One way to learn how to avoid conflicts is to understand some of the behaviors and beliefs that cause them.  Here are a few.

  1. Perceiving complaints about one's behavior or constructive criticisms as personal attacks.
  2. Counterattacking in response to criticism or complaints.
  3. Dredging up old arguments as part of one's counterattack.
  4. Refusing to consider what one has done to contribute to the problem.
  5. Paranoid interpretation of others mistakes.
  6. Complaining over and over again about what someone has done.
  7. Refusal to listen to what the other person is trying to say.
  8. Paranoid interpretation of other person's complaints.
  9. Overgeneralizing and magnifying another person's misdeeds.
  10. Invalidating partner's complaints.
  11. Complaining in a hostile way instead of an affectionate one.

    Here is a story to illustrate these points.   Lets start with the once happily married couple Jack and Jane.  Lets say that they generally help each other out with chores, including diapering the baby.  One day as Jack is rushing out to work he notices that the garbage is not out.  Jack says "Jane, the garbage is not out and the garbage truck is coming  today".   Jane could perceive that as a criticism (mistake 1 listed above).  Then she could counterattack (mistake 2)  with "Why don't you ever (mistake 9) take the garbage out Jack?"   Jack might defend himself with, "Honey I do take the garbage out but when I come home from work I'm tired and I rush to get out of the house so it's difficult for me."  Jane could counterattack by dredging up past arguments. (mistake 3)  "Jack you never do anything for me.  You hardly ever (mistake 9) diaper the baby.  When I asked you to take me to Acapulco you just stayed home.  When I asked you to replace our windows you never did that either."  Jane might make mistake 4 and say "Why are you always starting fights with me?" forgetting that it was her refusal to take out the garbage that contributed to the conflict.  She might tell Jack, "You're always complaining, you're always picking on me and you enjoy staring fights (mistake 8)"  If Jack says I'm complaining because you're always doing things that get me upset, she might reply, you would complain if you were with a saint (mistake 10).

    Obviously this kind of behavior is not going to lead to peace, harmony and love in the relationship of Jack and Jane.  Jack may have had good reasons for not replacing all the windows.  He might not have been able to afford them.  He might have not been able to afford going to Acapulco.  Even if he didn't have good reasons, Jane's complication of the garbage issue with the Acapulco issue and the window issue will only make it more difficult to solve.  It's better to keep issues separate. 

    If Jane feels that Jack isn't taking the garbage out enough and he's rushing off to work, probably the best thing for Jane to do is to take the garbage out and then discuss her concerns with him later when he is less rushed.  She should listen to his excuses, they may be valid.  It may be harder for him to take out the garbage during the week than for her if his schedule is very busy.  They should try and work out a compromise schedule. 

    Lets say one day when he is scheduled to take out the garbage Jack doesn't take it out.  Lets say he had a lot of work related problems on his mind and he forgot to take out the garbage. Jane could interpret Jack's not taking out the garbage to be proof that Jack is a lazy bum who is trying to get her to do it and could become furious at Jack. (mistake 5)  She could tell him that she will never take out the garbage again.   Then there will be extra garbage around all week.  Jack may complain, Jane might apologize and Jack might keep complaining about it which is likely to cause fighting between them. (mistake 6).  After a lot of unpleasantness Jane might try and stop the fighting and create friendly relations with Jack.  She might take out the garbage and then tell Jack, "You're right, my behavior has not been so good, I apologize but we need to put a stop to this fighting.  Please stop complaining about the garbage."  If Jack listens to what Jane says he'll realize she is trying to stop the fighting she is apologizing, she is reaching out, and she is asking for help from Jack.  Jack might tune out because he doesn't want to listen to Jane's criticisms any more.  If Jack doesn't listen he might hear only that Jane is criticizing him for complaining and react with, "Why should I stop complaining, you always complain" (mistake 7 and mistake 2).  He might say "You would fight any man you are married with" (mistake 2).  He might say "There you are getting on your high horse, and telling me what to do,  why don't you clean up your act?  "(mistake 2).  All these reactions are totally inappropriate and destructive.  Jack should be grateful to Jane for trying to save the relationship and for having been willing to admit that she was at least partly at fault.

   The problem with Jack and Jane is not that they are complaining although complaints are what start many fights.  Complaining is necessary in relationships.  It's how we tell our partner they are hurting us so they can improve their behavior and help the relationship.  One of Jack and Jane's problems is they don't complain in an affectionate way.  A married friend of mine once advised me that before complaining it's important to explain to one's spouse that one isn't complaining to hurt her but rather to make things better.

    The web page on communication has suggestions for better ways of communicating than those of Jack and Jane.

    Sometimes one partner reacts with hostility to the other partner's effort to be helpful.  This is discussed on the page When Women Complain About Their Problems.

    Many of the mistakes that Jack and Jane make are mistakes that many couples make and arise from paranoid interpretation of the behavior of the partner in the relationship.  This raises the question, why do people have a tendency to react to their partner's behavior in a paranoid way?  One reason may be that it is inevitable that partners have to make constructive criticisms of each other in relationships and people tend to react to criticism with paranoia instead of with gratitude.   People tend to protect their self esteem from criticism with paranoia.  More about this is on the PED Defense web page. The ability to take constructive criticism in a graceful way and to be able to admit that one is wrong is key to successful relationships. 

   It's very important not to invalidate one's partner's concerns.  If one's partner is complaining about something one has done and one says, "Oh it's all in your head", or "You're just having your period" or "You're just upset about x y and z" that is invalidating what the person is trying to say to you.  Your partner may be trying to communicate to you what you are doing wrong so that you will stop doing it.  If you invalidate it that is an attack on his self esteem and it blocks his ability to improve a situation that is painful for him.  Sometimes we invalidate our partner's criticism as part of our way to protect our own self esteem.  That way instead of having to think that we are doing something wrong we can feel our partner is defective instead.  Although that may help our self esteem in the short term, it is likely to lead our partner to become very angry at us and to attack our self esteem.  A much better response is to try and learn from one's partner, to apologize for one's actions and to tell him that one will try not to repeat the same behavior again.

    Rabbi Twerski in his book It's Not As Tough As You Think wrote:

"How many marriages might have been preserved if only the spouses had more often said these three simple phrases to each other" "I thank you," "I love you," and "I'm sorry but I was wrong."

Since paranoia toward one's partner is key to bad relationships it is reasonable to hypothesize that believing in one's partner and  giving one's partner the benefit of the doubt is key to good relationships.  If we are to believe the movie Without Limits, Steve Prefontaine, one of America's great track runners once asked  Bowerman, his coach at the University of Oregon, why he got along so well with his wife.  Bowerman replied:

Because I believe in her

    When someone believes in someone else they believe in the goodness of that other person.  How many problems arise in relationships because one person doesn't believe in the goodness of the other person and misinterprets what the other person says in a paranoid way.  Negative regard can lead to a vicious cycle that can destroy a relationship.


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