Cabin fever can set the stage for disagreements, but disagreements can pop up any time. Here’s how to cope.
By Jan Fishler
The weather outside had been frightful, and after days of power outages, snow drifts, and canned soup, togetherness had morphed into a power struggle that threatened survival. There’s nothing like adversity for changing kind and loving words into the exact opposite. Although poor communication isn’t listed as a symptom of PTSD, it is a part of the mix. It can trigger anger, anxiety, hyper-arousal and reactivity – and result in depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem. The opposite is also true. If you are angry or anxious, for example, you are more likely to say things that cause blame, hurt feelings, confusion, rejection, and defensiveness.
When clear communication goes by the wayside, everyone suffers. This is especially true for veterans and their family members. A big snow storm had buried our area for several days, and right after the worst of it, I picked up the phone and called some of the wives from our local Vietnam veteran’s support group. Boy, did I get an earful. Here are some of the conversations, edited and reframed.
When clear communication goes by the wayside, everyone suffers. This is especially true for veterans and their family members.
Joanne and Rick
Joanne* is upset because Rick is watching football on TV, and hasn’t cleared the driveway. She can’t get her car out and she’s going to be late for a dentist appointment. Intending to get Rick off the couch, Joanne launches a verbal attack, “Why didn’t you go out and shovel an hour ago when I asked you to do it? Now I’m going to be late, and it’s your fault! You’re worthless!” As a result of this assault, Rick feels inferior, and counters by turning up the volume, and ordering Joanne to shovel the damn driveway herself. The good news: There is a better way. Instead of attacking and blaming her husband, Joanne might have gotten better results if she had told Rick how she felt. “I feel so un-important when you ignore my request.” This state-ment gives Rick a chance to step up. He doesn’t have to counterattack. He can apologize for his addiction to football, and save the day by quickly digging out the driveway.
Evelyn and Burt
Evelyn was out, and Burt answered the phone. The plow had cleared the road in front of their house, but the cable was out, and they hadn’t had power, television, or Internet access for the past three days. Burt told me that he’d just called Comcast for the third time that day, but wasn’t getting any information. Angry and upset, he had threatened the customer service rep. “If you can’t get the Internet working by the end of today, just cancel our service.” In response to his demand, the rep hung up on him. Realization that the outage was due to a storm, and beyond the rep’s control came too late. Full of remorse, Burt sent Evelyn out in a blizzard to rectify the situation. Had he been able to keep his anger and frustration in check, the confrontation with the Internet provider could have been completely avoided. Ordering, threatening, and warning are never good ways to communicate. These methods produce fear, opposition, and humiliation in the listener, and regret for the speaker.
Victoria and Mike
Blaming and threatening are just two common roadblocks to communication. Another one that causes friction is asking questions that cause people to become defensive. Victoria complains that Mike is always giving her the third degree. “What did you get at the store? Why are you upset? How much did that cost? Why were you late?” Demanding questions like these make her feel that her husband doesn’t trust her, and they prevent her from sharing thoughts and feelings that aren’t part of the interrogation.
Taking the war out of our words
In order to be heard and understood, it is helpful to state feelings and desires in a positive way. When we hear criticism or blame, we quit listening with an open heart, and we become defensive.
Not all questions are bad. Sharon Ellison, author of Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, says that “a non-defensive question is never harsh, accusatory, or interrogating. It is gentle, respectfully offering others an invitation to speak.” Ellison devotes an entire chapter to formats for asking non-defensive questions, and warns against using a voice tone that can make a question defensive; i.e., harsh or accusatory. Body language is also important. Ellison says, “When our intentions are different from our words, our body acts effectively as a lie detector.”
Ellison also recommends being careful about adding words that turn questions into statements. If Wanda’s husband says that he feels angry, and she asks him, “Do you really feel that way?” the word “really” suggests that she doesn’t believe him. A question like this could easily generate a miscommunication. Words like “really,” “always,” “ever,” “never,” “only,” and “all” suggest that we don’t believe the person, disapprove, or both. Read the following sentences, and see how they make you feel: Do you ever listen to me? Is that all you’re going to do? Do you always have to bring that up? These words, added for emphasis, often create the roadblocks we wish to avoid.
Valerie and Bill
During the storm, Valerie and Bill had a huge argument. Because of his PTSD, Bill doesn’t like to spend time indoors. Even when temperatures plunge into the single digits, Bill is outside cutting firewood, clearing snow, and helping neighbors. By the second day of the storm, Valerie decided that she -really should leave, and check in on her mother who lives in a nearby town. She told Bill she needed to talk to him, but he put her off until it was too late to leave. When Valerie confronted him, he replied, “Can’t you see I’m busy?” Worried about her mother, and furious at Bill for not listening, Julie decided that Bill didn’t love her anymore, and she began to cry. Frustrated and confused by his wife’s behavior, Bill minimized her feelings, “I think you’re overreacting, Val. Don’t you think you’re being a little too sensitive?” As a result, Valerie, feeling misunderstood and uncared for, stormed out of the house, and ended up spending a week at her mother’s. Eventually, Bill and Val talked through their misunderstanding. Bill now understands how avoidance can seem like rejection.
Avoid the roadblocks
Roadblocks to communication aren’t limited to blaming and criticizing, avoidance, ordering, threatening, warning, minimizing, or asking inappropriate questions. Sarcasm, and saying that you’re kidding or joking, are often hurtful, causing others to feel humiliation and inferiority. Preaching or going on and on about a particular topic implies that the person you’re talking to is inferior and doesn’t really measure up. One of the least recognized obstacles to good communication is praising. Howard often told Anita that he could “always count on her.” That he “didn’t know what he’d do without her.” Instead of making her feel loved and supported, Anita constantly worried that she would ultimately let Howard down.
One of the best ways to clear the path to positive and productive communication is to use “I” language instead of “you” messages. Instead of saying, “You make me feel ____.” Say, “I feel __________ when you _____________.” (Describe a behavior).For example, instead of saying, “I feel manipulated,” which implies the other person is manipulating you, say something like, “I feel uneasy,” which would be easier for most of us to hear.
Getting through it
When people sense that there is a conflict or argument, fear and anger tend to be their first response. They either want to run away from the situation or fight. Terri Harmon (livingcompassion.com) teaches Living Compassion Transformational Communication classes in California, and also works as a facilitator and mediator. According to Harmon, “In order to be heard and understood, it is helpful to state feelings and desires in a positive way. When we hear criticism or blame, we quit listening with an open heart, and we become defensive.”
To express what is important to us, and to move beyond defensiveness, Harmon offers the following tips:
- If you are angry or upset, take a deep breath before you speak. Research has shown that deep breathing promotes calmness, and reduces stress. It gives the brain a chance to recover from its perception of threat.
- Take responsibility for your own feelings and values, and speak clearly about them. For example, “I feel frustrated when you don’t help me. I know you love football, but I really need you to help me dig out the car.”
- If there’s a thought about something being wrong, begin by saying to yourself, “I don’t like this.” This brings the focus back to you and your likes, and it may help overcome a tendency to place blame or give your power to an outside source.
- Avoid language that is likely to be interpreted as criticism or blame. Keep the conversation on the issue, i.e., how to get the driveway cleared, or how to get to an appointment on time, not on the other person.
- Listen to what’s important to the other person. Make eye contact. Show sincere interest in what is being said. Ask questions to clarify information, and then state your own views.
- Turn complaints into requests. A statement like, “Please help me with the dishes,” is much more likely to be effective than, “You never help me!”
Keep in mind that conflict is a normal part of a relationship, and learning how to deal with conflict, rather than avoiding it, is critical.
Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, conflict arises. Keep in mind that conflict is a normal part of a relationship, and learning how to deal with conflict, rather than avoiding it, is critical. The book, I Want to Change But I Don’t Know How!, by Tom Rusk, M.D. and Randy Read, M.D., offers several rules for creative combat. Two of my favorites are: 1) Reveal your discomfort immediately. Don’t save up resentment until something gets you mad enough (or drunk enough to dare to say it) to dump the whole load, and 2) If necessary, agree to disagree.
A good relationship requires mutual understanding, not agreement in everything. When conflict is mismanaged it can harm a relationship, but when it is handled in a respectful and positive way, it can result in growth and strengthen the bond two people share – no matter what the weather.
Keep in mind that conflict is a normal part of a relationship, and that learning how to deal with conflict, rather than avoiding it, is critical. When conflict is mismanaged it can harm a relationship, but when it is handled in a respectful and positive way, it can result in growth, and strengthen the bond between two people, no matter what the weather.
*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.
Jan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at janfishler.com. She is married to a Vietnam veteran.