There is one guaranteed method of fighting or arguing with your spouse that will always lead to further conflict. Even if you are simply trying to show your partner how you feel, or ask for what you want, this method of speaking will never shut down the argument.
Do you know what it is?
It’s called “overgeneralization,” and it means that instead of being specific about the subject of a disagreement, one or both partners overgeneralize their feelings.
The Special Day
Take Tom and Sarah, for example. Sarah was preparing for a two-week business trip, so she and Tom planned to spend all day Sunday together. They’d been fighting and arguing a lot during the several previous months, so they both wanted a fun and peaceful day before Sarah’s trip.
Tom volunteered to plan everything, because he knew Sarah was occupied with packing. Sarah, the planner in their household, was a little concerned, but hoped that everything would be perfect. From past experience she knew that unless she prodded or forced Tom into action, usually nothing got done. To her surprise, Tom actually spent half a day planning their special time together. He asked for her input, but she said that what he had planned was fine. Tom sensed that she was not thrilled with his ideas, but decided that until she said something negative, he was going ahead with it.
Sunday began with a 7 a.m. bike ride along the lakefront, with a stop for breakfast on the return trip at one of their favorite places, only two blocks from home. Just two short miles into their twelve mile ride, there was a lane closure. A fatal accident had occurred during the night, and police had the area cordoned off. That was the first trigger. Sarah was frustrated, and mumbled something under her breath. Tom chose not to respond, because he knew the outcome would not be good.
They rode a bit further, but it was rough going, so they decided to turn back and head for breakfast instead. When they arrived at the restaurant, it was closed for a private event. The sign in the window directed the public to their website for more information.
That’s when the fight started. Frustrated, Sarah yelled that she was always disappointed when Tom was in charge. This wasn’t the first time that he’d let her down. He could never do anything right.
Then she continued complaining, saying that she felt alone. All her friends had moved to the suburbs and started their families, and she was all alone, with only him for company.
Of course Tom was angry by this time. He couldn’t believe that she could be so insulting to him when he’d tried really hard to make this day special. She didn’t show any gratitude for his efforts, only complained when things didn’t go as planned. Sarah always acted this way; that’s why he was usually reluctant to make an effort, because he could never please her.
Vague Versus Specific
As you read their story, did you spot the generalized comments? Sarah stated that she was alone and that she always ended up disappointed when Tom was in charge. Tom said that he can never please her, and that this same thing always happens.
When communicating only in generalized comments, we are unable to change the situation. Blame is always passed from one person to another, and the problem continues to escalate as more issues get added to the blame game. It is natural to become defensive in this scenario. The ultimate outcome of this type of interaction is that both Sarah and Tom have hurt feelings, and it’s likely that they will hardly talk to each other during Sarah’s trip, once again reinforcing their bad communication habits and creating feelings of hopelessness.
The solution to this problem is to introduce specific communication. Specific communication is when each partner addresses only the particular situation at hand, and how each feels about it.
Instead of saying that she’s disappointed whenever Tom is in charge, Sarah could have said, “I’m disappointed that you didn’t make sure the restaurant would be open for breakfast. I was looking forward to that.” Voicing her opinion about a specific event keeps the conversation focused, and gives Tom a chance to respond to that individual event. It’s almost a sure bet that if Sarah had communicated specifically instead of using generalities, Tom would have apologized and immediately suggested an alternative breakfast spot. They would have been able to work through the situation and solve the problem in the moment, instead of ruining their special day.
For Your Consideration
Generalizations are difficult to concentrate upon because they require us to look at several problems as though they are one. Most people are not effective at aggregating many issues into a single thought, and the natural reaction is to become overwhelmed and defensive. Defensiveness shuts down effective communication.
Specificity provides options. Options enable us to overcome hurt or defensive feelings. When we remain focused on the problem at hand, we can work together to make communication more effective.