How Self-Centeredness Reframes Conflict

By Brad Hambrick
Arguing

Photo by Ed Yourdon.

This is the fifth post in a sixteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts three through five we will examine the criteria and categories Scripture uses to define a severe case.

It is an understatement to say that it is difficult to decipher what it going on in an argument with a self-centered spouse. If that is true for the objective counselor listening to the “slow motion replay,” then it is incredibly difficult for the spouse trying to make sense of these interactions “on the fly” in day-to-day life.

Prospect Theory, from the field of economics, can offer some helpful insight. Simply stated this theory asserts that people respond to the same situation differently based upon whether they view it as an opportunity or a threat. When “framed” as a threat people generally respond to a situation in a more reserved manner. When “framed” as an opportunity people generally respond with more creative ideas.

So what is going on in during a conflict with a self-centered spouse?

The aggressively self-centered spouse frames a threatening interaction (i.e., harsh conflict) as an opportunity and is, therefore, more comfortable and creative during the exchange. This gives him a competitive advantage over his wife who likely views this interaction as a threat and is stifled.

Based upon the criteria we defined in the previous post [link], threat-versus-opportunity is not a mere opinion difference between the spouses. The aggressively self-centered spouse has a false confidence in his assessment of the situation that provides a “competitive advantage” of creative freedom of thought when he should be compassionately convicted about his actions.

The passively self-centered spouse frames healthy interaction as threats and is, therefore, awkward or evasive during safe communication. Normal interactions involving emotions or personal disclosure are intimidating so she retreats from these interactions.

Again, this should not be applied to simple introvert-extrovert differences, but to occasions when interactions necessary for family functioning are avoided because of a sense of fear or discomfort. When this happens, the passively self-centered spouse’s interpretation places him at a “competitive disadvantage” because what he is striving for is emotional safety when the situation calls for connecting.

It should not be assumed that these interpretations are overt or intentional. This assessment is not trying to assign motive, but to capture the relational dynamic involved which makes these interactions feel so “crazy.” At this point we are not solving; we are still working on seeing accurately.

What can be gained from this assessment?

We no longer have to focus initially on solving the “subject of the day.” We can ask, “Does he feel ambitious while she feels scared?,” or, “Does he feel intimidated while she is seeking to feel close?” If we get a yes to either question, then the difference in framing makes effective communication nearly impossible.

This difference in framing happens in almost all marital communication. If being alerted to this dynamic brings quick acknowledgement and change, then the marital problem was not chronic self-centeredness.

However, in cases of chronic self-centeredness (aggressive or passive) the offending spouse will not acknowledge the obvious mis-framing of the situation. Threatening actions on the aggressor’s part will be justified as being potentially effective (hear “opportunity”) if their spouse would just listen. Healthy overtures of interaction towards the passive spouse will be construed as evasive or controlling (hear “threat”).

At this point, the focus of communication is to rightly “frame” these interactions for the self-centered spouse. Debating the wrongness of the aggressive or passive responses will be ineffective until the context of those responses are seem differently. That will be the subject of the next several posts in this series.

Brad Hambrick

Brad Hambrick

Brad Hambrick, M.Div., Th.M. serves as Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church and Chief Editor of The Journal of Counseling & Discipleship. He is also Adjunct Professor of Biblical Counseling, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a Council Member of The Biblical Counseling Coalition.

Read more from Brad and find other great resources at his blog.