“You can certainly keep on shoving those pink elephants up under the rug and feeding them peanuts! But you’re either going to trip and break your neck, or the city is going to come and condemn your home when their ‘stuff’ keeps piling up!“
All three of us belly laughed, but the couple got my point. Shoving stuff under the rug is a sure recipe for the demise of any relationship.
Although I will be speaking about this in terms of marriage or an intimate relationship, the same holds true in any relationship: parent/child, coworkers, neighbors, or friends.
I don’t think any of us love conflict. But I believe what Ronald Reagan said about conflict carries great wisdom:
Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” Ronald Reagan
I’m sure you’re hoping that I will tell you how to resolve conflict in a peaceful manner … and I will certainly deliver! However, the greatest challenge is usually convincing couples that sweeping things under the rug is NOT healthy. As a matter of fact, research indicates that it is the beginning of the end of any relationship.
Shortly after our chuckle, the husband commented, “I totally agree… we have got to stop shoving things under the rug. So help us learn some kind of peaceful resolution process.”
With exasperation, the wife exploded. “Are you kidding me right here? We don’t need to learn how to do something new! We need to do an excavation of the pile of elephants under the rug already!“
With a grin, he responded that he guessed there were “a few” little pink elephants remaining..
With wide eyes and total disbelief, she said, “I spend two or three hours every day ‘scooping poop’ from those little darlings. And they are not small, and they’re not few!”
It was interesting to learn that his family had always brushed things under the rug; things both large and small. He had vowed to do better, and his wife confirmed that he had. But she also pointed out that there was still a prominent habit of sweeping things under the rug.
The fact is that, on this habit, he was a better version of his family. But he still struggled to see that patterns and habits were being repeated. We were able to identify some of the words and phrases which replicated his family history:
- Let’s not get into that just now.
- Today is our only day off; let’s just enjoy it
- We obviously disagree on that so let’s just leave it alone
- Let’s just leave well enough alone
- I’m just not up for that discussion tonight
Those may be valid comments if the issues are truly addressed at another time.But it could be just a way to store things under the rug with all of its little pink friends. Pooping friends. Sorry for the visual, but this is too important of an issue to tiptoe around.
There is a natural tendency for all of us to want to avoid conflict. And we all like to embrace one of two ideas about conflict:
- Leave it alone, and it will resolve itself; or,
- Time heals all wounds
But the truth is … time does not heal all wounds unless the wounds are cleaned and bandaged. Otherwise, bitterness takes the place of the wounds. And rarely do problems resolve themselves. Unless the issues are addressed, they join forces with the other cute little pooping pink things and thus create even greater conflict. All the while, the unresolved issues undermine the integrity of the foundation of the relationship.
So, what is the difference between the pink elephants and the peanuts we feed them?
Pink elephants are the major issues we avoid. You may be wondering what qualifies as a major issue? Anything that introduces significant stress to either person in the relationship.
Sweeping those things under the rug may seem easier at the moment. But in the end, the result is always an erosion of the health of the relationship.
The peanuts that we feed the elephants are the little criticisms and negative comments we make toward one another. Comments such as:
- Do I have to hear this story again?
- Could you ever just get over yourself for a few minutes to pay attention to me?
- You never listen to a word I say.
- I am sick and tired of you doing this or not doing that.
- Or responding with comments like “REALLY?” with a surly tone when someone is trying to share something with you
If you have a “herd of elephants” under the rug in your home, in your business, or in your church, you might need to do some “excavating” first. Often that is done best with a bit of coaching help.
Certainly, one of the key components is learning to resolve conflict in a peaceful way. Resolving conflict is not always about agreement. Sometimes it can be about agreeing to disagree. However, in order for this to be successful, each person must hear, understand, and respect the other’s position. That rarely occurs and is why this is not usually a good option. For many people, “agreeing to disagree” is just a sophisticated way to add another little pink cute thing under the rug.
Dr. Pat Love, was my major advisor in graduate school and my lifelong friend, mentor, and coach. She taught us a valuable, foundational theory to help couples resolve tough issues. She taught us a little phrase: “At the bottom line, the facts are friendly.” It is only when we can get both parties to accept the bottom line that their partners positive thoughts and positions that we are able to get to peaceful resolutions.
How do we get to the bottom line?
1. The first skill is to help couples believe that there is a potential good and peaceful resolution.
2. The second skill is to instill a willingness to look for it together. With zero negativity.
3. The third skill is teaching couples to reflect, validate, and empathize with their partner.
Let’s examine each of these three skills:
1. You (both of you) must believe that there is a potential good and peaceful resolution.
It is only when couples can set their RAS (Reticular Activation System) in their brains to believing, and searching for a potentially good and peaceful resolution that conflict can be resolved.
Many of us have a tendency to go into addressing any issue with a “fight it out” or “argue your point” mentality. When your RAS is set for that, it will comply and look for fighting and/or arguing points.
I encourage couples to take a deep breath, to practice a moment of gratitude for their partner, for the moment, and for the peaceful resolution before they ever start. Truly setting an expectation for an adventure with a happy ending. Any other mindset will produce exactly what you expect!
You may need to coach yourself, you may need to take some time to master your emotions, you may need to say a prayer. Do whatever it takes to prepare yourself for a positive, peaceful outcome.
2. Embrace a willingness to look for it together. With zero negativity.
No, I haven’t lost my mind. You can decide that the two of you can do this together. Regardless of what your history of resolving issues or ignoring issues has been!
See yourself as a “team” with your partner. You are on a mission as a “team” … not as enemies.
This is not time for negativity in any of its popular forms: blame, criticism, name calling, insults, or any sort of finger pointing. ZERO NEGATIVITY! I had a couple ask me recently what that meant in terms of this exercise. I said, “It means if you have anything negative to say, or any negative signs or facial expressions … ZIP IT!”
I actually encourage couples to create their own little “power statement” to make before they begin this process. Something like taking hands, looking into one another’s eyes and saying aloud together: “It’s you and me together against the world. We can resolve this together! And be grateful we did!”
3. Reflect, validate, and empathize with your partner.
If you follow my blogs and other posts, you know that I have written about this third skill before. It’s a slight variation of Drs. Harville and Helen Hendrix’ Safe Conversations process. Let’s review:
First of all, we do not do these sessions impromptu. Ask for an appointment. Grant the appointment ASAP. But asking for an appointment is a respectful way to begin the process. (Not to mention that when you ask for the appointment, you get to go first!) And do not even think about launching this over text! That’s a horrible faux pas!
We start the process by having one partner talk about an issue significant to them.
“Reflecting” means the other partner needs to summarize in a few sentences what he heard. This is not an interpretation nor an opportunity to comment on what they heard. It’s simply a moment to let the speaker know that you hear them correctly and that you are listening carefully. This creates a sense of being in the process together.
What is *validating?” Validating is the process of showing respect for what the other has shared. After the speaker has completed sharing what they have to say, you reflect by saying, “Listening to what you said, it makes sense to me that ______.”
The listener must fill that blank with no judgment and no interpretation. It shows that you are respecting what they have shared.
What is *empathizing?” Empathizing is letting the other know that you are doing your best to walk a mile in their shoes.
You express this by completing this sentence: “After listening to what you said, I think you must feel _______________________.” Then express what you think they must be feeling, given what they have said. You may be incorrect in your guesses about their feelings. But it indicates that you are making an effort. You cannot just track their words. You must try to track their hearts.
I must tell you the massive impact that this simple exercise (just skill #3) has on conflict resolution. Successfully learning and using this skill is an enormous benefit to any relationship.
But there is another key step in skill three: the person sharing must make specific, positive behavior change requests of the listener. These change requests should be designed to bring a resolution of the issue for them. Unless these requests are illegal, immoral, or out of the other’s value system, they should agree and grant as many of the requests as possible.
Then the sharing partner should initiate a hug.
After a break of at least a few minutes, the listener can share their thoughts on the back and forth discussion.
Then, the listener will go through the same process outlined above, all the way from reflecting to the hug at the end.
One more important point: for conflict to be resolved peacefully both people must learn to “watch one movie at a time.” Let me explain: if his favorite movie is “The Empire Strikes Back,” and her’s is “Driving Miss Daisy,” watching both of those movies at the same time will be useless.
So, one partner talks; the other LISTENS! Through the entire process.
Then the other partner talks, and the first partner LISTENS! Through their entire process.
Learning to discipline oneself to listen and watch someone else’s “movie” is a skill that just by itself begins to stop the elephant brigade!
In my practice, my couples learn that one movie at a time, one issue at a time, and one solution at a time, is the greatest “elephant exterminator” known to man.
Let me emphasize again how critical it is that we learn to keep the pink elephants cleaned out from under the rug. That we stop feeding them peanuts.
Here’s what research tells us about couples who learn to resolve conflict peacefully:
- They report greater intimacy
- Their marriages last 92% longer than other marriages
- Both partners have better health and higher levels energy
- Both partners take less medication than average couples
But I want to include one more fact that I hope every couple will seriously consider: COUPLES WHO LEARN TO RESOLVE CONFLICT PEACEFULLY AND CONSISTENTLY HAVE CHILDREN WHO GROW UP TO HAVE A VERY LOW INCIDENCE OF DIVORCE.
Whether your children are infants or adults, it’s not too early, nor is it too late.
Your relationship is precious and valuable. If you value it as you should, you will stretch beyond your comfort zone. You must learn to stretch beyond what is “natural” to you. You must stretch beyond “doing what you’ve always done.”
To give your relationship the foundation for great success, let’s learn to keep the cute little elephants in the petting zoo and not under our rugs.
Recently I ran into the couple that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. I had not seen them for many years. I asked about their children, who are all now adults. The husband commented with great pride, “I continue to struggle just a little with those cute little pink guys under the rug! But I finally found the solution! I gave my wife her heart’s desires and put in hardwood floors. And as she carefully laid down area rugs throughout our home, she could see that I have sprayed all the rugs with elephant repellent!”
We all laughed, and I could see that they had found the level of intimacy that I hope for all of the couples I counsel.
And I wish the same for all of you!