Conflict in relationships: Timing is Everything

I'm always talking about time. There's a time and a place for most things (not everything), especially communication about hot button topics, things that get people hot under the collar.

Dinner isn't one of these times or places.

Conflictual couples, actually, shouldn't argue at all. (If you and your partner fight and hurt one another, you're half of a conflictual couple.)

Conflictual couples shouldn't argue at all until they have learned not to be conflictual, because someone is going to get hurt, for sure. There will be blood, internal scars perhaps.

You wouldn't let your kids hurt one another. What's with the masochism?

So you can't argue if it's going to get ugly. But arguing with a professional referee around is okay.

After an initial evaluation, a therapist like me will send a conflictual couple home with instructions NOT to problem solve, which is ironic, since therapy is all about problem solving. I tell them to talk about why they fight.

That's all. If you're one of these conflictual couples, you can talk about anything parve,* like who you've talked to lately, who is sick, who has died, lost a job, whose kid is on drugs, what can be done for world peace.

But you really should work on why it is that you fight, and not fight, if arguing is hurtful. Later you can problem solve in a petri dish, a professional's office. Get that part figured out, why the need to fight, and you can problem solve like everyone else.

First, however, it's all about getting to the bottom of that mystery, or is it misery, the Why.

This is usually a dynamic grounded in psycho-social history, occasionally no more complicated than going at it in the ring of sibling rivalry, having garnered a repertoire of verbal sniping as a child. Sometimes the sniping is a learned whisper, almost inaudible, because Mom and Dad wouldn't let you physically whack one another or tease one another. And other times, there weren't any editors at all, or gloves to soften the wreckage.

Then, history in hand, in therapy we have a go at it, real problem solving. The therapist, a person who specializes in beating on people by gently reminding them to look in the mirror, tries to stay invisible.

And since you'll surely fight, your therapist will have to break form to break up the fight, force you to review your problems and stay objective. You see yourself as we see you and hopefully can laugh at yourself, accept that you have faults. Both of you work to change. This can take a year or two or more, and includes individual therapy, as well. But it's worth it.

The devil you know. . .

This accomplishes so much, this process, as painful as it can be at times, for most us don't laugh at ourselves. But in couples therapy we figure out:

why you're both so sensitive --there are roots to this, as we've indicated, usually seeded in childhood, genetics, and experiences with parents, sibs, teachers, peers

(b) why one or both of you tend to use dysfunctional, combative, inflammatory strategies instead of constructive, empathetic discussion. The reasons, beyond childhood tutelage, include but are not limited to a sense of powerlessness, frustration, alcohol and drugs,** or some combination)


(c) how to problem solve constructively.

I couldn't write this if I didn't know that the process works. This week I discharged three couples from therapy. Three! All giggly and silly and happy. All better.

Couples therapy is fun, it really is, can be, I should say, sometimes. Sometimes. That said, I pity Empath I, my poor colleague in the room next door who has to listen to it when the volume goes up in my office. I feel sorry for her, I really do, for the noise, but I tell her, it's GOOD noise. We're figuring junk out. And all of my lamps are nailed down now.

Anyway, one of the good things about postponing your fighting for therapy, aside from the fact that you pay for this and deserve your money's worth, is that you know that you're resolving things constructively. You get the knack of talking nice and bring it on home.

Discussion (a.k.a., arguing) in therapy should be timed, ideally, so that you can kiss and make up when it's over. While I check my email, you argue with one another, then I interrupt you and say, "Are you sure you want to say it that way? Can you say that differently, maybe start the sentence with how you feel?"

The coaching part of this job is awesome. "FOUL!" I cry, jumping to my feet and waving a flag when one or both are out of bounds.

At home a foul might mean someone slams a door or throws a dish or breaks a hand, some plaster. Here the worst that can happen is one of you storms out. Then you come back, feeling a little silly.

Happens all the time. I might send your spouse to retrieve you.***

Problem solving in therapy is all about focusing on one thing, one little piece of a problem or a slice of life, past, present or future. The goal is to understand one another differently and reach consensus about something. The agreement, sometimes is simply a temporary solution, something to try out. If it doesn't work, it's back to the drawing board, but trying something is better than doing nothing new. In time, something will work. And we time solutions.

Lately we're timing solutions for Thanksgiving, always a riot.

Timing is everything. When the system works, it works because you've timed your argument, measured your words. You've learned that rather than argue, it is more important to take care of feelings, negative emotions, physical ailments, if at all possible, at the very least try to be empathetic, sympathetic, and to give more than you take. Especially with time.

Now, I personally have worked on my timing and problem solving and am a big one for waiting until my partner is in a good mood before mentioning new shoes or the importance of a new sofa.

FD has pretty good timing, too. He tries to be sensitive to my particular personality quirks. He knows me and is fond of saying, for example, that I'm a bear when hungry. I'm conscious of it and a little embarrassed about it, but it is what it is. It's important to know yourself.

The story:

It doesn't have much to do with the introduction except that it is about the importance of timing and how to handle it when someone oversteps the rules.

We picked up some fast food from a restaurant a few days ago. Picture it. FD is driving. I'm in the passenger seat, the take-out is in a bag on my lap, and I'm starving, haven't eaten in days, an exaggeration, but okay.

FD, however, is not. He wants me to listen to a song on a tape before we leave the car to go into the house to eat. He's saying that one of our sons should use this song to try out for American Idol. No, he's not serious, but he's really pushing for me to listen to this song.

I'm hungry, okay? But I don't spleen him. I'm keeping my cool. Constructive problem solving here, obviously, is taking the tape into the house to hear it while we eat. But we haven't got a tape player in the house that works. We're working on throwing away things like cassette players that don't work and even, dare I suggest, cassettes.

So here we are in the car and I'm being patient while he's fast forwarding the tape, rewinding the tape, searching for the song. It's really getting hard to be patient. The food smells so good. I'm so grumpy. Finally he finds the song.

I listen to a minute of it and say, "Nice song. Can we go inside now?"

"But you haven't heard the whole song."

"And I don't want to, really. It's raining. I'm tired. I'm hungry. I want to change clothes. Can't I go inside?"


He's okay with it, me listening to only a little of the song, half-heartedly at that, and there's no violence. Falafel could have been de-bagged and utilized here, theoretically, in this situation. But no. No food fight, no battle of words.

We could say I made an effort at managing anger. Or was that hunger. Or fatigue? A long, day. See, there's a lot that goes into putting off conflict. You need anger control, impulse control. Your partner's timing can't always be perfect.

And one thing we know, it's even more of a challenge to problem solve at the end of a long day, when your emotions are virtually indistinguishable from your appetites.

It could have been worse, you know. He could have pushed me to listen to the whole album.


*Parve rhymes with Marv and means something that hasn't got either milk or meat products in it (vegan), so it's basically not going to upset the karma of anyone who keeps kosher. A parve person isn't a very exciting person, necessarily, but you can always tolerate having him around.

**If addiction is another variable in the equation, that has to be addressed as a problem and has to be resolved. This tends to slow down the therapy which angers the patient, another excuse for the patient to drink or use drugs. Don't buy it.

***At the Second Road I wrote a post about a woman who gets high (Dialing Back) and there's a comment by Retriever that's worth a look. Sometimes, honestly, you learn more from people who write in than you do from me.


Syd said…
I've noticed that it's the alcoholic (in recovery) who has rages occasionally. I've identified that these are usually set off by frustration at not being able to do something (mostly associated with the boat and sailing). It's hard to get away from the situation on a boat. So I do my best to keep my mouth shut. I think anger control is definitely something that needs work.
therapydoc said…
Right. I think all of us need it. Even people who only swear when they're driving :)
Jack said…
Timing is everything. Truer words have never been said.
Isle Dance said…
You are so very, very right.

I guess we can't expect to be perfect at this, under the worst of circumstances, but it sure is good exercise to at least always try.
Anonymous said…
You just made me feel very, very grateful for the man I married. He's extremely easy to get along with.
Blognut said…
So most of this applies even if the person you have the conflict with is a parent and not a spouse or significant other? And, I suppose I would have to want to stop hurting that person in order to make it work? For sure it would be cheaper and quicker if you have a magic wand.
therapydoc said…
Nut, I never said it was easy.
rosysunset said…
So, timing is everything and dinner isn't a good time. But when is a good time to bring up something? Say you're someone who can rationalize NEVER bringing anything up.....

Also, how do you decide when to do talk to both members of a couple and when do you decide individual therapy instead? You said with couples you do both sometimes....
therapydoc said…
GREAT question. Always depends on the person, the time, the day, the mood. You can't bubble burst, of course, meaning can't bring up something difficult that will bring a person down when he's feeling good, and on the other hand, can't bring up something that will bring him down if he feels bad.

It is a gamble and you need to know your guy. Some people say the best time is when a partner is feeling grateful, positive towards you, as in, after a good meal, or when you're communicating well.

One thing for sure, holding it in forever isn't worth the personal pain. Share it if you're in a relationship. Why not. It's the price a person pays for dinner.

In answer to the other question, I almost always see each person of a couple individually before I see them as a couple, and reserve the right to say, YOU are coming in to see me alone, okay, at any time, and I do. And both partners can do the same, request an individual visit or 10.
rosysunset said…
Thanks for your answers! I'm interested in how you as a therapydoc know which issues are couples issues and which ones are individual? Maybe just something you as a therapydoc learn over time? B/c presumably individual issues become couples issues... I guess the distinction is in what setting the issues are best addressed.

If someone comes in for individual therapy, say for depression or alcohol or anxiety, how common is it for you to end up telling them to bring their second half in too sometime?
Anonymous said…
What if you're seeing only one member of the couple individually, in addition to doing couples therapy with both of them? Does the other person feel alienated, or believe that you are biased toward the person you see individually?

DH and I never had couples therapy, but we were both in individual therapy after I was dx'd with bipolar disorder and PTSD. Funny thing was, his therapist advocated for me, and my therapist advocated for him. It actually worked out pretty well in the end, although there were times I wished we could have just switched therapists.

I suppose each therapist was trying to get us to increase our empathy for each other?
therapydoc said…
I'll have to post on this one, I can see that. It's complicated. No right answers, each case depends on too many things to say one way or another.

Some people need their own therapist,and sometimes that works out just great. It's when therapists are working at cross-purposes that there are problems. With a release of information, that can be solved.
Anonymous said…
It's hard to make decisions when you're hungry. For some reason, the hardest decision to make is where to eat. It doesn't make sense, but I've noticed (and my husband agrees) that we are both most fussy about food when we are just starvering!. So we would get in arguments sometimes trying to decide on a restaurant to go to when we were both very hungry. (And too tired to cook.) Now we know that we both get very over-fussy when we're hungry and we go along with it in each other.
therapydoc said…
Grrreat stuff there. Thanks.
Nik said…
"all of my lamps are nailed down now".
Guilty Secret said…
And one thing we know, it's even more of a challenge to problem solve at the end of a long day, when your emotions are virtually indistinguishable from your appetites.

Something so true, I've known so long, now understood better, thanks to you.
Well this is just wonderful...and totally dead on. I think I'll just cut and paste a few tasty morsels for my own blog use in the future. (Linking to you, natch.)

Validating to read another pro's experience. There's precious little of that in my Tao. Thanks.
Pink Hollyhock said…
I have to keep you on my blogroll. Everybody I know needs you, including me. Thanks for all the insight. ~ xol