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Cleaning up the Mess

Taken from:
LETS TALK with Paul Beckow
Goldstream Gazette, September 2010

Dear Paul

My wife and I had a really upsetting quarrel the other night. This weekend we have hardly spoken. I hate it when we do this. Any advice ?


Brian, your relationship, any relationship, is as strong as the skills that you bring to it.

The quarrel you had with your wife now calls for clear and skilful actions.

The fact is we can, at times, cause lots of mischief in our relationships. We make mistakes – little ones, medium ones, sometimes big ones. Some of our mistakes cause big fusses, hurt feelings, significant misunderstandings, defensiveness and protectiveness on our partners part.

When we make mistakes, our tendency is to deny them, often to fail to even see them. Or we may see our mistakes and simply won’t openly acknowledge them. We prefer to hide them, blame the other. To uphold ourselves being right.

If we stop justifying ourselves for a brief moment we may see, in troubled moments like you had together, places where we behaved in ways that don’t match our values or our commitment, to our partner.

So, Brian - first point - after a big fuss or upset together, you have choices. You can avoid or ignore what happened, cautiously wait things out until your partner seems ready to connect again; you can rehash what happened with her and have the quarrel all over again; or you can stew and be right and protect yourself.

However, there is another response.

You can “clean up the mess.”

I recommend cleaning up the mess. It brings much less suffering and recreates the good will between partners. You have fewer weeds growing in your “relationship garden” that way.

To authentically clean up the mess is a skill.

What are the actions of cleaning up the mess?

Cleaning up the mess begins with you looking for, and owning, in all that happened between you, what you can be responsible for. If you became involved in a unkind conflict, there’s usually something you can be responsible for. This may be the unhappiness or injury your behaviour caused.

Relationship is a dance between two. So you could always find something you did or something your didn’t do that contributed to how it all went together. Look to see what that could be.

You become responsible, then, by being curious about and acknowledging the harm caused by your actions, seeing if your partner is okay. And by allowing your partner to communicate to you any upsetting feelings still there for him or her.

This invites a very special kind of listening - an open, nondefensive listening, a listening committed to really hearing and understanding them.

It is this kind of communication that allow couples in relationship to put a troubling event behind them, at rest. It happens as a function of doing your best to understand what happened, understand their point of view and their feelings in the matter.

This kind of listening is a clear challenge to most of us because when someone is feeling hurt or troubled with us and expressing that, the tendency is to protect and defend rather than to listen. So this will definitely test you.

This open committed listening for them is a part of cleaning up the mess.

Two of the other actions of cleaning up the mess are apologies and forgiveness.

Thank heaven for apologies and forgiveness! Whoever first invented and brought to a conflict these two particular actions in human affairs was wise indeed.

An apology, genuinely given, is a clear offering of yourself for a new beginning. It expresses a commitment to re establish your good will in the matter and your partners innocence, to replace blame with understanding.

My recommendation then Brian, is to apologize. However you can. Speak it personally. Write it down. E mail it. Just do it.

“I apologize for the way things went with us last night. I didn’t handle myself well. I was blaming. I wasn’t listening and wouldn’t let it go. Please accept my apology. What do I need to make amends with you?”

Go for it Brian. The cleaning up of conflict is a skill essential to all our relationships.

Paul Beckow is a marriage therapist in the West Shore and can be reached through his website www.paulbeckow.com or Paul Beckow Counselling 250 721 2477.

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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