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Your secret code to defuse conflict

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Let's face it: opposites do attract—then annoy! That thing you first fell in love with really ticks you off after a while. That sexy, disheveled look now reminds you of a walking pigsty. The cute way she'd pout when she wanted you to do something now feels like pure manipulation. If we aren't careful, those initial attractions-turned-annoyances-turned-conflict can pull us apart.

We've found the best way to handle such annoyances is to deal with them before they become full-out conflicts. How? Believe it or not, it's as simple as using a "password" or "catch-phrase": key words the two of you agree on that allow you to get back on track in your relationship.

For instance, when we were newlyweds, I (Pam) was a bit of a drama queen. If Bill said something that hurt my feelings, I'd cry, "You don't love me any more!" then run to our bedroom, slam the door, throw myself across the bed, and wait for Bill to follow me in and apologize. It was quite the performance!

Bill patiently endured these outbursts, until one day when my brother, Bret, was over. I went into my melodrama, and instead of Bill following me into our room, Bret entered applauding, took a trophy off the shelf, and said, "For best actress, we have Pam Farrel!"

Bill was thinking, He's dead, and somehow I'm going to pay for this!

Instead of reacting with anger, though, I started to laugh. My brother knew me; my number was up. Bill realized that when my drama threatened our relationship, a little humor helped. So the next time I went into my acting routine, Bill walked in and quoted his favorite line from Rocky in his best, although not very good, Philly accent.

"Yo, Pam, you know what you get when you tap a turtle on the back? Shell shock. Get it? Shell shock." And I laughed.

Bill discovered a catch-phrase that would calm me, pulling me out of my melodrama and back into reality. From that moment on, any time tensions arise from our differences, such as when Bill is running 10 minutes late—again—one of us can simply pull out a bad Philly accent, or say, "Yo, Pam" or "Shell shock. Get it?" and tempers calm. Even tapping the back of our hand as if we're tapping an imaginary turtle will soothe our nerves or frustrations in a tense public setting.

Creating a catch-phrase

1. Tie the catch-phrase to a good memory. One couple we know uses their honeymoon, "Maui," as a password because it reminds them that days aren't always as rough as the moment they're in! What have been some of the happiest days of your relationship? Reminisce—you might remember an inside joke or create a code word that encapsulates a positive shared experience.

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