Betty and George exemplify many of the same problems with conflict that are experienced by Tina and Ben, as well as many of the other couples we interviewed. Betty and George have lived together many more years (forty-three) than have Tina and Ben, yet they still struggle with rules to govern their own storming periods of conflict. When asked how they handle their disagreements, Betty mentioned that if George has a number of things that he needs to get off his chest, she just lets him blow off his steam, so that he will simmer down. George, on the other hand, indicates that when they disagree, he tends to “give in” to Betty: “I try to irk her a little sometimes. But I give her whatever she wants.” Betty disagrees with George’s assessment, indicating that she tends to back down when in disagreement with George because her mother told her: “Don’t ever get mad at the same time.” Betty claims that she tends to get silent when she is very angry and remains silent for a long time. When asked how he deals with this silence, George indicated that “I just let it roll off my back and wait.” This, in turn, makes Betty even more angry: “He doesn’t even get bothered by it.”

Clearly, Betty and George get trapped in their own escalating conflicts. He tends to express his anger, ‘but she, simply lets it pass and then doesn’t remember what she was going to do anyway, which might further anger George. She tends to quite communicating when she is angry, which leads George to withdraw from her. This makes her even more angry. What keeps these escalating conflicts from blowing apart this long-lasting couple? Like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”, this couple has constructed certain control mechanisms that bring escalating conflicts to an end. Typically, Betty will give in to George’s wishes, unless there is a financial issue, in which case Betty’s acknowledged expertise (and George’s expressed fears about money) takes precedence over George’s need for control. Betty acknowledges that George “is in control. I was brought up that way and that’s the way it is.”

Outside the interview, Betty disclosed that in the past, there was another control mechanism that she employed when conflict got out of hand (and George became physically abusive). She warned George that if he ever hit her or the children she would leave him. In their early life together, they both had an absolute commitment to their children’s happiness and would find life without the children to be intolerable. Thus, the threat of leaving George without any access to the children was very strong and helped to bring escalating conflicts to a close. These two governing mechanisms — the man’s right to have a final say and the woman’s right to leave with custody of the children — were quite prevalent among many heterosexual couples during the 1940s and 1950s (and before). Today, these mechanisms tend to be dysfunctional. Women do not automatically defer to their husbands, nor are women automatically given sole custody of their children. Thus, new ways must be found to terminate escalating conflict or the couple must find a strategy for resolving conflict that cuts off the escalation before it begins.


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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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