Question: On the whole, my spouse and I are highly compatible and have an excellent marriage. But whenever we experience even the slightest disagreement, she feels threatened and becomes emotionally agitated to the point where a reasonable discussion is impossible. I’ve always been a pretty passionate person, but this has put a real damper on my freedom of self-expression. It’s also created a situation in which differences are simply dropped and never really dealt with. How can we develop a healthier approach to conflict resolution?


We have good news for you: there’s a sense in which you’re already ahead of the game. By objectively (and correctly) identifying your problem as "unhealthy conflict resolution," you’ve taken a big step in the right direction. You’ve moved beyond the dysfunction of those couples who tend to get bogged down in blaming one another for their own negative feelings. You can imagine the sort of interchanges that characterize that kind of marriage: "If you would only stop . . . !" or "If you would only change . . . !" And so on, ad infinitum. By way of contrast, you have enough sense to see that both you and your spouse have issues that need to be resolved. This is a vitally important insight.

Differences in family of origin

Your description of your situation leads us to assume that the two of you grew up in families that modeled two very different ways of responding to conflict. You, on the one hand, appear to be the product of a very vocal environment – a place where there were lots of arguments and free-for-alls and where people gave vent to their feelings without restraint. This may explain your penchant for "passionate" self-expression. What you need to bear in mind is that passion can be a fine thing if you keep it under control. If you don’t, it can easily come across as insensitivity or intolerance towards the thoughts and feelings of others. When this happens, you may find that your spouse isn’t the only one who clams up when you start talking.

Understanding messages from childhood

Your spouse, on the other hand, seems to be overly sensitive. This raises all kinds of questions. What is it that’s triggering her rather extreme and unreasonable reaction to your forthright expression of your opinions? Was she the victim of some kind of childhood abuse? Did she have an overly critical parent? Was she brought up in a repressive environment and taught to fear open expressions of emotion? Whatever the reason, something is causing her to shut down when she senses the approach of any kind of opposition or negativity. It’s possible that messages from her childhood are drowning out the ideas you’re trying to communicate. This in turn only aggravates your anger and sets a vicious cycle in motion.

Breaking the anger cycle

How do you break that cycle? We recommend that you get together and make a conscious decision to jump off the merry-go-round. Recognize that neither of you are bad people, just well-meaning folks who need to leave the past behind and learn better communication skills. The best way to do this is to seek the assistance of a professional marriage counsellor – an objective third party who can help you understand each other more accurately and introduce you to some new ways of talking about your differences. Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling department can provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists in your area who specialize in communication issues. Our staff would also be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone. You can contact them Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800. Phone lines open at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays.

© 2010 Focus on the Family. Used by permission.

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