Tag Archives: Conflict

Podcast Interview: The Mindset You Must Change if You Want a Great Marriage

(Image/thelifestyleplaybook.com)

I know what you’re probably not thinking: I really want to listen to Matt blather on about conflict in relationships!

And because you’re not thinking that, this is me encouraging you to start thinking about it because clearly I’m an attention-whore. Therapist and author Lesli Doares, because she’s kind and gracious, invites me onto her podcast Happily Ever After is Just the Beginning every so often to jam about relationship stuff. (You can also check out Lesli’s The Hero Husband Project here.)

Today, her newest episode “The Mindset You Must Change if You Want a Great Marriage,” features … wait for it … me, soapboxing about people’s beliefs and how everyone thinks they’re right all of the time, and how that condition is the root of most relationship conflict (and every other kind of conflict).

In this episode, Lesli and I discuss this unhelpful mindset, and kick around ideas for how people can connect more powerfully with loved ones to improve their romantic relationships, as well as connect with other people, so they can have better social relationships in general.

You can listen here on the web at Web Talk Radio, or from your favorite podcast service (because I’m an Apple user, I can’t provide a Google Play link, and I’m sorry), but here is the link to the Apple Podcasts episode.

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Would You Leave Your Spouse Over Dirty Dishes?: A Lesson on Conflict Management

(Image/HuffPost)

We pulled into our parking space in Florida’s version of the “happiest place on earth,” and all of my insides were knotted up.

In my left pocket was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought—a pretty pear-shaped diamond engagement ring I’d been secretly paying off for months.

This felt like the place. Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. She loved Disney. This felt like the time. The Fourth of July. She loved fireworks.

I wasn’t tense because I was planning a surprise marriage proposal. I was tense because we were fighting over whether the song playing on the radio was Duran Duran. (Shazam didn’t exist in 2003.)

It was. The song was “Hungry Like the Wolf.” I knew it. She didn’t. She told me I was wrong. I knew I wasn’t. So we had a little fight and probably said dickhead things to one another.

It wasn’t that weird for us to have a little spat and be temporarily mad about something silly. We never fought about anything “important,” as far as I could tell. Just “dumb stuff.”

Everything’s totally fine, I thought.

While the fireworks lit up the night sky above Cinderella’s castle, I slipped the ring on her finger and she said yes.

Ten years later, she divorced me because I left dishes by the sink.

I can’t remember whether Duran Duran was playing in the background while she drove away for the last time.

The Important Difference Between the Two Types of Relationship Conflict

As recently as this week, someone commented on the dishes article that went viral in January 2016, minimizing the significance of dirty dishes and encouraging people to learn how to let go of “the little things” in an effort to avoid conflict and have healthy relationships.

While I appreciate the spirit of his comment and those of the hundreds of other people also touting the merits of “letting it go,” as a happy-marriage philosophy, I respectfully believe they all share the same toxic mental condition that ailed me throughout my marriage.

It’s a diseased belief called I Know That What I Believe is Right, Therefore Anyone Who Believes Something Else is Wrong.

That’s the belief that ends every doomed relationship, and is more or less responsible for starting every major conflict—including the deadliest wars—in human history.

My favorite writer Mark Manson categorizes conflict into two categories:

1. Conflict of Preference, and

2. Conflict of Values.

A Conflict of Preference is liking rap music more than country music, or tacos more than sweet potatoes, or attending a symphony orchestra performance more than off-roading in a lifted pickup truck.

A Conflict of Values is belief in God versus atheism as a guiding life principle, the intention to have children versus not reproducing, or behaving charitably or greedily.

Preference is “I like Rocky Road ice cream more than strawberry ice cream!”

Values are literally WHAT WE ARE. “Our values are constantly reflected in the way we choose to behave,” Manson wrote in Who the F*ck Am I?: The Ultimate Guide to Personal Values (which is the best thing I’ve read on the subject of personal values).

It’s silly to fight ugly and end up divorced over Conflict of Preference.

It’s tragic—but possibly healthy—to end relationships in which there are an irreconcilable Conflict of Values. (Though I have some challenging questions for you about WTF you were thinking when you said “I do.”)

But what about when we can’t tell the difference?

It requires high-level mindfulness and self-awareness. And it takes both relationship partners valuing their relationship more than their individual feelings (until it can be determined whether those feelings are a result of preferential differences, or value differences).

I think many people get divorced because they have difficulty identifying whether conflict is a matter of preferences or values.

And I think many people believe my article She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink is stupid because they confuse my ex-wife’s and my differing preferences for where to set a used drinking glass as NOT being about values.

It was totally about values. Values, masquerading as something that didn’t matter.

It’s Not About the Dishes

Everyone who cries foul at my ex-wife after reading the dishes article is hyperfocused on the relative merits of setting a drinking glass by the sink.

After all, children are starving in Africa. Someone at work was diagnosed with cancer. The family on the news lost their home in the hurricane.

It’s easy to point at the glass as a minor thing. It’s easy to point to that glass and convince yourself that anyone who makes a big deal out of it has misplaced priorities and probably some emotional problems.

It’s easy to say those thoughts out loud when your spouse is irritating you because she seems to be suggesting once again that something you do is making her life worse. And it’s easy to feel angry when you feel as if all of your shortcomings are being highlighted while all of your contributions and virtues are ignored.

Why isn’t anything I do good enough for her?

Where to set the dish is a Conflict of Preference. But the way in which we treat our marriage partner is a Value.

Most of the time when relationship fights like this crop up over disagreements which might seem minor from the outside looking in, the injured party isn’t feeling hurt because of this one thing. The injured party is feeling hurt because, for them, this incident is another reminder that they’re married to someone who believes that their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are more valuable—that they matter more—than their spouse’s.

I can’t relate to someone who cares whether a drinking glass is sitting by the sink.

But I can totally relate to someone who feels hurt, disrespected, or disregarded because of someone refusing to thoughtfully consider our thoughts, ideas, emotional experiences, etc.

You ever have a good idea at work? One that would make things better for the company, the customer, or the employees? And then when you bring that idea to the table, it gets ignored, or discounted, or otherwise rejected by some self-important anal-retentive?

I bet you have.

It’s shitty. But I can accept self-important anal-retentives doing asshole things.

I find it infinitely less acceptable for someone who vowed to love and honor me as their partner for life to do that.

When romantic partners (too often the men in male-female relationships) dispute, challenge, reject, insult, minimize, invalidate the expressed experiences of the other, they are communicating the following:

  • My beliefs are true; yours are false
  • What I feel is right; what you feel is wrong
  • What I think matters more than what you think
  • Because you’re wrong, and I’m right, I’m never going to change my behavior
  • You say that this hurts, but I don’t feel hurt by it so you must be crazy. I’m not going to help you stop hurting because you’re wrong for hurting.

And the day I realized that I would never agree to marry or remain married to someone who said that or treated me that way is the day I made peace with my wife leaving me.

The day I realized THAT was what I had been saying to my wife every time we argued about glasses by the sink or fucking Duran Duran songs, was the day I realized that she did the right thing by leaving, and then I started writing the Shitty Husband letters. She owed it to her mental and emotional health to wake up every day and not have someone who had promised to love and honor her forever tell her over and over again that her real-life experiences weren’t worth my time and attention and effort.

A marriage is NOT a promise to endure neglect and abuse for the rest of your life.

A marriage is a promise to work cooperatively to mutually thrive for the rest of your life, and is currently the most successful model in human history for reproducing and raising healthy, socially adjusted children.

When someone refuses to cooperate to that end, then the marriage ceases to be a marriage.

It’s easy to miss because, after all, it’s just a stupid glass by the sink.

Or, is it?

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The Control Issues

Control key

It felt like I died.

I was depressed. Not like “oh, I’m feeling a little emo and wish more people liked me.”

I was a version of myself I’d never known and that’s a scary place to be when you didn’t even know it was possible.

When you can’t find a way to be comfortable in your own skin, there is very little pleasantness in the human experience. If you don’t numb it with chemicals or find a way to fall asleep, every part of you just feels… bad.

Not uncomfortable. Fucking bad. Like you kind of want to chop something off you so it stops hurting or maybe die in a fiery explosion because this.is.bad.

That’s when I realized for the first time how little control I really had over my life.

I was out of control.

Life was out of control.

You have a decision to make: Stay afloat until you feel strong enough to start swimming toward where you want to be. Or drown.

The Loss of Control After Divorce

My son was gone. GONE. And there was nothing I could do about it.

Shocks your system. Like the jump into ice-cold water. It’s hard to breathe. You panic a little. Frantically looking for a way out.

Because the world isn’t big enough, I found out where he was and who he was with sometimes when he wasn’t with me.

Someone bad.

Not necessarily dangerous.

Just… bad.

And as that child’s parent, you’re now helpless. Because you no longer get to say what happens to your child 50-percent of his life. You lose control. Even the ability to influence what happens, depending on the other parent’s choices.

Sometimes, I’d get so upset that I would sob and vomit and say bad words in between the heaving.

A New Kind of Prison

Each day. Each new experience. You get a little closer to coming to terms with your new reality.

Your new prison.

Because if you’re a divorced parent, that’s what your new life is. You no longer get to make choices like everyone else, UNLESS you’re willing to abandon your child, and if you’re that kind of person, you have bigger problems to work out than a failed marriage.

When she left, all I wanted to do was run away. Run!

I had these fantasies of getting a copywriting gig in New Orleans or the Pacific Northwest or some other undetermined place to try to find the reset button. To get a fresh start. To get away from everything in my life that represented sadness and anger and my failed life.

To run away for a couple years just to prove I’ve never been free.

It’s not possible.

Until your child is AT LEAST 18, and probably longer than that, they can use all the love and support we as parents can muster during the final stages of their transition from child to adult.

Our most-important job with our children is helping them develop into someone who doesn’t need us anymore.

I couldn’t run.

I was here. Am here. Stuck. No escape.

And your first lesson: Everything’s different now. I have to let some things go.

Including the illusion of control.

Motherfucker, I’ll Be Back From the Dead Soon

The best thing that happens after you get all that crying and puking and swearing out of your system is that you start living again.

You start having new experiences and making new memories with new people.

You can’t know you’re not going to stay dead until you finally stop being dead. It’s liberating when other people can make you smile and laugh and feel good. New people in your new life, proving to you that there is one on the other side.

People who used to have a death grip on your emotions lose that grip.

Not because they let go.

But because you’re strong enough to remove it yourself.

When you’re angry and immature and yelling: “You’re not my fucking mom. No one tells me what to do!” it’s a really ineffective way to establish boundaries and demonstrate that you are in control of your own life.

That’s what I used to do and it should come as little surprise that it was a highly ineffective strategy that probably played a pretty major role in my marriage’s eventual demise or establishing healthy boundaries in other relationships.

Self-reflection and self-awareness helps you recognize all your own bullshit and start owning it. I am a hot-headed, defensive, sarcastic, impulsive, immature sonofabitch when I get really fired up about something. And it has taken me all 36 of these years to get to a place where I could finally learn how to breathe, and pray, and exercise the kind of patience necessary to avoid escalating normal conflict into war.

The Thing About Control

Attempts to control are typically a reaction to the fear of losing control. GoodTherapy.org and virtually every credible source of information on control issues all say the same thing: “The incessant need for control can be overwhelming and exhausting, wreaking havoc on relationships, careers, and overall quality of life.”

People who struggle with control issues fear being at the mercy of others, and the fear typically stems from some past traumatic event that left them feeling helpless and vulnerable.

“As a result, they may crave control in disproportionate and unhealthy ways.”

Empathy and patience is in order when you come across people with control issues. It’s not as if they want to be controlling and domineering. They might not even know they’re doing it. Demonstration of controlling behavior is usually a direct result of traumatic life experiences, a lack of trust, anxiety, fears of abandonment, damaged self-esteem, personal beliefs, perfectionism, or fear of experiencing emotional pain, writes Jeffrey Kaplan, a licensed therapist at GoodTherapy.

It’s a tough pill to swallow when you realize you can’t control what other people do.

It requires simply getting stronger. And demonstrating more courage.

Because that’s the one thing it turns out you can control: How you’re going to react to unpleasantness in this new world where everything feels upside-down.

I know how I’m going to react.

I’m going to clearly state my boundaries and intentions. I’m going to mean exactly what I say.

Because I control me.

No one else does.

Attempts to circumvent my boundaries will be met with unpleasantness.

That’s where freedom lives.

Even when you feel trapped.

You make everything new by changing on the inside.

Because it turns out you’re still alive.

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