Ever heard the saying, “Happy Wife, Happy Life?” I hear men say this during sessions and I cringe every time. The idea of being willing to give up your ideas and identity in order to simply avoid the discomfort of a little conflict? Well, bad news: it doesn’t work. Because every time this statement is uttered and the man holds back his true feelings, the result is not a healthy conflict, it is an explosion of emotion at a later time. A steady diet of not filling your half of the room will almost always lead to this highly emotional response later on.
Shouting to be heard…And not listening
Typically it is the men in relationships who are trying to avoid any type of conflict with their partners. Add to the mixture a partner (typically the woman) who is trying to figure out how to get the man to engage and you can see how these two opposing forces are on a collision course to an escalated conflict. There are also conflicted emotional responses building in the man; on one hand he is starting to feel overloaded because he hasn’t shared his own opinion knowing it might not be received well, but, on the other hand, he has a partner that continues to push for engagement. This often times results in anger and rage coming from him, instead of anything constructive. After that explosion happens the most important skill for conflict resolution, listening, is completely lost. At this point all that matters to both people is being heard, not actually listening.
The path to healthy conflict is through listening. If you can set aside your inner child’s need to be heard and affirmed and truly listen to what your partner is saying and, more importantly, connect to the emotion of what they are saying, then you’ve taken a huge step not only towards healthy conflict but also a better understanding of your partner and a happier relationship. A good way to think of it: instead of “Hear what I say!” try “Help me understand your point of view and the emotion connected to it.”
The poor conflict behavior of “Hear what I say!” is generally childlike and unreasonable. It’s the inner child that is focused on being heard and being “right.” Conflict has a tendency to hijack our ability to reason. We move from our frontal lobe (our reasoning brain) to our amygdala (our emotional brain) and this is where our inner child likes to hang out.
When we respond from our emotional brain, it is ineffective and comes out poorly. In the heat of the moment we say things while on auto-pilot and often those are things we learned at a young age. For example, imagine you are a 12-year-old and you are surrounded by conflict. Perhaps it’s your parents fighting, maybe it’s another caregiver. Regardless of the person, that conflict and how you perceive it is what sticks with you. This is then what impacts the adult version of that 12-year-old because when you get into a conflict, that inner child comes out and all those learned fighting methods come into play. Since you heard it at age 12, you are arguing in a manner that you learned when you were that age. That’s why it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “You sound like you’re 12!” in the middle of an argument. That’s getting hijacked by your inner child.
When you start to become more aware of your own poor response to what you perceived as a slight by whoever is speaking to you and ask for clarity versus lashing out, you’ve just started down the path of healthy conflict. In the end, it is not to say that a happy wife is not part of the end result of a happy life. But, that will not be a truly happy life. A truly happy life is when both people feel heard, respected, and loved. Or, you can always think of it the way Terry Real (an internationally recognized family therapist, speaker and author) does, “You can be right or you can be married.”