Q: My spouse and I often have arguments over the “small stuff.” How do we get past this so that we are not constantly bickering?

A: I’ll bet neither of you would argue with your boss or work colleagues, or your children’s teachers the way you argue with each other. You have choices—you don’t have to argue with each other. Instead of acting like bickering children, use your grownup self-control to pull yourself out of the argument. If you’re fighting over silly little things, you’re having symbolic fights—it’s not about who didn’t put the cap on the toothpaste, it’s about who is right, who has the most power, who deserves to be loved.

To change your interaction try these Guidelines for Being Better Understood from How to be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page Books, 2002):

• Seek first to understand. If you know your partner’s frame of reference, you can speak to him/her within it.

• Pay attention to how your words are landing. If your companion’s response looks off the mark for what you said, check out what he/she is hearing...

• Focus on the solution that would work for everyone, rather than who’s right or wrong. Only focus on the problem long enough to understand, and then switch to what will fix it.

• Separate emotion from solution. If one or both of you are upset, irrational or reactive, you aren’t communicating. Take a break and try again in a few minutes, when both of you have calmed down.

• Don’t beat dead horses. If you’ve been over the same ground several times with no forward movement, get some help. An objective third party can work wonders.

• Be nice. Strive to create a cooperative atmosphere, and consider your partner’s feelings.

Q: Our daughter’s 15-year-old friend recently ran away from home and is living with us. She has mentioned that her parents are verbally and emotionally abusive. How can she get some help and what can I do?

A: First, don’t panic. Listen to this girl, and try to form an objective opinion about what is going on. If you are willing to let her stay with you, and her parents don’t object, you can let her stay, but remember to consider insurance liability and costs when you make your decision. If you’re going to keep her with the consent of her parents, I recommend you get a legal contract drawn, giving you permission, or at least a letter from them giving their consent.

If they do not consent, and if you determine that there’s a real possibility of abuse, and not just teenage rebellion, call your local Child Abuse Hotline. Just ask the telephone operator or information for the number. The call is anonymous, and your county’s child protective agency will interview the girl and her parents, assign a social worker, and make a determination about the abuse. If you are willing and meet the requirements, you can apply to foster the girl, and she can continue to stay with you. The county system will take care of legal issues, insurance coverage, and pay you a stipend to foster her until she’s 18. If you are not willing, and the courts determine her home is abusive, she’ll be placed in foster care. Her parents will be given an opportunity to correct the problems and be reunified with her. In most states she can apply to be emancipated (treated as an adult under the law) at age 17, by becoming self-supporting (getting a job) and having a viable place to live.

Don’t encourage the girl to go back home unless you believe she is safe there. If you pressure her to return home against her will, she may become a runaway, and put herself in danger.

Q: My teenage son is physically abusive toward his younger sister. I want to teach him that violence is wrong, but he gets aggressive with me as well. How can I control his behavior?

A: If he has reached his teenage years and you don’t know how to control him and teach him self-discipline, you need more help than I can give you here. Run, don’t walk to parenting classes and family therapy. If you are a single mom, find some male role models who can teach your son self-control. Contact the counselor at school for referrals and help. You must protect your daughter from your son, and your son from his own self-destructive behavior. This problem is very serious, don’t ignore it, and don’t try to solve it alone.

Q: My friends and I think that one of our girlfriends is being physically abused by her boyfriend. We don’t know how to approach her about this, because we really haven’t seen any “evidence” – just occasional bumps and bruises on her face. What should we do?

A: Do your friend a favor and be honest with her about your suspicions. Tell her you’re worried about her, and offer to help if she needs help. Before you talk to her, call a local Domestic Violence Hotline (ask the operator or information, or look in the front of your phone book) and get some information and referrals to give her if she wants them. If you’re right about the violent situation, and she’s too afraid of her boyfriend to stand up to him, she may need help leaving him.

Many battered women are reluctant to leave because they’re still in love with the batterer. Urge her not to make this mistake. Remind her of high-profile cases, such as Nicole Brown Simpson, which might convince her how dangerous her situation is. If she wants your help, you can offer her places to stay, and make sure she’s surrounded with friends or family all the time, which is her best protection. Urge her to file a restraining order, and to have her boyfriend arrested if he threatens to hurt her again. Show her the following guidelines. She can contact me at www.tinatessina.com for more information and suggestions.

By Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D.

1. Realize it’s not going to get better. If your partner flies into rage, verbally or sexually abuses or batters you or your children, no matter what he or she may say, it isn’t your fault, and you have no control over his or her behavior. Even the abuser has very little control. It is not just a one-time incident, it is an indication of a severely disturbed character, and it will not go away without years of intense therapy.

2. Protect yourself and your children. The best way to do this is to tell the truth to family, friends, your minister, your doctor, your therapist, your co-workers, one of the hotlines listed below, the police and anyone else who will listen. There is no need for you to be ashamed, but there is an urgent need for you to get help. If it seems that noone is listening, consider that you might not be telling the whole truth -- battered spouses have a tendency to downplay and make excuses for the abuse. The best protection for you and your children is for your abuser’s behavior to become public knowledge. The vast majority of abusers are cowards, who only prey on dependent, defenseless people. They like to believe they are in control, and they aren’t as likely to lose control before witnesses.

3. Once you have been physically abused, do not be alone with the abuser again. This is another reason to tell everyone you know. You either need a place to go, or someone (perhaps several people) to stay with you until you are safe. You may also need financial help.

4. If you are hit, call the police (911). They respond much better now than they used to, and the law is now on your side. When they come, press charges. Do not make excuses to yourself or anyone else. If your abuser gets away with it even once, he or she will get more abusive. Do not listen to pleas for sympathy, understanding or forgiveness. You can forgive the abuser after he or she has gotten help, and only after you and your children are safe.

5. If injured, get medical help. Tell the doctors and nurses the truth about how it happened.

6. File a restraining order. Volunteers at the police department will help you fill it out. With a restraining order, you can call the police as soon as the abuser gets close to you or your home. Without one, the police need evidence of the abuse to arrest anyone.

7. Attend Al-Anon meetings. You will learn a lot of good information that will help you avoid being someone else’s victim.
For information: http://www.al-anon.org/

Author's Bio: 

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., "Dr. Romance," is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Long Beach, Calif. since 1978 and author of 13 books in 17 languages,  including The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again and Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes the Happiness Tips from Tina email newsletter, and the Dr. Romance Blog. She has written for and been interviewed in many national publications, and she has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live and many other TV and radio shows.