The Rewards of Effective Conflict Management.
Jenny’s heart was racing. An MRI revealed no heart dysfunction, so her doctor diagnosed it as a panic attack. She wanted to discover the underlying cause so she could heal the condition without drugs.
Session 1. Jenny opened our first session by explaining her recent medical emergency and then announced, “Let me tell you what I think is really causing this. It’s my relationship with my husband!” Scott (his name was changed to protect his identity), had been angry with her for years. He was a plant manager for a large corporation. They previously attended marriage counseling with another therapist for a short time, but the same patterns continued.
Jenny’s voice reeled with bitterness from years of unresolved conflicts. Her rapid-fire words launched missiles of pain and anger. He had no idea how she felt. Once she threatened to leave, but she had no job so she stayed. He treated her with more respect after that, but they lived like roommates.
I said, “Jenny, if you want to heal this the quickest way possible, I need to work with your marriage. It takes two to tango. If both of you learn the skills to create intimacy and resolve conflicts, you will have a successful marriage and your health will increase.”
“I don’t want Scott involved. He will feel so hurt. I haven’t told him all the things I told you.”
I coached her: “Each of us is responsible for our own feelings. You need to express your truth in the kindest way possible, and let Scott be responsible for his own feelings. Your job is to accept responsibility for your emotions and reactions. You need to learn how to maintain your sense of self and simultaneously experience healthy connection. Your reactions to each other are the tip of the iceberg. These patterns started in childhood and they are exposed in your marriage. You both have a major opportunity to heal and grow.”
Jenny replied: “I see what you mean. I want a happier marriage, and I want to be healthy. Those heart palpitations really scared me. I’ll ask him to attend a session, but I don’t think he will.”
Scott was a high-level executive in a Fortune 500 company, and he prided himself on fixing others problems. He didn’t like to ask for help.
Session 2. To Jenny’s surprise, Scott joined us. I had to gain his respect quickly or I would lose him. I had to explain the mind-body-spirit-emotion connection clearly. I realized that I instinctively knew how to work with this kind of man because I had grown up with one, my father. I was able to combine just the right blend of intellect and empathy. I acknowledged how difficult it might have been for him to come to see me, and that it might be difficult for him to trust me. I made good eye contact while conveying compassion. Scott felt respected, and he agreed to return for more counseling with his wife.
Session 3. I wanted to know about what it was like growing up under their parents’ roof.
Scott’s parents expected excellence, and he produced it. There was little emotional connection or physical affection between his parents, or between his parents and him. Scott sent his feelings underground a long time ago. He graduated top of his class in high school and college, he held executive level jobs and worked long hard hours. He played the trumpet from age 9 to 24, and he was a member of an elite college band. He said, “I’m not a real musician because I cannot play requests at a moment’s notice.”
Jenny was an accomplished artist, writer and poet. She grew up with parents who were emotionally distant, too. She learned to be tough, perfect, and to ignore her own needs. She was stoic, angry, and critical of Scott. I wondered what held these two together. I looked for the best place to intervene.
I offered, “Scott, I know you see yourself as a left-brained engineer-type, but the quiz I gave you shows that you are primarily right brain dominant. I think your true nature is to be relationship-oriented, creative, philosophical and spiritual. I know you are very smart. Underneath your stoicism, I see a kind-hearted teddy bear. What do you think of that?”
He looked perplexed. I sensed he wanted my help to let his soft side emerge, although he did not say so at the time. He had to think about it, and I gave him time.
Session 4. I taught them these basic communication skills.
(1) Active listening includes paraphrasing your partner’s message. Then you empathize with and validate your partner.
(2) “I messages” convey your own experience as follows:
“I feel _______ (Describe your emotion and take responsibility for it.)
when you __________ (Give a non-blameful description of our partner’s behavior or the situation.)
because _________ (Describe the tangible effect on you if there is one.)
Scott sat in the rocking chair, and Jenny perched on the sofa across from him. Jenny timidly shared, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
He returned her gaze with big puppy dog eyes. He wanted to understand her and felt anguish because of her pain. His hardened stoicism began to melt into compassion.
Jenny offered her “I message” cautiously, not wanting to arouse his anger. “I feel anxious before you come home every night. I don’t know what mood you will be in, and I get so scared when you are angry. I never know what to expect.”
He continued to gaze at her, surprised but wanting to know more.
“Jenny, tell him how you feel in your body,” I prompted. She held her breath. Her chest tightened. The back of her shoulders braced, and her jaws clenched.
“Oh, my head hurts!” she exclaimed. “Oh, it really hurts!”
The familiar emotions and sensations she stuffed for years rose to the surface. This time, she felt safe enough to express them to Scott, but she was still scared.
“Jenny, breathe. You can do this. Breathe.” I coaxed. She took some deep breaths.
If I continued to sit in my chair several feet away, I knew she would express herself superficially. But if I sat next to her, she would feel supported enough to go all the way into the feelings and sensations, and she would heal more completely.
“I’m going to sit right beside you and support you. Is that OK with you, and may I touch you?”
“Yes.” She willingly accepted the invitation.
I placed one hand on her chest and one hand on her upper back to help her body feel safe.
“Breathe, Jenny, breathe.” She was afraid to feel the pain, and to reveal it to Scott.
“Oh, the pain!” She held the right side of her head.
“Breathe,” I said in a low, reassuring voice. “Just breathe and feel.”
“I am not supposed to feel weak. I’m supposed to be tough and have it all together,” she retorted.
I held my hands on her body. She breathed a little more and allowed herself to feel scared.
Looking at her husband, she said, “I don’t want you to feel hurt. You have to go back to work after this.”
I intervened. “Jenny, highly sensitive people like you feel what others feel. Let him have his own feelings and let him be responsible for himself. He can handle this.” She brought her attention back into her own body. She placed her attention under my hands that were still holding her back and chest.
This time, with more feeling in her voice, she said to him, “I get so scared when I don’t know how you’ll treat me when you come home. It really bothers me.”
He practiced the active listening skill. “I see how scared you get. I had no idea. (pause) I can see how you would feel that way.” Then he added, “I am so sorry for your pain, and I will try to stop that behavior so you don’t hurt.” His sad puppy dog eyes revealed his compassionate heart.
“It helps me so much to see you looking at me with soft eyes. I feel safe now,” she whispered with appreciation.
My steady hands helped her shift the energy in her chest. She was able to breathe easier now.
“How’s your headache, Jenny?”
“It’s gone! It’s gone!” she exclaimed.
She jumped up and gave Scott a big hug. “Thank you so much for understanding. It means so much to me!” Tears glistened in her eyes.
He received her hug and returned it. (I knew he was a teddy bear in disguise.)
Turning to me, he said, “I feel so inadequate to do the right thing to help her. I really want her to be happy.”
“I know. You can learn the skills. Remember all those years you practiced the trumpet? How many years did it take for you to become good? How many years have you been married?” He was putting the whole thing in perspective.
“You know how to practice and become masterful. After a year or so, you will have these skills down pat. But just like with the trumpet, if you want to be really good, you will have to keep practicing, not because you have to, but because you want to become masterful at intimacy with your wife. You can do this,” I affirmed.
Scott saw the bigger picture. He could not know all the lessons that would lie ahead, but he had hope, and he trusted me to show him the way.
Jenny had more courage and confidence to share her feelings with Scott so he could support her. She learned to give him specific requests, instead of throwing out generic complaints that felt like bombs. He would, in time, learn to feel his emotions and reveal more of himself even though his focus was to help her.
“Practice these skills,” I encouraged them before they left, “and you will become masters.”
They attended sessions together for one year. Sometimes Jenny attended alone where I helped her heal emotional wounds from childhood. When I checked with them four years later, they were happy. They continued to use their skills. Jenny’s self-esteem glowed as she told me about how delighted she was in her career. She rented space in an artist studio where she socialized with creative, out-of-the-box people, just like herself. Life was good!
1) When you suppress your emotions, where do you feel aches and pains?
2) In what ways do your coping behaviors help you live a healthy life?
3) How do they diminish your health, the intimacy in your marriage or other significant relationships?
About the Author: As a Licensed Professional Counselor, LCMHC Benita A. Esposito combines a master’s degree in psychology and 4 decades of career wisdom with her intuitive ability to understand people at depth. She gets to the bottom line quickly so people can efficiently heal and move into their full potential. As an ordained minister with AIWP, Benita offers hands-on spiritual healing as an adjunct to psychotherapy (as illustrated in this article). Benita facilitates people to develop and sustain flourishing personal and business relationships rooted in The Authentic Self.
Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved. The Esposito Institute.
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There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau