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  • Writer's pictureShannon Johnson

It's Not About the Ham.

One of my favorite aspects of working with couples is dissecting conflict. Maybe that's why my first occupation was teaching biology -- plenty of opportunity to hone my dissection skills!

Conflict exists because each person has emotions, needs, wants, desires, triggers, and dreams lurking under the surface. However, much of time, couples get stuck at the surface level of conflict and don't make it to the magic that lies underneath. It's like learning to scuba dive. You jump off the boat, and the waters are choppy on the surface. You get tossed around a bit, and all the gear feels uncomfortable. You reconsider your choice...but, as you start to descend (as long as your ears cooperate) you notice that the water starts to calm. You look around to see a whole new world. The gear lightens up, and you start to feel like maybe you are part-fish after all.

Let's chat about the choppy surface-water part. Have you ever been in an argument with your person in which the emotions get intense, and it's clear that your person just isn't "getting it?" Maybe they remember the story wrong. Maybe they are adamant that the answer is how they see it. Maybe you are both so defensive that no one is listening.

"It was 2012, not 2013!"

"My mom didn't really say that!"

"We can't do it that way because it doesn't make any sense!"

"You're wrong."

No people in these scenarios would feel seen, heard, or validated.

Ultimately, unless you begin to descend into meaning, the conflict moves into a stress response, and everyone is left feeling defeated. It's like not being able to get your ears to clear: you just hang out on the surface getting pelted with water while your French guide is seemingly frustrated. But what if, instead of living in the experience on the surface, a couple finds a way to dive deeper -- finds a way to start looking at what is under the surface.

Let me share an example with you. The couple in this story has given me permission to share this, and hopes it will help others. At a retreat, this particular couple was having "rich conversation" about an incident that happened with their daughter. The father had instructed the tween daughter how to cut the ham for dinner. The tween had opted to cut the ham into squares instead of slices, which frustrated him. His wife also became frustrated, because she felt the the husband was making a big deal about ham. Here lies our surface, and the waters appeared to be choppy, so I jumped in to help.

While talking to the husband about the conflict, it came to light that he has a great deal of fear regarding his daughter's future. He has several family members who have struggled with addiction, maintaining employment, and fostering healthy relationships. He fears that if his daughter does not learn responsibility, follow-through, and life skills, she will end up suffering in adulthood. Meanwhile, his wife explained that she grew up in a home where she was surrounded by addiction, trauma, and loss. At a very early age, she had witnessed and dealt with adult issues. She wants their children to have a childhood free from adult-level issues. She wants her children to soak in play.

Wow! Both parents are acting from a place of deep love for their children. Both parents are determined to break the cycles of addiction and abuse that are in their family systems. And by balancing both of their dreams for their children, they will be able to create an environment where their children can grow and thrive. This might even trump getting to see a sea turtle while scuba diving. However, I wouldn't know as I got to see five black tip sharks instead. My guide assured me that was an awesome opportunity.

It's not about the ham. It's not about the exact time you got home. It's not about returning a movie on time. The reason that emotions escalate is there is meaning underneath. I urge you to take the time to explore and dissect what is underneath the surface topic. Ask questions, take breaks when needed, don't blame one another, and most importantly, adopt compassionate curiosity. This is how we find the magic.

The example above is one of the many reasons I love retreats. A weekend dedicated to your relationship creates insight and healing. Check out our upcoming retreat in Sun Valley:

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