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Published December 03, 2010, 12:00 AM

Confronting a problem can be delicate process

Some couples act like bulls in a china shop. With other people they can be polite and respectful, but when they want their way in their close relationships, watch out!

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

Some couples act like bulls in a china shop. With other people they can be polite and respectful, but when they want their way in their close relationships, watch out! Their listening skills disappear while they anxiously ramrod their opinions and butt in when they feel like it.

The fight is on. It is when they talk to his or her partner that they paw the ground, give withering looks, raise their voice and start to butt heads: His or her partner has learned that to survive, he or she stands his or her ground and butts back. Any chance for genuine dialogue dissipates into a combat zone.

How do people get to be so fast and loose with their tongues? Don’t they realize they are dealing with something fragile and precious? Why don’t they pay attention to how words can wound? If they only knew how delicate relationships are, their bull-like behavior would become as careful and wary as cats when entering new territory.

Most people are well-meaning and good-hearted. They don’t mean to be causing all the hurt they inflict. Their communications are blunt and brash. They flare up at a challenge. They fight for territory. There is no finesse, no search for middle ground. They are rude and don’t know it. If they’ve been butted, they butt right back.

Here are some ways to handle the china instead of throwing it:

Your partner isn’t perfect; deal with it. People often expect their partner to measure up to their ideal view of how they should be and act in marriage. They spend a great deal of time and energy trying the change his or her partner’s personality, values or goals that will never change. It is surprising how many issues and genuine differences marital partners have. The difference between those who get along and those who fight is the goodwill they keep toward each other while dancing around the gridlock issues.

Instead of giving healthy acceptance and appreciation as a true friend, they dish out anger, judgment and disappointment. Part of getting on track is letting go of misplaced expectations and committing oneself to making the best of what the situation really is. Differences can be interesting and enrich a marriage.

Some things are likely to change over time but not in a climate of criticism and rejection. Spouses learn from each other and gradually take on each other’s habits and characteristics. Some things will change only with considerable effort and only when the other party is motivated to change for himself or herself.

Other things might change or should change, but in a context of patience and understanding. A good relationship depends on minimizing conflict by using tact and judgment in deciding which problems to confront.

Knowing how and when to confront a problem is truly a delicate matter. When problems occur in a relationship, a person needs to give their partner the benefit of the doubt. Even something that may seem like betrayal or disloyalty could be and often is a result of a misunderstanding.

Seek understanding. You show respect by refraining from judging your partner’s motives as malicious or self-serving. Take the time to first listen and understand what happened from your partner’s point of view. Even if mistakes were made, make an effort to discover the intent of the action. Ask questions and be curious about your partner’s thoughts and feelings.

Listening shows an attitude of respect and concern for the validity of a partner’s point of view. Far too many people have the habit of interrupting, giving their side of the story and arguing the point instead of listening and appreciating what the other person is saying. Listening for understanding is different than listening for points that will strengthen a rebuttal.

Most people want to be heard and understood before they can shift into becoming problem-solvers.

People have different backgrounds and traditions. Each is amazingly complex and different. If your partner brings up a problem, the first impulse should be to say, “Tell me more.” or “Help me understand.”

Finding connections to your spouse’s family history and background may explain why he or she reacts emotionally to a particular issue. If you take the time to learn that history, you will view your partner more empathically.

Express feelings respectfully. Part of the art of conversing is to accurately identify and communicate positive and negative feelings so your partner is not put on the defensive. Being aware of your own feelings and working hard to explain yourself is important. Softening up the presentation of differences through a lowered and caring tone of voice makes a big difference.

Avoid using extreme language like “always” and “never.” This helps keep conversations on track instead of getting mired down in squabbles about details. Being tentative with opinions is respectful while being dogmatic and rigid comes across as self-centered. Just as listening can be learned, the ability to detach enough from one’s emotions and frame one’s thoughts as opinions can be learned.

The manner by which marriage partners talk to each other largely determines how they feel about each other. In crucial conversations, imagine yourself being in a china shop and leaving the shop without breaking anything.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families.