I recently counseled with a very bright and engaging mid-aged couple. Tom’s a seminary professor and Mary (not their real names) is a psychologist. Despite their intelligence and education, they could not resolve their marital conflict. It recalled my belief that unresolved conflicts are like icebergs.
An iceberg is a large piece of freshwater ice that has broken off a glacier or an ice shelf and is floating freely in open salt water. Another name for iceberg is “ice mountain”.
Ninety percent of an iceberg is below the surface and not visible, thus making icebergs serious maritime hazards. The expression “tip of the iceberg”, illustrates a difficulty that is only a small, visible part of a larger, complex problem.
In their case the tip of the conflict was her accusation that he treated his 10-year-old son from a previous marriage better than her son from her prior marriage. When challenged, he would defend his actions and accuse her of being overly protective of her 9-year-old son. They wanted me to settle the dispute by siding with one partner over the other. Had I sided with either person, I doubt the conflict would really be resolved. When well-meaning counselors operate on the What level by deciding who or what is right and wrong only the “tip” of the conflict is usually addressed leaving 90% remaining. Another more helpful approach is to work on the How level.
In this strategy, the counselor helps the couple resolve their own conflict by skill building. The couple learns a model for conflict resolution, analyzes their own style for facing conflict and practices active listening. Couples who learn How to resolve conflict not only resolve what they are in conflict over—the surface What—but also much of the underlying and often hidden parts. Teaching a couple How to resolve their own problems takes more time, effort and expense but is well worth the effort. The couple I was working with were frustrated and angry, initially not wanting to invest in such a protracted effort. There is a third, and oftentimes, more successful way to approach melting the icebergs—working on the Why Level.
In this strategy the participants are asked to dig deeper into the usually unrecognized and hidden roots and dynamics of the conflict. Why is this conflict so important? Why is there so much emotional investment in either party being right? Why is Tom seeming to favor his son over hers and why is Mary so reactive and protective of her own child.
When exploring Why, it is often useful to do a relational history and genogram–a visual tool for exploring a client’s social relationships across time. Typically, these graphically show familial bonding patterns and behavioral patterns. Doing so revealed that Tom committed adultery in his previous marriage. He felt very guilty for divorcing his ex-wife and causing his only son to slip into depression. His response was to indulge the son.
Mary’s previous marriage and subsequent divorce caused her great guilt over what she put her son through. Her ex was abusive and rejecting of her and the son. Her response was to overly protect and coddle him.
Studies have shown that most single parent families are enmeshed, meaning overly protective and over connected. The single parent ends up partnering and overly protecting the children more than parenting them. This is especially true if the divorced parent was abusive or suffered from chemical dependency. Mary’s previous husband was an addict. Tom’s ex was verbally abusive. Both Tom and Mary were single parents for years before they met and married.
In exploring the Why, it was clear that neither parent had fully resolved the emotions and resulting enmeshment surrounding their previous relationships. Grieving, processing and letting go of their painful past would help them come to terms with their over-protectiveness and conflict. Lamenting one’s pain of the past with God, invites the comfort and healing of the Spirit. It releases the person to think and act differently in the present.
Got an iceberg? What might it take to melt your mountain of ice? Tom and Mary did their grief work. They let go of their judgments and resentments of each other and focused on their own pain and behavior. They let go of the past and committed to a creating a new and better family future.
© 2019 – Alfred H. Ells
Leaders That Last Ministries