Why Do We Battle?

Conflict Theory is based on the assumption that humans are self-oriented. As such, they desire power, prestige, and privilege making all other humans potential competitors for their resources. Furthermore, with Conflict Theory, there is a “thesis” which is the socially accepted idea, the “anti-thesis” which is the direct opposite, and the “synthesis” which is the combination of the two into a greater idea. Another way to look at this is that there is competition for scarce resources creating a conflict and the “synthesis” becomes the conflict resolution, when both sides no longer see the issue as competition for the scarce resources. Other terms related to this theory include consensus, negotiation, assertion, aggression, threats and promises.

One example of Conflict Theory can be seen in some cases of divorce. The scarcity of resources can be thought of as the children. The conflict comes into play when both parents vie for the attention and affection of their children. The term “Disneyland Dad” refers to the father that overcompensates for his children’s attention and affection by spending money on them, or taking them to places that either cost a lot of money or time, neither of which the mother can afford. The activities these dad’s spend with their children are fun and carefree, relinquishing the activities that carry responsibility to the mother. There may be threats by either spouse to one another or promises to the children or negotiation, or assertion on how the time with the kids will be spent, or even worse, aggressive acts, all as ways of trying to work out synthesis of the situation and a resolution to the conflict. I believe that all parties would agree that being in the middle of the conflict creates stress and unhappiness for all involved, especially the children.

This situation can occur in a marriage as well. It is often seen in the stage of the new parents. The baby needs and sometimes demands the attention of his or her parents. With a nursing mother, the baby requires her attention to feed and be cared for. If she is not careful, the new mother can become so wrapped up in the care and attention to the baby that her spouse is left alone, outside of the newly developing dyad. This can create conflict or in other words, the competition for the scarce resource of the mother. Until a synthesis can be determined, resolution to the conflict will remain at bay.

One of the major critiques of Conflict Theory includes the debate over whether conflict is a result of scarce resources as indicated in the theory, or an issue of power inequities. In the above examples, I see that assigning power or the idea to scarce resources as synonymous. I could argue just as easily that the father in the “Disneyland Dad” scenario has all of the power but none of the responsibility rather than vying for the attention of the children as the scarce resource. In the second example I could argue that the new mother has all of the power because she is deciding how to use her time rather than the idea of her as the scarce resource. I believe that it would be subjective to how the individuals are feeling.

Do we need to battle for power or for the scarcity of resources? Or can we become more mindful of our emotions, identify our need, and effectively communicate in order to avoid the battle altogether?

How Does the ART of Communication Work?

I have often asked my couples in therapy, men in particular, what they would give me if I could cut their fight-time in half. As you can imagine they are desperate enough to promise me their firstborn – though not a fair commodity since that’s a double win for them seeing as their first born is usually a teenager, ha. So I tell them, fight-times are cut in half if someone will listen while the other one is speaking. 

Our Key Core Beliefs, or the beliefs we deeply hold about ourselves, are often triggered when we feel criticized. If someone points out something we are not doing “right” then we figure that they are saying we are doing it “wrong” or even “I am wrong”. So let's clean this up in our vocabulary. It’s not “right” or “wrong” or “I am right” or “I am wrong”. Let's pay attention instead to perspective, which can’t be a Key Core Belief because it makes no sense to be “I am perspective”. Instead, it’s about the ability to communicate to effectively understand the other person’s perspective, so it’s “I am an effective communicator”.

To truly communicate, you have to learn the ART of listening. The ART just uses a few specific rules but before we address those rules, we must first take a deep breathe...John Gottman, a marriage researcher from Seattle, Washington has found that when your heart rate is over 100 bpm, no effective communication can happen because your built-in alarm system was just triggered. This alarm system has a name: Diffuse Physiological Arousal or DPA for short. When your body hits DPA mode your heart speeds up, so it pumps your blood faster, raising your heart rate (bpm). You personally might feel other indicators like blotchy skin or tears forming in your eyes or you shut down and stop talking or you say the same thing over and over again or your throat feels tight or you suddenly feel sick to your stomach. These feelings lead to the infamous fight, flight, or freeze responses. The two most basic ones we will look at are fight, which in relationship terms we will call “pursue” and flight we will call “withdraw”. No communicating will happen if you feel your heart beating this fast because of the DPA response, so take a minute to breathe and calm down. Now on to the rules…

Rule #1:
Actively listen…to listen, you generally can’t speak! It doesn’t work. Further, you can’t think of what you are going to say next. You can, however, repeat back to see if you are understanding (so am I understanding this right, you would like me to…. or if I’m hearing you correctly, you’d like me to….) this helps you to listen for comprehension.
Rule #2: Relate through empathy…the reason why people repeat themselves over and over is because they don’t feel heard. By repeating back you are not trying to mock their perception or point of view but to gain empathy in what it’s like to be them. This is a very important point. So I often say to my couples, if I were you I can imagine I might feel _______. That is your end goal. What is it like to be the other person? Again remember, this is not about what’s right or wrong, it’s about having empathy for what the other is going through. If one partner doesn’t feel heard, that partner is not going to hear your response anyway so your response is irrelevant until your partner is heard.
Rule #3:
Trust in the other person’s good intentions…to be trusting in the other person’s good intentions we have to understand where the other person is coming from. All the other person wants is to be heard or what therapy refers to as validated. This doesn’t mean that we agree, it just means that we accept their viewpoint as valid. Once we acknowledge that, we can more calmly sit down and talk.

So the ART of communication is:
A=actively listen
R=relate through empathy
T=trust in the other person’s good intentions.

How Can I Make My Story Meaningful?

There is a less often known therapy by the name of Narrative therapy. This therapy proposes the idea that our reality is in direct relation to our stories. In other words, we can perpetuate a change in the story by re-authoring the event in light of information gathered from another party – friend, spouse, parent, sibling, neighbor, therapist. This is a very natural approach, as people want to talk about what is bothering them. However, talking isn’t always enough. They need a “sounding board” or someone who can help them make sense of their reality. In terms of this theory, it’s a matter of replacing the dominant discourses (the way they think things are) with the subjective dialogue (the things we don’t talk about much). We often get stuck in our own dialogue so by having another trusted person to stand in as “sounding board”, we can be pointed to what we aren’t seeing so that together we re-author the event with new information we were unable to see before.

Narrative therapy also helps create a story of our events. This story draws upon knowledge from perhaps different vantage points. This knowledge gives us power to take control of events rather than allow the events to control us. It helps provide meaning to us while helping others to gain understanding through our stories.

On that note, I have agreed to join another author in a new book venture – telling his story as a spouse of someone who struggles mentally and emotionally with mental illness. Our hope is that together we can share his story in a meaningful way…

Can I Help My Child Tackle Anxiety?

Researchers are increasingly aware of the link between stress, coping, and anxiety. One distinction with this link splits children into two categories – adaptors and innovators. Adaptors tend to improve on a given schema whereas innovators move beyond to solve problems “outside the box”. Researchers agree that those children that cannot adapt or innovate coping strategies stall from stress and anxiety, but can benefit from being taught how to do so.

This is where a therapist specially trained to help children comes into play. A therapist can help teach the skills necessary for your child to learn to be an adaptor or an innovator so that they can develop their own coping strategies. But what can you do as a parent?

One suggestion is to teach your child to become a detective and uncover the triggers to their anxiety. This teaches your child how to recognize situations that are stress inducing. Once your child can detect these situations, the coping strategies and problem solving strategies learned in therapy can be applied. The hope is that your child can eventually adapt on their own, needing their parents and therapist’s help less and less.

Having a BLAST with Addiction?


The concept of BLAST is not a new one. It has been floating around the addiction world for so long I don’t even know where to tag its origin. It’s an important piece of the addiction puzzle though– to identify the emotional triggers you have that precede your compulsive behaviors. So try to take a breath between the triggering thought to go use and going to use, and think about what’s driving it – are you bored? are you lonely? are you angry? are you stressed? or are you tired? More than likely you said yes to one or more of these questions. Next, you need to find a replacement behavior to that of the compulsion, or in others words, an appropriate coping skill.

First: write a list of your preferred healthy coping ideas
Second: apply an appropriate method of coping to each driving emotion. For example, if you like to read, though that is a great coping skill, it might not be so appropriate or useful when you are lonely because reading is a solitary experience. Perhaps joining a basketball game at the gym or going for a walk with a friend would be a better coping skill from your list when you’re feeling lonely.
Third: once you have written several coping skills for each emotional trigger, keep the list in a handy place that you can look at when you are triggered.

Being aware of your triggers is just the beginning of the battle but a very important piece. Finding alternative coping skills specifically targeting the driving emotion once you are aware is the next step in changing the behavior. Getting help to understanding the deeper issues is the next step. Whether the compulsive behavior is drugs or alcohol related, or pornography, or gaming, or eating, or any other unwanted behavior you feel a slave to, there is help! So reach out and take it!