Keith's Side: I'm Slow to Respond
Whenever Cheryl and I would disagree about something, she'd insist on talking it out. But when she talked she gave me too much information to process and respond to at one time. I'm an analytical kind of guy. I need time to think over things before I respond with a half-formed thought I may have to take back later, or say something I could have phrased a little more clearly.
With so much information coming at me quickly, I just couldn't get my thoughts together to respond the way I needed and she wanted. As a result, during these discussions, I usually just sat there saying little and feeling stupid because I couldn't answer her back immediately.
Invariably, after I'd had a chance to think about what Cheryl had said, I'd actually have some good responses. But that might not be until the next day. By then, it was too late—as if I were simply "dredging it up again." Besides, even if I did bring up my good responses, Cheryl would only end up throwing more information at me than I could handle, all over again.
After a few years this got to be annoying. It bothered Cheryl that I never said much when we argued. And it annoyed me that by the time I figured out what I wanted to say, it was too late to say it without causing trouble again. Something had to change.
Cheryl's Side: I Wanted Resolution
Keith and I rarely had conflict while we were dating. We had so many common interests. We were always doing something fun together—concerts, dancing, church, day trips.
When we married, we weren't prepared for the work involved in hammering out the details of living together. We began to argue, as I said jokingly, "like two rams butting heads." Our arguments were probably similar to those of most newlyweds learning to negotiate housework, sex, time management—and whether or not to reuse the towels after one shower. But what drove us both crazy is that our "discussions" never seemed to resolve anything. We had the same arguments over and over. When an old issue would return, both of us would think, Not the towel thing again! We both had such strong feelings that we weren't able just to let things drop. A sense of futility started to creep in. Were we doomed to butt heads forever?
Our strong feelings were part of the problem. Each of us not only had strong opinions on the topic of towels (and every other subject), we also had intense feelings about how to argue. When Keith would express dissatisfaction with something, I interpreted that as his attacking me, and I rushed to justify myself. When I didn't think he was "getting it," I kept trying to find new ways to explain my reasoning.
But the more I explained, the more I saw Keith shut down and withdraw from the argument, which made me even more frustrated! I felt as though he wasn't hearing me or even trying to understand my point of view.
What Keith and Cheryl Did
One day after another fruitless discussion, Keith sat down and wrote an e-mail message to Cheryl, putting down all his thoughts on the subject. He took the time to make sure they were clear, thorough, and exactly what he meant. He sent the e-mail to Cheryl's account and asked her to read it. He left the room while Cheryl read. She replied by e-mail. He wrote again. She replied. And soon they were communicating, not merely talking at each other.
E-mail became a tool that helped both of them. Keith and Cheryl have separate computers and separate accounts, and they both check their e-mail frequently, so it's never a long wait before they read their messages.
Keith says, "The wonderful thing about this system is that I was able to write, edit, and rewrite before I pressed the send button. Not only was I able to answer Cheryl point by point, but I could do so without interruption." He no longer felt at a disadvantage when it came to getting his point across. He also liked that it was harder for his words to be misinterpreted: "She couldn't accuse me of saying something I clearly didn't say."
Cheryl says, "Writing e-mails slowed down the process of arguing enough to remove most of the heat generated by raised voices. I found I was able to concentrate more on the issues and less on my hurt feelings." As Keith and Cheryl responded to each other's e-mails, they cited each other's exact words in quotations, so they both knew they were being heard.
Now that they have a mechanism to resolve conflict, Keith is more confident and Cheryl more relaxed. That has spilled over into their real-live conversations, improving their verbal communication skills. They've learned how to wait to talk things out—verbally or by e-mail—rather than try to settle things in the heat of the moment. And the results have been noticeable.
"Keith talks to me much more than he used to," says Cheryl. "I think he feels safe to express himself. Since I feel less threatened by his opinions, I'm able to let him have his say without overreacting."
Keith adds, "I'm happy now that when we argue, and I start feeling overwhelmed, I can tell Cheryl I need time to think about everything before giving her an answer. I no longer feel pressured to respond immediately."
"We both still have strong opinions," Cheryl says. "But instead of butting heads, we've found that our e-mail strategy helps us to resolve our differences in a much more civil manner."
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