Commentary & Family life & education 11 Oct 2012 05:51 pm

New ways to manage conflict

My wife is taking a class in conflict management, so our marriage has turned into one big laboratory experiment.

I grew up in an era when people managed conflict with their fists. If the school bully gave you grief, you invited him outside at recess for a pummelling.

Unfortunately, I was always the party who got pummelled. (At least once or twice, I was the bully, too). The conflict was usually resolved when I stumbled off the playground holding my stomach. And a few teeth.

I know now, through the secondhand wonders of my wife’s higher education — and a textbook copyrighted in 1979, the same year I was being whaled on behind Ye Olde Red-Brick School — that violence is not the answer.

Instead, I should have resolved issues with reasoned speech. For example, when the class thug held me upside down by my ankles and shook the lunch money out of my pockets, I should have said, “When you threaten me, I feel uncomfortable. Please stop.”

I have no doubt this would have led to an extended debate in the boys’ room, whereupon I should have said, “When you stick my head repeatedly in the toilet (glub, glub), you make me feel (glub, glub) sad. Please (gasp!) stop.”

My wife isn’t nearly as intimidating as the neighborhood bully. Instead, this class has made her much worse.

Now she trots out a fancy psychological battery of expressions at every opportunity, which has raised her threat level on the Homeland Security Advisory System from blue (guarded) to orange (high), with some of our discussions edging my anxiety needle into red (severe).

Over the last month, I’ve been hearing lines like this: “It makes me feel secure in our relationship when you send me roses at work.” Or “When you rub my feet, I can tell you really love me.” Or even, “If you would pick a nice romantic comedy for us to watch, it would be a wonderful extension of your feelings toward me.”

Oy.

Based on the listening-skills chapter, whenever she complains about something or someone, I’m supposed to validate her by saying, “I can tell you’re really upset,” or “It bugs you when so-and-so treats you that way.”

At which point she would likely turn to me and say, “No feces, famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” or the shorter, alliterative version of the same.

I should also summarize her complaints to be certain I understand them. After she bores regales me with a 10-minute harangue about some minor incident at work, I’m supposed to say, “You were upset that Nicole laughed at you when you slipped getting out of the car.” This would be better than my usual response, which is to shrug my shoulders and go back to watching TV.

The most preposterous section of the book, however, is a hypothetical situation where a wife calls her husband “fatty,” as in, “Boy, fatty, look at you putting away that pie. You’re really packing on the pounds.”

The husband replies, “I don’t like it when you call me names, and if you continue, I’m not going to talk to you any longer.” Then he refuses to respond to any communication that uses “fatty,” until, after two days, she stops using the word and apologizes.

My wife asked me if I would use the same method as the husband in the book.

“I’m not fat,” I replied.

“But if you were.”

“But I’m not.”

“But if …”

(Hypotheticals are hard for me.)

So: I do not believe it would work, nor would it be my method. Instead, if my spouse insisted on calling me “fatty,” I would respond by calling her the most appalling, horrific, vile word I know; an expletive so irredeemably foul that it has never been uttered on cable TV, not even on the upper-tier channels where you have to pay extra for the good stuff; an epithet that would cause all the hair on her father’s head (if he had any) to straighten, curl, straighten again and then fall off; a term so scathing that it has been outlawed in several foreign countries and rejected by every dictionary with the moxie to even consider it; a train-wreck of a word, an atomic bomb of a word, a mincing, gnawing, mine-shaft of a word; a fiery nugget more spirit-deadening, more devastating than ten thousand “fatties.”

I’d say that, and nothing more. Where I come from, we call that the “turnabout-is-fair-play” type of conflict management.

I don’t think I’d do well in this class, which is why next semester I hope she’ll sign up for a course in human sexuality. At least those techniques would be fun to try.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Oct. 11, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

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