`Positive conflict is not a contradiction in terms'. Unconvinced? This is how Janice Hiller, lecturer in Couple Therapy, would rewrite the scripts of two rows

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james and deborah

The theme here is how to handlle a situation in which one person finds something unpleasant or intolerable in the other, but without antagonizing them. Deborah has a valid point about James criticizing her in public, but loses it completely when she accuses him of planning to leave her if she stops smoking. She probably felt attacked by James for a habit she is sensitive about. James's mismanagement leads to Deborah being defensive and attacking back, so the row disintegrates into threats about ending the relationship.

James: (In front of friends) Deborah, it's just an automatic reflex for you to light up, isn't it?

Deborah: I enjoy my after dinner cigarette.

James: It's a most unpleasant habit. (To their friends) Don't you think it makes her look common when she smokes?

Deborah:(In the car. Lighting another cigarette) Was your loss of control absolutely necessary ?

James: Yes, far more necessary than you indulging in that disgusting habit of yours. Can't you control yourself?

Deborah: Me, control myself? Hark at Mr. Cool Calm and Collected.

James: Look at you. You've got to smoke it right down to the last filthy stub haven't you? Fag Ash Lill. That's what I'll call you from now on. Fag Ash Lill.

Deborah: You knew I smoked when you met me? What did you do? Take me on as some kind of a mission? What're you going to do if I quit? Dump me and go and find some slinky blonde who smokes 60 a day and convert her to clean living?

James: If you don't stop behaving like a hysterical woman, I will go and find some slinky blonde.

Deborah: (Yelling) Go then. Just get the hell out of my life and find some other poor bitch to order around. (She inhales)

James: That's right breathe in. Make sure it doesn't miss a single centimetre of lung tissue. That's a girl.

what they should have said

This time Deborah sticks to her point about how James talks to her in front of other people. They manage to express what they dislike about the other's behaviour so each has the opportunity to change if they want the relationship to continue.

James reprimands Deborah in front of friends. In the car Deborah says: "It looks really bad when you lose control like that."

(Tells him calmly how he appears to others when he insults her in public.)

James: Not as bad as your loss of control when you indulge in that disgusting habit.

(Comments that they both struggle with self-control and complains again.)

Deborah: It's up to me if I want to control my smoking. Just don't show yourself up by making an issue of it in front of other people. No-one else wants to know.

(Defines the issue as her choice and lets him know what she thinks about public criticism, without provoking him.)

James: They can all see you, smoking it right down to the last filthy bit of stub.

(Points out that her smoking is a public act and expresses anger, without insulting her further.)

Deborah: You knew I smoked when we met. I am not going to go and change just for you.

(Reminds him that he made a choice when he met her, and expresses her insecurity about the relationship without attacking him.)

James: Your smoking is driving me away and it's not doing you any good either.

(Lets her know how he responds to her smoking, and shows concern for her health.)

Deborah: Well it's really hard to stop and it turns me off when you insult me in front of friends.

(This lets him know that she has a problem and how she is affected by his behaviour.)

James: Don't smoke in front of them. Don't smoke at all, and I won't be tempted to comment on how much you are damaging your lung tissue.

(Reminds her of the harm she is doing to their relationship and to her health.)

sara and paul

This argument illustrates a common theme - that of getting angry with the partner about their parent's character or behaviour. It is a mistake to blame someone for how their parent behaves on a number of levels, and usually leads to defensive strategies. Sara starts off reasonably by expressing disapproval of Paul's treatment of her mother, but shows herself to be just as intolerant as Paul. They proceed to attack each other and their relationship rather than discussing how to cope with their disappointments.

Sara: Don't you ever dare talk to my mother like that again. It's humiliating and disgusting.

Paul: What are you talking about? I'm sweetness and light with your mother. She gets on my bloody nerves.

Sara: Well she`s a damn sight more useful than your bloody mother. She sits on her backside all day. Not once, not once has she offered to help with the baby. Is that what you call being a decent grandmother? Well is it?

Paul: Leave my mother out of it. At least she doesn't come in here and bore you senseless with crap about neighbours and cleaning ladies.

Sara: It's not enough for you to be foul to her face is it? You have to bitch behind her back too, don't you?

Paul: You're just like her. You have to go on and on, don't you?

Sara: So now you think I'm just like her and you can't stand her. So where exactly does that leave me?

Paul: Ah, now we're getting paranoid. Doesn't surprise me. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

what they should have said

In this version there is some acceptance that each mother creates difficulties. Sara takes the role of keeping the row within limits, but Paul eventually grasps the point, and manage to reach an agreement about altering their approach. Sara: I expect my mother does get on your nerves. She annoys me too, but at least she's useful. Not once has your mother offered to help with the baby. That's not being a decent grandmother is it? I have to accept that.

(Shows she knows her mother is irritating but defends her. Lets him know how she would like a grandmother to behave.)

Paul: Leave my mother out of it. She deserves her own life. This is about your mother boring me senseless with crap about cleaning ladies.

(Defends his mother and brings the focus back to his reactions to Sara's mother's behaviour, without being too rude.)

Sara: Her gossip is boring, I agree, but she does try to be helpful. I expect you to be tolerant towards her, just as I have to tolerate your mother's lack of interest in me. I can't change or control my mother's behaviour. Could you change your mother and get her to do more for us?

(Defends her mother again, appropriately, without attacking Paul. Points out that neither of them can alter the way their mothers behave.)

Paul: Now you're going on just like you're mother.

(Shows her he finds it hard to take on her views, but can't admit he was in the wrong.)

Sara: I'm just saying that we both have to accept that neither mother is perfect and live with that, not blame each other. Don't be rude to her anymore.

(Does not rise to his provocative comparison but repeats her point, explaining that they cannot hold each other responsible and his direct rudeness is unacceptable.)

Paul: Well don't complain about my mother either then.

(Asks the same of her as a way of asserting his position, without insulting her.)

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