almost 70% of all marital conflicts never go away, according to research conducted by University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, a leading researcher on conflict in marriages and relationships.

Most couples have recurring arguments over what Gottman calls "perpetual issues" (usually money, housework and sex). Many of these conflicts never get resolved, he said.

But conflicts that don't devolve into destructive, belittling, disparaging battles come with a silver lining, said Gottman, author of "The Relationship Cure" (Crown, 2001).

"Conflict opens up the dialogue between a couple," he said. "A lot of conflict is over the conversation a couple needed to have but didn't have so they have a fight instead."

Conflict-driven dialogue won't necessarily change partners' points of view, he stressed, but it can move a couple from an adversarial position to one of mutual respect and renewed intimacy.

Discord is the negotiating table of a relationship, the place where mates' viewpoints are compared, potentially bearing compromise, said Frank S. Pittman III, an Atlanta psychiatrist and author of numerous books on relationships. Conflict also is a way to keep courtship alive, with the separation and subsequent coming together (read: making up) acting to regenerate intimacy, said Gottman.

The problem with conflict is that most people are deeply uncomfortable with it, said Michele Baldwin, a Chicago therapist. As Kate Bush, a USC classics professor who lives with her husband and two children in Santa Monica, puts it: "It just feels so bad."

Conflict feels especially bad if it is approached when people are flush with anger, frustration and hostility. This is the worst time to talk about a problem.

When the brain is flooded with emotions, as it is when we are upset, angry and in conflict, said Baldwin, "We cannot think clearly."

This is when conflict devolves into name-calling, character assassination and irrational references to old offenses--all in the name of, say, choosing a color of paint for the bathroom.

"But the worst thing you can do in a relationship is have issues that you keep from your partner because you want to avoid conflict," said Baldwin. "Then there is resentment, which creates distance."

Like Silverman, Jennifer Stapke first tried avoiding conflict with her husband to "get along" and out of fear that conflict would fracture the union. But over the course of her 12-year-marriage, she has realized maintaining intimacy means airing differences.

"The major thing I have learned is to have the discussion, even though it is going to be a conflict because he doesn't feel the same way I do," said Stapke, a flight attendant who lives in Santa Monica.

"I would much rather talk than not talk. For example, we wanted to buy a new car. I wanted a minivan. He didn't. If we didn't talk about it, there was big wall between us."

Most couples are flummoxed over the practical aspects of how to bring up a disagreement with their mate and how to reach a compromise or detente, said Bernard Guerney Jr., a clinical psychologist and director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement in Bethesda, Md.

But conflict worked out cooperatively leads to real intimacy by teaching "what is important to that person, what hurts them and what makes them happy."

What is critical to the process, said Baldwin, is each person has to adopt a win-win attitude and stop insisting that his or her point of view is right, which means the partner is wrong.

"My husband has a joke about this," said Baldwin, who is married to a psychiatrist. "He likes to say, 'I gave up the need to be right, but, of course, I know I am right."'

Baldwin and her husband teach the marriage education course Pairs, which instructs couples to talk about the conflict at a "meeting" when both partners are calm.

Each person listens to the other and restates what was said. Often, one partner realizes how much the other is hurt by a behavior or how strongly he or she feels about an issue, then gives in.

At the least, a couple comes to understand one another better through the encounter and grows closer, said Baldwin.

"It's the art of compromise," said Silverman. "When I think over the years about the major issues we have dealt with, talking about it has always brought us closer.

"It is always better to talk about it; otherwise, it comes out somewhere else. You can either let it drive you apart or bring you closer together.".... What is critical to the process is each person has to adopt a win-win attitude and stop insisting that his or her point of view is right, which means the partner is wrong.

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