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Your secret code to defuse conflict

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.

2. Humor helps! You both might enjoy a movie line, a joke punch line, greeting card, or commercial slogan. Some friends of ours are completely different in personality. He's a strong power broker on Wall Street; she's a delicate flower of an artist. In the corporate world, his decisive and authoritative strengths have made him financially successful. But when he used those same traits at home, he built hurt and resentment between them by mowing over her thoughts and feelings during their conversations. As I (Bill) spoke with him about his unintentional, yet hurtful, actions, I suggested they find a password to clue him in that he was overpowering his wife. They both love the Warner Brothers cartoon Roadrunner, and thought that poor flattened coyote perfectly illustrated how she often felt.

Now when she feels overwhelmed by her husband, she just says in her best roadrunner form, "Beep, beep!" That means "Back off, buddy!" in the nicest way.

Another couple liked the show Home Improvement. When Chris tried to "fix" his wife's issues without letting her talk them out completely, she'd say, "Tim Taylor" or "You have your tool box out again."

3. You both need to agree. We've found phrases such as, "Get over it!" aren't very effective! Passwords shouldn't be a phrase one mate uses to club the other over the head, or snide, cutting remarks intended to force the partner to tow the line. Instead, choose a prearranged phrase that makes you both feel better emotionally.

I (Bill) found a way to handle a situation that's been irritating me for almost 10 years. I'm a one-task-at-a-time man who likes to start a project and finish it before I begin another. The only way I can do this is to limit the number of ideas I let myself juggle. Pam, on the other hand, is an idea person. She relaxes by coming up with and discussing new ideas. This energizes her. But listening to it all causes me stress and a lot of irritation!

Oftentimes, when we're sitting around relaxing, Pam will begin sharing her growing list of inspirational thoughts about how to make the world a better place. As I listen to what seems to be an endless stream of ideas, I become worn out.

For years I didn't understand this phenomenon. I felt overwhelmed because I thought I needed to act on every one of her ideas. If they'd been my ideas, I would not have shared them until I was ready to move on them. I assumed Pam was operating the same way. But she wasn't!

One day I finally asked her, "Do I need to act on every idea you bring up?"

"Of course not!" Pam replied. "I could never do all my ideas."

The light went on for me. For the first time, I realized I didn't have to feel responsible for every item Pam brainstormed. What a relief!

I asked Pam, "When you share ideas that I really don't want to act on, can I say, 'Pam, that's a great idea!'?"

With a twinkle in her eye, Pam said, "I think that's a great idea!"

"That's a great idea" has become a catch-phrase in our relationship.

I (Pam) use it to prepare Bill for a difficult conversation. For example, I might say, "Hey, I have some great ideas I want to run by you. Is this a good time?" Or Bill can listen and respond to my long list of thoughts with, "Great ideas, Pam," which means, "I admire your creativity, Pam, but I'm not working on them right now!"

Make a date and review the happiest memories of your relationship to see if you already have a word or phrase you can use as your code. Passwords will give you the ability to maintain your patience, and you'll gain a way to regroup when those differences begin to bug you.

So, you know what you get when you tap a turtle on the back?

Pam and Bill Farrel are best-selling authors of Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti and Every Marriage Is a Fixer Upper (both Harvest House). Contact them at www.masterfulliving.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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