Happily Even After
Flogging a Lifeless Horse
by Josh Noem
Last week, Stacey wrote about TDATD—“the discussion about the discussion.” This is a frequent occurrence in our marriage. Often, we’ll spend more time talking about how we talk about things than we spend talking about actual issues.
I know it drives her crazy—she is generous to stick with those conversations for me because I find it important to understand not only WHAT is happening but also WHY.
Here is another perspective on what came out of TDADT—it has to do with a common communication pattern that often drives conflict between men and women, and it clearly shaped our conversation.
When under stress or in moments of conflict, when it is clear that things are escalating, I will often retreat in the conversation. I am naturally introverted, so I’ll capitulate or appease just to get past the escalation. I don’t intend to avoid the conflict—I just would like to get some distance so that we can both look at it rationally and have a productive conversation.
Stacey’s instincts are just the opposite. Once we open something up, she’d like to jump in and hash it out and put it behind us. She moves with a clear head through conflict, and can simultaneously manage escalating emotions and clear thinking, which is a marvel to me.
With these two different inclinations, here is what happens: conflict escalates and I withdraw while Stacey presses. She notices that I am withdrawing and further pursues me, looking for engagement and responsiveness. The more she pursues, the more I retreat, seeking space to clear my head.
If one of us is not perceptive enough to recognize that something needs to change, things deteriorate quickly.
This is a pattern that happens with many couples. Typically, men are less verbally agile in moments of conflict, so they will retreat. Women usually have the verbal skills to negotiate conflict with ease, so they will pursue, but we’ve seen couples take on opposite roles.
It can be a vicious cycle. After 14 years of marriage, however, we’ve become familiar enough with this pattern to notice when it is occurring. At that point of recognition, it usually takes a simple question to reframe the conversation: “What is going on here? Why are we escalating?” When we are at our best, we can see that we are slipping into those familiar roles and we simply take a deep breath and take a step towards the other in the tone that they are looking for.
Any fool can tell that marriage is about love. If we call ourselves Christians, then we have to define love by the example of Jesus.
Christ’s life, ministry, teaching, suffering, death and resurrection all flowed from the deepest reality of love: self-gift. Christ’s life, death and resurrection proclaim once and for everyone that dying to self for others—self-giving love—leads to new and abundant life.
We have found this proclamation to be the deepest pattern alive in our experience as a married couple. In minute ways, when we muster the generosity to take a step towards the other in moments of conflict, we die to self as Christ showed us. It is a small action of self-giving love for the good of another, and it unfailingly leads to new and abundant life.
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