The Perils Of Generalizing In Conflict

When couples or family members experience conflict, it is easy to rush into generalities.

“You never help me around the house! I always have to do everything myself!”
“We never have sex anymore. I am tired of being in relationship with someone who doesn’t value intimacy and sex.”
“You never take responsibility for your side of the street. You blame me for everything!”
“I am sick of being the only one who initiates working on the relationship. I want to be with someone who actually wants make things better!”
“You are such a hypocrite!”

When we feel triggered, hurt or angry, generalizing happens almost automatically. Unfortunately, there are many problems with this habit that prevent us from resolving our conflicts and coming back to love and harmony with our partners and loved ones.

When something happens that we don’t want, e.g. when someone doesn’t keep an agreement or says ‘no’ to a request or need, our mind gets instantly flooded with past memories of times when we felt similarly. Old beliefs of not being lovable or deserving bubble up from the deep and we find ourselves awash in a bleak sea of negativity.

Our unhappiness and dissatisfaction skews our current world-view, and suddenly our entire relationship sucks and has always sucked. We begin to see disheartening and frightening patterns.

We can’t help but share our newfound thinking, the connections we are making between what is happening now and what has happened in the past. We might focus solely on the person we are in conflict with and where that person has always been the same (“You have never helped around the house!”), or we might broaden our connections to include previous partners (“All three of my husbands never wanted to help around the house”), or we might even go all the way back to our childhood (“My dad never helped around the house either! I can’t believe I have created the same exact pattern with you!”)

We typically share these “insights” in the middle of being upset or triggered, which is not particularly helpful, to put it diplomatically. The problem with bringing up the past is that you are no longer dealing with a specific breakdown or problem, no longer focused on the one problem that is presenting itself at the moment.

Your focus shifts away from productive solution discovery, away from actions and steps that will help you resolve the conflict and get what you want. Instead, you spiral downwards, into what some call “circling the drain”.

Generalizing and bringing up the past also reinforces your sense of powerlessness. When you generalize, you effectively blow your problem up to unfixable proportions. You add weight to negative stories you have about yourself and others. Once you get lost in these general loops of negativity and complaint, you will likely feel more and more powerless and victimized, because all of the evidence you gather from past similar experiences essentially prove the unworkability of your current situation.

Not only do you feel powerless, but your partner feels powerless too. When your partner feels negatively characterized, pigeonholed, or blamed, they will naturally resist your view and defend themselves and their actions. When they hear your negatively biased view of them or the past, they will want to correct your perception by blasting you with evidence to the contrary, proving their side of the story. They will be reluctant to hear you and your concerns, and will likewise be uninspired to work with you to create win/win solutions to the presenting issue. This is the recipe for pointless arguing.

What to do instead?

Stay away from lumping whatever you are experiencing now with similar instances from the past. Keep your focus on the specific issue, problem or breakdown at hand, and work it all the way through to completion. Resolution and changes occur when you break things down to specifics – to specific steps – to something you can do or say or think differently right NOW.

You can start a conversation by saying …

“When __ (specific instance) happened, I felt ______.
What I made that mean is ______
What I want is ________”
What I’m willing to do to that end is_________
What I’d like from you is _______
Would you be wiling to do that?”

As an example …

“When you sat at the dinner table while I cleared the dishes, I felt mad and hurt. What I made that mean is that you don’t care about me, that I have to do everything myself, and that you’re above working in the kitchen. What I really want is help to clean up after dinner. I want us to work together to clean up. What I’m willing to do to that end is make a calm request and hear you side of the story. What I’d like from you is help to clear the table and do the dishes. Would you be willing to do that?”

Granted, there are a myriad variations depending on the specific situation, but hopefully you can see from the example that you are only talking about one specific instance, not bringing up the past or making sweeping generalizations.

This kind of communication has a much better shot at a positive result than, “You never help around here! My dad was just like that! I always have to do everything myself!”

Beware of your mind’s tendency to look for generalities and patterns when you’re feeling triggered. Reaction = Re-Action, meaning we are re-enacting an old story from times past. Which is just to say, that whenever you are upset, i.e. “in reaction”, you ARE in the past! You aren’t in the present moment!

By using the example above, you help yourself to stay in the present moment, and you help yourself work an issue all the way through to a workable solution. Try it. If by chance you do see patterns, or if resentments and hurts from the past do come up that need to be discussed, healed, or released, talk about those separately at a different time, one at a time, until they are worked through all the way to completion.

Use your awareness to powerfully generate specific action steps you can take NOW to create change. And don’t hesitate to get support from a professional if they feel too big to resolve on your own.

While there are several more actions you can take to work problems through all the way to completion, keeping your focus on the specific problem at hand, avoiding generalizations and not talking about the past will go far to help you resolve conflicts.

Lastly, if you want a chance to work out actual conflicts with support, learn cutting edge tools, and gain a totally different view and skill set around conflict resolution, check out our Gift Of Conflict workshop, Nov 10-11, in Auburn, CA.

This is normally a members-only advanced workshop, but when space allows, we open up a few seats to the public. Contact us right away if you are interested.

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