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“10% of conflicts are due to a difference in opinion and perception and 90% are due to the wrong tone of voice.”

(I don't know who said this, found it on Facebook)


Well, a funny thing happened during our recent move to our new home. We had a lot of conflict.  I had the stomach flu for a full week beforehand so I was starting at less than zero. There was major stress, exhaustion, and overwork due to a juncture of many untimely situations and things that couldn't be helped. The move overlapped with my husband's busy (frantic) season at work, one of two per year, And I went to my office everyday to help people.

I know everyone goes through this when they move or remodel. We had built a house together 27 years ago ( I mean just the two of us) and had fallen in love. The contractor never left. I thought we could handle this with some kind of savvy. I was wrong.

As the stress deepened, our conflicts worsened. I thought he was an idiot. He thought I was one, too. We decided to communicate about the essentials and what needed to be done. Cut and dried. That worked pretty well except when it didn't.

We didn't have screaming fights per se ( not out style). Cursing,, blaming, and venting are apparently our styles when we go deeply into the Red. We woke up exhausted every morning. I swear I could hear a strain of revile in my head at 4AM. I would count the minutes until the first argument.
            “Don't you remember what we agreed on yesterday...”
            “You said that already, you must think I'm an idiot...”
            “I thought this was our plan, now you're changing it?
We did the woosh into the Red like we were competing at the Olympics. We Would work all day at a rushed pace and fall in bed at 8:30. This went on for a month. We were fixing our old place, already rented, on a deadline. We were fixing (not fixing up, another long story) the new house.

 Getting back to the Green took sometimes took all day. Apologizing at night, in front of the t.v. seemed easier.

Differences of perceptions can't be argued because no one has a handle on The Truth.. A new agreement has to be hashed out. Both of us using tones commensurate with “I'd rather be getting a root canal than talk to you.”

It was so compelling to take everything out on each other!

I help the couples I work with understand the huge differences of perception that can come up. No one knows why it happens except that we are all different people. No one is stupid. It is frustrating beyond belief. It just has to be acknowledged. When we're in the Red we are rigid and inflexible about this.

I am strong about tone. No matter what we feel, the tone in which we speak can make all the difference. Sometimes this is a matter of speaking up, strongly, and from a moderate place. More often, the need is to soften tone.

What happens when you can't get to a better tone? I learned to Hear myself, zip it, breathe, and to apologize (see, root canal, above). Then I'd try again.

What I learned about being at my Worst Self and trying to  move into something better:

  • Some kind of loving contact is very important. Most nights we decided not to speak. He rubbed my foot, I rubbed his head.
  • We decided to text one nice or caring thing each day. Just one sentence long.
  • Sometimes this helped. Sometimes we forgot.
  • I had many mean things to say that seemed all true at the time. I said them in my head.
  • One time I cursed him out a blue streak but it was all under my breath. Knew if  I  said it out loud, things would get worse and worse.
  • Unbridled expression is a losing strategy, Zipping it up can be very helpful
  • Control and defensiveness are losing strategies. Remembering that my spouse was not my enemy was a good thing.
  • “I'm alone in this” feels bad and is a mythic losing strategy.. Going into walled off  is kind of addictive! Estrangement can happen so quickly!Yet, I wanted contact. Go figure. We humans are strange.
  • Moving back  into teamwork, every time we slipped off, felt better.
  • It was two weeks before we could get back on track and use the “Is this a good time” script because it never was a good time. When we got back to it I felt better.
  • Once my husband said, “Oh don't give me any of that Terry Real sh-t”
  • When I was able I told myself my spouse was not my enemy. Did I mention that?
  • When we could, we got back to connection by acknowledging what each other was doing even though at times it felt very forced. I saw that a series of “thank you's,” every day, is empowering even if I'm forcing myself to do it.
  • Exhaustion eliminates compassion.  I lost two clients the first week of our move. Good thing I'll never move again. Carry me out of here, stiff as a board!
  • Oh well. As my mentor says, “don't beat yourself up.” The third time this happened, I was prepared.  I apologized to my client. Now I think he trusts me more.
  • Owning that my anxiety and frustration belongs to me and was pretty normal, took the blame off my husband.
  • Self-soothing is just the greatest invention, ever. I took an A.M. “gratitude” walk with my dogs every day.  I set a boundary and told my overwhelmed husband he couldn't walk with us anymore until he could calm down (mornings were his worst).
  • Sometimes I could only be grateful for the tress and the air and even that felt hard to get to.
  • We have always held hands as we fall asleep. Getting into bed at 8:30 and holding hands began to be the best part of the day.

Now a month later things are more settled  I asked him what he had learned. He told me, “I learned that we'll get though stuff no matter what.”

I said, “I learned that we both can be big d-cks.”



Wendy Allen, Ph.D, MFT is an expert in couples and marriage therapy. She has been practicing in Santa Barbara for almost 30 years. She is the only Marriage therapist in the tri-counties using the Real Relational Living model, from which all of these ideas are based upon.