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Loving the differences

Taken from:
Saanich News March 30, 2005

Paul Beckow M.Sc. R.P.C.
Individual couple and Famliy Counsellor

Dear Paul

When my husband and I have our differences we are so quick to react to one another. He quarrels. I get into it. Then I withdraw. I hate it. We do this all the time and it’s exhausting. Help.


In a marriage, actually in any relationship, we have significant differences - and lots of them. You and your partner have different needs, views, opinions, values, expectations, styles, temperaments, etc.

Differences are a natural part of being in relationship. The problem isn’t that we have differences or conflicts. The problem is how we are with one another when we are faced with our differences.

In my opinion, to manage the conflict that arises out of our differences is the single biggest task in making a relationship work!

There’s something powerful we can learn in this whole area if we are willing to look closer at ourselves.

The problem is our protectiveness. Human beings protect themselves tightly in the face of conflict. And when we protect ourselves, there is no learning, no listening, and no understanding. There is a great deal of reaction and resistance, but no learning.

Further, when we protect ourselves and react, our partners protect themselves as well. We create a “protective circle”. Like two porcupines rolled up in a ball covering their underbelly, needles out!

Protecting ourselves is part of the very primitive emergency reaction system human beings have to danger (real or imagined ) - the reaction of “fight or flight”. Notice the danger or threat can be real or imagined – and the human brain does not know the difference.

Confronted with conflict people protect in a variety of ways. We will blame the other, attack, coerce, control, defend, dissaprove. We may use guilt, rational argument, and drama in an attempt to get our way. We make our partner wrong, attack their character, all in an effort to get them to hear our feelings and respond to us.

Other styles of protection are more passive. The denial of conflict, withdrawing, withholding, becoming indifferent or resigned. These are ways to avoid conflict.

All our protection has a “pay off”. Usually our pay off is the feeling of power or control, being right, and knowing the other person as wrong.

In addition all protection has a huge cost. The cost of the aggressive style is the injury we do to the other and to the sense of trusts and connection between us. It also undermines our good feelings about ourselves.

When we react to conflict passively we give ourselves up. The immediate pay-off of avoidance is that we do avoid conflict and this affords some relief. The cots of being passive is that conflict is seldom resolved, we fail to learn and grow, and we begin to feel resentful.

Overall, our protective ways seem to work. . That’s why we persist with them. However the reality is our protections don’t really protect us at all. They cause a great deal of mischief, division and resentment. Ultimately they undermine our sense of partnership, trust, and intimacy.

So Donna, the first step to meaningful change is to become aware of our protectiveness at the time we are doing it. This calls upon us to observe ourselves and to acknowledge the real intentions of our communication. We are protecting. Not open. We want to be right. Not learn.

Once we see this we can get on to new learning.

What is going to help us here? It is:

Learn to replace your desire to protect with a curiosity and intention to understand. To understand yourself and your partner. Conflict is the opportunity to gain new understanding. Ask yourself what can this particular conflict teach me? Next you can acquire new and clean powerful skills of response when faced with conflict.

We’ll explore these skills in my next column.

Paul Beckow is a certified individual, marriage, and family therapist. If you have a relationship, personal issue or concern, he can be reached by phoning the Victoria Family Institute at 721 2477 or contacted through his web site at www.paulbeckow.com

For personal or couple counselling, for more information, or to register for a course - please contact Paul Beckow at The Victoria Family Institute.

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