Peter Pearson

It was their first session. And the tension that filled the air was thick as grits. They'd come about an affair. Or rather, the aftershocks of it. They implored, “Can this marriage be saved?”

When I asked this couple how they had argued during the twenty seven years of marriage, they could recall only three times raising their voices at each other. On the surface their marriage looked as placid as the waters that hid the Loch Ness monster.

How influential was this avoidance of disagreement to their current plight? That's the question that jumped out at me.

For many couples fighting is a sign of things gone awry. Couples often ask me, “What does fighting accomplish?” I wish I had an answer convincing enough to encourage them to be more open and candid with each other.  Through constructive disagreement we can define and clarify what is important and priority for us. That's one of the greatest benefits.

Working through disagreements can bring about a greater sense of trust, closeness and a stronger bond. But many couples have a very negative association about strong disagreement.

Couples who are highly conflict avoidant will perform strenuous verbal feats to escape being pinned down. They also avoid being well known. Strong emotions are strangled so sufficiently that by the time they reach the point of expression they are as interesting as yesterday's oatmeal.

Conflict avoidant people are generally compassionate, feeling people who have a lot of concern and respect for the opinion of others. But this concern creates a big aversion to difficult discussions. The discussion is so fraught with anticipated peril, it doesn't take place until there is a crisis which no longer can be over looked. But the bigger problem is that people who feel this way have little experience dealing with strong disagreements, so the dialogue is even more distressing for them.

If this sounds familiar, you'll understand that now the avoidant pattern becomes even more entrenched. Because it was so bad, you redouble your efforts to avoid another disaster. If successful, you will create a relationship that is calm but not intimate.

There are sound biological reasons for not wanting to offend important people in your life. Our evolutionary survival depended on getting along with others in the clan. It's in our genes.  Get along or perish.

It's not just couples who are anxious about upsetting each other.

Many politicians are so afraid of offending constituents they camouflage opinions. They do it so thoroughly, they'd make any chameleon proud. Fearful of revealing what they really believe, too many politicos are unwilling to go out on a limb.

The U.S Defense Secretary said in assessing a Polish crisis in 1984, “There's continuing ground for serious concern and the situation remains serious. The longer it remains serious, the more ground there is for serious concern.”

The first president Bush was questioned about his stand on assault rifles in 1989 and said, “There are various groups that think you can ban certain kind of guns.  I am not in that mode. I am in the mode of being deeply concerned.”

And President Clinton became notorious for his evasiveness during the Monica affair.

One of my all time favorites is from Missouri Congressman James Talent when asked by a reporter if he was a dog or cat person. “Basically I'm a dog person. I wouldn't want to offend my constituents who are cat people and I should say that being, I hope, a sensitive person, that I have nothing against cats, and had cats when I was a boy, and if we didn't have two dogs might very well be interested in having a cat now.”

Personally, I enjoy having high energy discussions with Ellyn. But at times she thinks I am provocative. So we're not entirely on the same page on this factor. I seem to need more stimulation. Some folks don't want any more tension than would come from driving around in Land Rover in a 500 acre zoo. That's not me.

However, as Ellyn gets more comfortable with high energy exchanges, I feel less of a need to be provocative.

What about you? If you hate conflict, I suspect you are paying a high tariff for love and acceptance. Take the risk to be audacious. Use the pronoun “I” a little more often instead of hiding behind “We.” Express a firm conviction or two that will make your partner raise their eyebrows or squint their eyes. Instead of asking your partner where they want to go for dinner or what they want to do over the weekend, express what you want before asking what they want. It will energize your relationship.

If you fight too much and you quickly get your knickers in a twist, take a risk to really listen to your partner without defending or explaining yourself. Who knows, maybe your partner really has some precious nuggets of self disclosure that could make you feel warmer toward them. Maybe if you're a little slower on the trigger, their respect for you will grow into something more collaborative. You might even enjoy and appreciate each other more.

But what about the couple at the beginning?? How did they turn out?

It takes a long time to rebuild trust after a partner has an affair. And it absolutely requires learning to tolerate conflict, and taking chances and listening without defending or explaining. Regardless of what happened to them, it's a wake up call for everyone to consider how you deal with differences, and what you can do to develop a healthy attitude about disagreements in your relationship.

Until next month,

Peter Pearson

 

We help couples struggling with adultery in Menlo Park, San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, San Jose, Campbell and the surrounding areas.

About 

Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples

Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Ellyn Bader.

Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple.

Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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