Tag Archives: conflict

Private Space

I have one hand in the galley (kitchen) and one hand in the saloon (living room).

Back in the Nineties (yes, that’s 1990’s) Nan and I owned a sailboat that we had docked in Marina Del Rey. It was a wonderful weekend retreat for both of us. It was large enough to stand up in and easily cook meals and “live aboard”. Mind you, we are best friends and get along really well, but we didn’t fully understand what “too close” meant until we spent a week on the boat.

What it wasn’t big enough for was providing personal space.

If we really wanted alone time we would have to leave the boat and go somewhere else, but that was pretty impractical at night. We had a small TV and a music system onboard to entertain us. The problem was that if both of us weren’t in the same mood, one of us would end up annoyed or disappointed. Even if one person tried to shut himself away in the forward cabin the sound would leak pretty significantly. It was okay on the weekends, but it got old as the week wore on and we repeatedly got in each other’s way. Unneeded conflict increased.

In relationships, we need both togetherness and separateness. We need the ability to express our uniqueness as individuals as well as our oneness in marriage. And that means having a private space to get away to when we need it. Some of us are fortunate enough to have a dedicated room, a man-cave or a craft room, while others must do with a locked door on a shared space, such as a bedroom (some moms tell me the bathroom is their only sanctuary).

Can you find a space to get away to? It could even be a chair in the garden or side patio or a little used alcove in the house. For others it is a shop or space in the garage that can be rearranged. This away space is a spiritual place, a place to rest, reflect, renew and regroup. This is a place you take your feelings, emotions and dreams before you share them with others. This is where you spend time with God.

Lately Nan has been occupying my seldom used office. Until a year ago it was a center of business activity in the mornings. Now it mostly serves as a place to pay bills and do an occasional Skype session. Nan has found it perfect. For me, I use a guest bedroom in the basement next to our music room. It has the added advantage of being a great place to nap when needed.

Almost all of our rooms have bookshelves to keep journals and reading material handy. And there are no clocks in view. Perhaps that is not possible for everyone, but being too aware of the passing of time can get in the way of its purpose. Can you shut off electronic devices or do you need to get away to even use them?

We are quite aware that people have different felt needs for alone time and private space – some need more and some less. We should try to accommodate our partner, within reason. I probably have a greater need than Nan does, but it has not been a big problem between us.

So How about you? What are your space and time requirements? Have you already worked this out with partners or roommates? Can you ask (nicely) for what you need?

Get a Monkey Buddy?


Lately I have been linking three concepts I have learned over the years when dealing with people locked in conflict. It doesn’t matter whether the conflict is internal, a struggle within oneself, or external, involving another person. The result is often discouragement and hopelessness. In simple terms: we feel powerless and stuck.

Dr. John Gottman has given us the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He says that when these enter a relationship we are on shaky ground. They are presented in order of destructiveness.

  • Criticism  – an attack on our behavior (we can add to the problem by being negatively self-critical)
  • Defensiveness – the response to feeling attacked, but the other person feels unheard (the self rationalizes to protect)
  • Contempt – words or body language (rolling of the eyes or heavy sigh) that demeans the character of a person – labeling or name-calling (we can negatively self label)
  • Stonewalling – emotional withdrawal (“I am a stone wall, you can’t hurt me. You are not getting through to me.”) (The self gives up)

Sometimes a person (usually male) will stonewall (keep quiet) in order to not make the situation worse (he believes), but the shutdown actually makes the conflict worse.

When we repeat the above pattern often we will eventually judge the relationship or situation as severely damaged and hopeless.

Enter Dr. Henry Cloud – concept number two. 

Cloud says there are Three P’s that happen when there’s a downward spiral not handled well (as Gottman has described)

  1. Personal (the brain begins to interpret the situation in a personal way. (“This is because I’m not good enough, they don’t like me….”)
  2. Pervasive (It extrapolates into all areas of life and everything seems bad)
  3. Permanent (We think it will always be the same. It will never change) Psychologists refer to this as “Learned Helplessness”

Our challenge, according to Cloud, is to reverse the three P’s. (Gottman suggests grabbing onto your distress producing internal conversation and replace it with self-soothing language instead. Very similar concept)

  1. Log the personal and pervasive thoughts and dispute them. Write down the terrible things you’re thinking about yourself and dispute it with Scripture and facts. It’s not pervasive. Look at the whole picture.
  2. Make two columns – what you can control and what you can’t control. Make a list of what you can do. Everyone has control of something. Matthew 6 says “Don’t worry about tomorrow. Every day has its own problems.”
  3. Connect. Our brain lives on oxygen, glucose, and relationships. The opposite of bad isn’t good, it’s love in relationship. Scientists did a test with monkeys in cages, making them crazy with noise and lights. When they put the monkey’s buddy in the cage with them their stress level was reduced by 50%. The moral? Get a good monkey buddy (or maybe a real person).

The third concept really is a condensing of Cloud’s reversal point #2:

Instead of saying “I can’t” when feeling stuck, tell yourself “I could if……” It is a statement that opens up possibilities rather than shutting them down. The Bible tells us:

Ephesians 2:10 (NLT) For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

In other words there is a path, a trajectory for our life that includes good things that God has already determined for us to do. Yes, there are always obstacles, but with His help we can prevail against the opposition. As the old hymn goes “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.”

Not Another Post About Conflict!


The question of conflict comes up in nearly every couples or family counseling session in some form or another. It is mostly the reason people seek counseling in the first place. In our premarried class we talk about how to do conflict well, and how to prevent it from turning ugly. In our current class (our 33rd) we added a new PowerPoint slide entitled “How we measure conflict.” This is our quick assessment that we use in sessions to determine progress in a relationship.

There are three criteria that we use: Frequency, Intensity and Duration. 

FREQUENCY – How often do you get into conflict? Is it daily, weekly or even less frequently? I am not talking about mild disagreements like what, when or where to eat. I am talking about the kind where it becomes emotional, eliciting feelings of anger, distress or deeper frustration. Are you able to let the little things go so that the rough spots are the exception, not the rule? Are you able to really let them go and not just stuff them until they eventually erupt?

INTENSITY – How angry or upset or forceful do you get? In a conflict do you really lean in hard or wag your finger at the perceived offender? Or do you emotionally melt down into crying or sobbing? Are you able to stay in control of yourself or do you feel like you will burst if you don’t get it all out or if you are not fully understood? Do you increase in intensity as the time goes on? Do you become rageful or hysterical? Self regulation requires staying away from distressful self talk. I have heard experts use the terms “awfulizing” or “catastrophizing” for this kind of inner conversation.

DURATION – How long do the conflicts last? Are you able to say what you need to say in a succinct manner or do you go on and on for multiple minutes or even longer? Do you corner people and “make them” listen until you are through or exhausted? I have heard stories of conflict that lasted multi-hours, followed by days or even weeks of withdrawal. That level of immaturity is bound to impact a relationship in a very negative way.

We can usually tell the health of a relationship by assessing these factors. When they are on the decrease the relationship is usually getting better (unless both people have emotionally checked out and the end is near.) Interestingly, some couples will rate these measurements in their relationship differently. The difference in perception is usually the result of their earlier family or relationship history. Volatile or avoidant family of origin systems will often cause a skewed perspective. Both aggressive and passive behavior is immature and destructive.

One of our pastors quoted a recent study about marriages that went the distance: less than 5% of the content of their conversations were complaints (negativity). However, when the complaints rose to 10% or more, the relationship was at a high risk of failure. I think that statistic holds well for Nan & me.

So how do you see your relationships? Are these key factors on the decrease in most or all of them?