Thesaurus Therapy: Confuse These Words At Your Own Risk

Collegiate_ThesaurusHere’s a list of important words with very different meanings. We fail to grasp these distinctions to our peril. 

Cause vs. Contribution. A partner or family member may contribute to our irritation, anger, frustration, or unhappiness, but they do not cause it. There’s a fine line between what others do and how it affects us.  It’s what goes on inside our minds, not what goes on “out there,” that determines how annoying or troublesome another’s behavior feels. This is good news because we can control our inner world more easily than controlling others. Application: replace the comment, “You make me so mad,” with, “The story I tell myself about what you did makes me so mad.”

Criticism vs. Complaint. As a family conflict mediator I encourage complaining. It’s a healthy way to make our wishes known, initiate helpful dialog, and foster positive change. But there’s a world of difference between saying, “I feel bugged when you leave your dirty socks on the floor,” and “You are a slob and a sorry excuse for a human being.” One is a complaint, the other is a criticism. Application: resist the temptation to attack your partner; attack the problem instead.

Reacting vs. Responding. If you throw a rock into a pond you’ll see waves. That’s a response. If you throw a rock into a pond and see see a tsunami, that’s a reaction. Too often we react like a tsunami when a family member bugs us. Those reactions are impulsive, thoughtless, and explosive.  A response involves taking a deep breath, becoming curious about what the other person is thinking, and giving a soft reply. Application: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

Oneness vs. Sameness. When “two become one” it doesn’t mean “two become the same.” Expecting our partners to think, act, talk, eat, and relax just like us is to overlook the fact that we are one (shared bed, kids, budget, goals) but not the same (emotionally enmeshed, codependent, and blurred boundaries). Marriage is not the melting of a blue and yellow crayon into a green blob. We are still blue and yellow. Application:  give your partner and yourself permission to be different.  See The Green Marriage

Assertiveness vs. Confrontation. The conflict avoidant person will cower at both of these words. But if the thought of being a perpetually passive, compliant, floor mat doesn’t appeal to us we should embrace assertiveness (the ability to say what we want and not want, ask questions, make our needs known) and eliminate confrontations (pulling the pin on a hand grenade and throwing it at our partner). Application: speak the truth in love. 



Conflict-Creating and Conflict-Reducing Comments

“Of course I’m right. I’m always right.”

Avoid Conflict-Creating Comments

Resolving conflict begins by recognizing and eliminating your contributions to an argument. If you don’t think you contribute at all, then this exercise will be easy. Show the following list of comments to a person with whom you have recurring conflict. Ask them if they’ve heard you say any of them. If not, cool! If so, um, not so cool.

  1. “I am right you are wrong and that’s that!”
  2. “My point of view is the right point of view!”
  3. “Your intentions are terrible!”
  4. “You started it!”
  5. “Why didn’t you prevent this conflict from happening?!”
  6. “I know what you’re thinking, feeling, and/or assuming.”
  7. “I know all I need to know about what happened!”
  8. “I’ve got to persuade you that I’m right!”
  9. “What you did was wrong!”
  10. “You make me mad (guilty, miserable, depressed, frustrated).”
  11. “Your actions impact me negatively so cut ’em out!”
  12. “To keep the peace I’ll keep my feelings to myself.”
  13. “You created my bad feelings!”
  14. “You’re responsible for my emotions!”
  15. “You must understand how I feel!”
  16. “It’s up to you to prevent all future conflicts!”
  17. “Ignore emotions and stick to facts!”
  18. “You must learn about my emotions!”
  19. “I am either competent or incompetent, I can’t be both.”
  20. “I am either good or bad, I can’t be both.”
  21. “I am either lovable or unlovable, I can’t be both.”
  22. “I am only trying to help.”
  23. “You’re so stubborn I need to get aggressive with you.”
  24. “You’re so naïve I need to teach you how life works.”
  25. “You’re selfish, manipulative, and controlling so I withdraw!”
  26. “How can you be so irrational?”
  27. “If you loved me you’d change.”
  28. “You shouldn’t hurt or feel bad because I didn’t mean it.”
  29. “You hurt me intentionally!”
  30. “Our opinions differ and since we can’t both be right, you’re wrong!”

Practice Conflict Reducing Questions

Here are questions that deescalate conflict. Learning how to reduce conflict is hard but important. Show this list to a person with whom you have recurring conflict and ask them to choose five that they wish you’d use more often.

  1. “What is important to you in this situation?”
  2. “What’s it like from your point of view?”
  3. “What are your intentions?”
  4. “How did I contribute to this conflict?”
  5. “I wonder why didn’t I see this conflict coming?”
  6. “I think I know where you’re coming from but I’m not sure.”
  7. “What do I not understand about your point of view?”
  8. “What’s your side of the story?”
  9. “What have I done that is wrong?”
  10. “What is my impact on you?”
  11. “If you continue to wound me I’ll be forced to withdraw.”
  12. (to self) “What am I feeling in this situation?”
  13. “Your behaviors trigger not cause my bad feelings.”
  14. “I wonder how I can better manage my emotions?”
  15. “What are your feeling in this situation?”
  16. “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
  17. “Emotions are natural; can we discuss them?”
  18. “Teach me about your emotions; what are you feeling?!”
  19. “I am both competent and incompetent.”
  20. “I am both good and bad.”
  21. “I am both lovable and unlovable.”
  22. “You are a complex person and I’ve got a lot to learn.”
  23. “Your self-esteem is important to me.”
  24. “Why are you hurt? I’ll bet you’ve got info that I need to understand.”
  25. “I actually don’t know what your intentions are. What are they?”
  26. “Because we have different perspectives, both matter. What’s yours?”
  27. “I feel _____ when you engage in ______ behaviors.”
  28. “What’s getting in the way of stopping the things that irritate us?”
  29. “What does this look like from your point of view?”
  30. “My persistence isn’t working, is it? What would work?”

2009 © text and picture, Erik Johnson

19 Questions for a Spouse Who Doesn’t Follow Through

For nearly 14 years as a marriage counselor I’ve been collecting examples of how spouses drive each other crazy. One of the more insidious (vexing, nasty, irritating) dynamics in a conflicted marriage is when one or both parties don’t follow through on their responsibilities. It does little good to scold such a one; they just dig in their heels. My approach is more conciliatory. After building rapport I simply ask some questions. Here’s my arsenal of Qs for the spouse who doesn’t follow through.

“Remember that conversation we had about division of labor…?”

  1. When growing up what responsibilities did your parents give you? Which of your tasks did they do themselves?
  2.  How did you and your spouse decide who does what job, task, role, and duty?
  3.  What must it be like for your spouse to hear you say “I love you” when you don’t do your job?
  4.  If your spouse is doing your jobs, etc, how do you deal with their resentment?
  5.  If your spouse is doing your jobs, etc, how will you deal with their burn out?
  6.  Why do you expect your spouse to do your jobs, tasks, roles, and/or duties?
  7.  What’s it like being the one teaching your spouse patience?
  8.  What indications are there that your spouse is frustrated, aggravated, and irritated?
  9.  What’s it like living with a spouse who is frustrated, aggravated, and irritated?
  10.  Since lack of ambition, initiative, and responsibility increases your spouse’s frustration why do you choose not to take action. Laziness? Anger? Revenge? Drama addiction? Do you want your spouse to swat you like an irritating mosquito? Do you love being nagged?
  11.  How might knowing that procrastination is a symptom of slothfulness motivate you?
  12.  If you’re angry at your spouse why do you prefer foot dragging to conflict resolution?
  13.  If you don’t conquer your lack of follow through how will you deal with the natural consequences your spouse puts in place?
  14.  How will your broken promises (“yeah, I’ll get to it later”) build the foundation of a healthy marriage?
  15.  Is your lack of follow through due to fear, lack of motivation, lack of know-how, or lack of love?
  16.  If fear, what are you afraid of–criticism, being micro managed, lack of gratitude?
  17.  If lack of motivation, why do you take on more projects than you plan to fulfill?
  18.  If lack of know how, which coach would help the most: time management coach (to help you  prioritize and managing time and juggle multiple priorities) an ADD coach (to help you stay focused) or a depression coach (to help you conquer the negative thoughts that contribute to lethargy)?
  19.  If lack of love what will it take to regain the love you once had?