Several years ago, I took one of those “Personality Tests” that suggests that after you answer 80 questions, you will receive a report that identifies your strengths as well as “areas of improvement.” Needless to say, one of these lists was much longer than the other (you can guess which one!).
As I read the ten-page narrative to my wife and children, there was one phrase that had them rolling with laughter – because it was so true.
The phrase was “Your intensity often does not match the situation.” In other words, I often overreact to something that in the scheme of life is not that important and certainly not something to get “worked up” over. I am a very passionate person—but sometimes to a fault!
Perhaps you also get more worried, angry, upset, or sad than you might expect. If you sit back and think about it, you may wonder why some people, situations, stories, movies, or conflicts seem to affect you so much. Or perhaps you don’t think about it until you find that you are angry at your spouse or kids and don’t know why.
We Learned from Our Parents
We all have said dozens (perhaps hundreds) of times “I will never be like my dad/mom!” But we inadvertently say something or do something that is just like them. And it is often when we are under stress that these behaviors seem unstoppable.
All of us had imperfect parents. Many tried their best. As adults we begin to discover that many of our basic personalities traits are “pre-wired.” But the way we were parented also has a great deal of influence on how we communicate with others and deal with conflicts. The challenge is to discover these patterns in order to learn how to change the behaviors that can damage our relationships.
One “red flag” that can reveal that we have unknown “family-of-origin” issues is when someone suggests that we are over-reacting to something.
How do We Handle Conflict?
During times of stress and conflict, we often utilize one of three damaging options that have most probably been learned at an early age. We do not realize it because our response is automatic. If we tend to react to most conflicts with one of these choices, it is probably because the pattern is so ingrained from childhood that we don’t even think about it.
This often results in anger. And anger is a secondary emotion. The question that we need to ask ourselves is: What goal is being obstructed or prevented from happening? Perhaps my goal is a peaceful home. Perhaps my goal is obedient children. Or a “compliant” spouse. Maybe my goal is to control the people or situations around me.
Without realizing what is happening to us and why, often this pattern can destroy our most important relationships. It is with these relationships (with our spouse, children, siblings, or parents) that we most often let our natural inclinations take over. With those outside the family, we are often more guarded. We create a façade of what is going on inside. Our families are often the ones that most often experience the anger that we hide from others.
This can have a number of forms. One is certainly leaving the room when a conflict becomes intense or heated. The motivation for leaving the room (or house, or even the relationship) can be a response to knowing that our anger is beginning to build, and we do not want to lose control.
Another reason for “flight” is that (as we were growing up) we saw our parents arguing or even physically fighting. The results could have been divorce, or a long, unhappy marriage, or perhaps even abuse. We promised ourselves that we would never, never argue or get angry with our spouse.
These results can also be damaging, however. In marriage, we only gain intimacy and emotional connection when we are willing and able to talk about what bothers us (and why). If you shut down and are not willing to talk about what is bothering you, chances are your spouse will “pursue” the argument. This will make it even more difficult for you. Often anger is the result (see above).
This is a “popular” response for couples – especially in their first few years of marriage. If your family-of-origin tended to ignore problems until they seemed to go away, your tendency will be to do the same. Sometimes this approach seems to work. Why “rock the boat” if all we have to do is wait? The danger is that the “problems” will continue to build until they can no longer be ignored. Then the “anger” response often takes over
What Can I do ?
The question is: How to discover why I react/respond the way I do. And how do I change?
Many individuals (men especially) want simply to have a list of “what to do.” They care about their spouse and love them. They simply do not “like” them sometimes. But they are committed to their spouse and to the marriage itself. What they do not want to do is to continue this marriage in the same way for the next 30+ years.
Following a list of dos and don’ts is addressing behaviors only. We try and “correct” what we do, so we will “obtain” the response we want from our spouse. “Behavior modification” will work for some period of time.
But we need to also look at what we truly believe and why – especially when our family-of-origin affected us so much. Without going deeper, we will find that our behavior only changes for a while. Or when we do change our behavior, the response we hope to get from our spouse does not occur. Then our frustration builds, and we begin to think that there is no hope for true change.
True change only takes place when we are willing to ask ourselves the hard questions, identify our dysfunctional patterns, and be willing to “do the work” to develop new healthy patterns based on our new understandings.
Steve Fox is a National Certified Counselor and Counselor Intern, specializing in helping others to discover how to improve or repair their marriage and other relationships.
After working as a Chemical Engineer for 36 years, Steve took early retirement in order to follow his passion and focus on counseling as his second career. He also helps others begin to “dream” about what will help them become fulfilled in their career and life. Steve earned an MA in Counseling from LSU and is now a Counselor Intern with Crossroads. He has worked with couples on a ministry basis for over 20 years and has a counseling focus with couples, families, career coaching, and addiction counseling with families.
Steve’s complete bio can be found here.