Saturday, December 20, 2008

'Tis the season to be narky

(This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday 16th December 2008):

WELL, THE season of peace and goodwill is upon us so stand by for lots of tension and rows in many households.

That's why I was glad to come across "10 rules for friendly fighting for couples" on the excellent Psychcentral blog.

I don't agree with all of them but even a few of them could help you move from a freezing doghouse to a blazing log fire for Christmas. Here they are:

1 Embrace conflict. There is no need to go into a three-day sulk just because you and your partner have had a row. Quarrelling is normal among human beings. Accept it and get over it.

2 Talk softly. Now, this doesn't mean scary softly as in Hannibal Lecter. It means conducting the argument, especially the beginning of the argument, softly rather than harshly. You don't change people's minds by shouting at them.

3 Make peace sooner rather than later. Dragging the conflict out, punishing your partner for disagreeing and so on is unpleasant and exhausting. Since rows are inevitable, the sooner you can make the peace the better - otherwise you are going to be spending a lot of time at war. Making the peace can mean resolving the conflict, agreeing to differ or just letting the matter drop.

4 Attack the issue not the other person. "You're such a daddy's girl/mammy's boy. Why don't you just move back home and let daddy/mammy take care of you." That's attacking the other person.

"I'd like to have Christmas dinner here and visit your parents beforehand/ afterwards." That's attacking the issue.

Attacking the issue doesn't guarantee agreement, especially over the dreaded Christmas dinner with the in-laws. But it's still a superior approach to attacking the other person which only harms the relationship.

To me, the four rules above are the important ones. The other six are:

5 Listen respectfully. Good advice but if it's a proper row you're unlikely to be listening respectfully - otherwise it wouldn't be a fight.

6 Get curious, not defensive and

7 Ask for specifics. These two very similar rules I would regard as a counsel of perfection. To actually ask for details of your partner's complaints while you are being scolded would require the saintliness of Mother Teresa and Padre Pio rolled into one.

8 Find points of agreement. Yes, very good but hard to do in the middle of a fight.

9 Look for options - ask for suggestions. Again, we are in Mother Teresa territory here. Most of us are more likely to make (unhelpful) suggestions than to ask for them in a fight.

10 Make concessions. Marie Hartwell-Walker, who wrote the piece on the Psychcentral blog, points out that even a small concession can help defuse a conflict and I would agree with her. Probably you are more likely to make a concession after the row has died down but even so, it's worth doing.

As Hartwell-Walker points out in her article at www.psych, couples in mature, healthy relationships seem to understand these principles. I suspect they learn them the hard way and that many relationships break up or are unhappy for want of following a few simple rules like these.

So take a look through the list and see if there's anything in it you can put to use. It might be the best Christmas present you'll get this year.

• Last week's piece on the often-hidden issue of eating disorders in men drew this response from Ruth NĂ­ Eidhin of Bodywhys - The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland:

"At Bodywhys we are keenly aware of the issues that can arise around Christmas, and in fact we tend to see an increase in calls to our helpline immediately after the Christmas period from people who have had difficulty over the festive season . . . It is particularly encouraging to see the issue of men and eating disorders being addressed, as we are seeing more and more men coming forward seeking support. The more we can challenge the stereotype of eating disorders as a 'women's issue', the easier it is for other men to come forward without fear of any stigma."

The Bodywhys helpline is 1890 200 444 and is its web address.

• Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor. His book That's Men , the best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times is published by Veritas.

(Please ignore the 'continue reading' link below).

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