Part of the problem for Tina and Ben concerns the sequencing of actions leading up to a conflict. A couple’s interpretation of each other’s action (the process of punctuation that we discussed above) is often a critical first element in any successful resolution of conflicts. If the two partners can’t agree on the origins of their conflict or at least agree to disagree on the punctuation, then they are unlikely to get very far in either managing the conflict or solving the problem(s) underlying the conflict (thereby reducing the chance that it will frequently reoccur). For Tina and Ben, punctuation problems center on Ben saying that Tina wants “to push things and talk about the process which I don’t care about and want to drop. Because you push it, I drop it.” Conversely, Tina notes (with some humor, fortunately) that “because you drop things I push them.”

For Ben, “dropping things” usually means disengagement from Tina. In response, Tina says: “You know a lot of the time I just choose not to communicate at all. I just go into the study, close the door and am alone.” As we noted above, it is impossible not to communicate in an intimate relationship, Ben is communicating to Tina when he disengages and Tina is fully aware of this: “Well, you may think we’re not communicating because you aren’t speaking and I leave you alone, but your communication is clear – you want to be left alone and I respond by acknowledging that and don’t come in the room or talk to you.”

Ben’s detachment, however, is also communicating to Tina about his unilateral decision-making. Ben chooses to isolate himself, leaving Tina to adjust to his way of dealing with conflict, much as she must deal with his unilateral decision to see his children without her and to invite guests over for dinner. As Tina notes, it is not the content of the conflicts that are so disturbing to her; rather, it is the way in which conflicts are addressed (or more accurately not addressed) and Ben’s unilateral decisions regarding his disengagement from the conflict that is disturbing, Ben’s actions are inherently unfair to her and their relationship.


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William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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