The holiday season has a way of bringing a lot of peace, love, and joy… as well as extreme blow up fights. These “experiences” often happen before or after an event where people are smiling and happy; aw, the magic of the season. It’s strange how ups always find a down while the downs don’t always find an up. Even stranger, these fights happen when we’re exhausted. We might be so tired we can barely keep our eyes open, yet somehow our bodies can still muster up bursts of energy to attack someone we love. It seems counterintuitive; shouldn’t our bodies want to nap instead of yelling? “I’m so angry at you… or I would be if I wasn’t about to collapse from exhaustion.” To help reduce potential fights this holiday, here’s a scenario I recently encountered with tips thrown in. (Sorry, it’s not that interesting a story because it was handled properly). Since my wife and I have a three-year-old and an 18-month-old, between exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed in the moment (getting kids out the door can be terrible), or simply feeling helpless at knowing how to best handle a situation, we get to have some “energetically infused” moments, which makes complete sense.
Tip#1: Consider your situation and be fair to yourself (aka have fair expectations). I find a lot of good people, especially parents, are too hard on themselves. Be fair with yourself, and you’ll have more patience. Be patient with yourself, and you’ll have more patience for others.
Another factor I have to remember is that my wife can be described as passionate (a nice word for aggressive). She’ll regularly gush, “We have the most beautiful girls in the world!” while the next minute, she’ll lose her mind on them. Since she’s passionate, however, that’s normal. To have such a big up, you need the balance of deep low. The great thing about this passion is she recovers incredibly fast. Meanwhile, I’m slower to get upset with terrible recovery time. I’m a more of a contained person (aka not passionate; aka boring). This means instead of a bad moment, I’m more at risk of having a grumpy day – it’s delightful. I may not have as many anger bursts as my wife, but if I do get pushed too far, I’m at risk of a much bigger anger burst or being upset for much longer. Being contained means I also never gush like my wife does, and as a typical guy, I can struggle to be lovey-dovey because it feels too vulnerable when you’re not a horny teenager – as a teen I had no problem being lovey-dovey, but now that I’m old and married, ehn. For Valentines, I’ll grab a card and if it says stuff I’d never say, done; I have my card. I’m a true romantic. My wife’s passion used to really bother me (just like my boringness could bother her), but I’ve come to appreciate it because it’s a great balance to my slow to anger and slow to recover.
Tip#2: It’s good to know yourself and your partner for more patience. This can also help you prevent putting yourself in situations that’ll lead to bigger fights (e.g. if I tried being a stay-at-home dad, I’d be a disaster).
Because of our personalities and triggers, my wife and I are at a higher risk of conflict than many couples – good times. On the plus side, I regularly get examples of situations to use for teaching (bonus) and it’s pushed me to come up with ways to prevent and handle conflict better (major bonus). It also makes me practice what I preach (not so much of a bonus for me).
Tip#3: There is good in all things. Sometimes the good is harder to see, but it’s still there if we look.
This particular situation was on a Sunday afternoon when my family was getting ready to go to my mom’s for dinner.
Tip#4: My mom’s friends are surprised how often her three kids and their families visit. A major reason for this is routine (free food also helps). Routine means there’s no thinking required – yea! A routine to visit or call is a great way to reduce unnecessary hurt and questions like “Why don’t you call more?” because it’s scheduled.
While my wife was struggling to get a shoe on one of the girls, I was looking for something, and I asked her if she knew where it was (when I lived with my mom, I regularly asked her this question). I’ve always had a habit of misplacing things. Strangely enough, this habit is always connected to a woman who moves things (it’s a team effort for losing stuff). After I found it and got to the door, my wife said something that caught me off guard: “It feels like I’m a single parent who’s responsible for everything.” If you’re thinking, “I don’t think that’s a compliment,” you’d be correct.
Tip#5: We often hear what we feel. Our feelings also corrupt how we remember things. This means there’s a good chance this isn’t a direct quote, but it’s how I remember it. As the receiver, I am likely making it sound worse while my wife, as the speaker, will likely make it sound softer – it’s what people do. This difference is important for listeners to know because it’s easy to villainize others based on what someone else says, but there’s always another side.
I’m a recovering workaholic who needs to feel good enough; guess how I wanted to respond to my wife: “Thank you for pointing out how you feel, so I can work harder to please you”? That’s a hard no. In my brain I was like “Yell at her for being crazy!” My brain can suck sometimes.
Tip#6: It’s really important to develop a pause button and not just react in situations where we feel attacked because that can lead to us being very mean and escalating the situation.
In this moment, my one option was to say, “I have to go to the bathroom,” so I could go somewhere to privately get out some anger (e,g. mime screaming in a mirror is great because seeing yourself angry can be very affirming) and then figure out my next move. Fortunately, for over fifteen years I have been working on properly responding to my wife and because of my job as a therapist, I have daily reminders as I teach people how to do it, so I didn’t need a moment to figure out my response – the one time my brain doesn’t suck. As always in a situation like this, I used a question: “To clarify, is that a true feeling or is that a lie?”
Tip#7: My “to clarify” questions are the best tool I’ve found for reducing conflict because it eliminates wrong assumptions. It’s simply asking a question with two options (emphasis on two), one is how it feels and one is a positive out (this second option is the key to the question’s success).
My wife replied, “It feels real,” which led to me reiterating, “But is it a real feeling or is it a lie?” Again, she said, “It feels real.” This time I asked her, “So when you say that I’m an excellent husband and father, is that a lie or is it true?” She admitted that I am excellent, which must mean that her present feeling is a lie.
Tip#8: Feelings can be excellent guides or terrible liars; we can also misread them. In this situation, my wife confused the real issue: She felt overwhelmed – that’s it; it had nothing to do with me not doing enough. Feelings are valuable, but they’re dangerous for getting us in serious fights that never needed to happen.
I gently pointed out to my wife that she needs to be careful because letting herself think that she’s an only parent will lead to her having strong resentment toward me.
Tip#9: The more we think a thought, the stronger it becomes and the harder it becomes to stop even if it’s not true.
When we were in the car driving and all settled, I asked my wife a follow up question, “When you said that statement earlier, was that your way of expressing you felt overwhelmed in that moment or do you really think that you are responsible for everything?” (Notice the two options?)
Tip#10: It’s best not to talk too much about a topic in one shot (sorry ladies). Keep it short, regroup, and then ask a fair question later when things have settled and the person can think straighter when feelings aren’t getting in the way. People learn better doing a little every day instead of doing a week’s worth in one day. For example, I was told to learn how to ride a unicycle, it’s better to do a little every day than one long lesson.
My wife explained that when I ask where things are she panics if she doesn’t know and then she feels guilty she can’t help. I pointed out that when I ask her where things are, I’m just asking in case she can save me time, especially since there’s a good chance she moved it. Either way, there is no need to feel any guilt or panic. Those feelings are liars, which she accepted. This conversation was simple and to the point and ended with a new boundary being made for better behavior next time… hopefully.
This situation could’ve easily blown up, but fortunately, we both kept level heads and were nice in our responses. Closer to Christmas, it might not be so easy, but I guess we’ll see.
May you be able to use some of these tips to reduce potential fights this holiday season.
Rev Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)