Throwing Paperclips: Relationship Conflict & Communication

Imagine that you and I are sitting in a room together – I on one side of the room and you on the other. Unexpectedly, I pull out a jar of paperclips and begin throwing them at you, one right after another…How would you respond? You have a few options:

(a) run out of the room to avoid them altogether

(b) try covering your face to block the paperclips

(c) pick up the paperclips and begin throwing them back

OR (d) possibly a combination of the three


Perhaps whoever wins this “War of the Paperclips” is the person who throws the most clips and throws them the hardest, unrelenting until one of us, hurt and exhausted, finally gives up.

Now imagine how this “war” reflects the reality of taking sides and “throwing paperclips” in the midst of relational conflict.  Be it in your marriage, in your dating relationship, with your parents, sister, brother, friend, or roommate, you may find yourself on the throwing or receiving end of verbal attacks.

Everyone has heard the words: “The Key to a Healthy Relationship is Communication.”  But the key is not just any kind of communication, is it? Spurting out biting criticism, making wide-sweeping, negative claims, and offering up mean-hearted, sarcastic remarks, after all, does not build a healthy relationship.  Neither does it reflect love. Far too often, anger, frustration, resentments, jealousy, and bitterness clouds thinking & disables compassion & understanding for the other person.

Especially in marriage, we are meant to weather the storms of life together, hand-in-hand, on the same team. Unfortunately, projecting emotional and verbal darts at our loved one draws a harsh line in the sand, creating opposing teams. When this occurs – when forces are divided rather than joined – both sides lose out and the relationship suffers in the long-run.

Dr. John Gottman, leading therapist in the field of marriage, explains that an important principle towards saving a marriage is “turning toward each other instead of away.” (from The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work). To me, this principle speaks to the heart of communication and conflict in relationships.  We turn away when we fear the other person’s harsh remarks. We turn away when we feel the need to protect ourselves & our own interests from the verbal darts being flung our way. However, we turn toward one another when we can trust that – no matter how difficult the concern or the problem – respect rather than contempt will guide the conversation.

The truth is that relationships are hard. They are difficult because like all good things, healthy relationships require sacrifice. Sacrifice in relationship looks a lot like putting aside one’s pride and desire to be right in order to save the state of the relationship through love & grace. To be honest, it looks nothing like throwing paperclips.  It also doesn’t look like sweeping them under the rug in order to avoid issues altogether. Instead, maybe it looks like taking out the jar, pouring the “paperclips” on the table in front of you both and working through each one with patience and respect together.

And if this feels unnatural or even awkward at first, you are not alone. However, through intentional thought and practice, turning toward one another and “laying down arms” builds the solid foundation of mutual love and respect necessary for long-lasting, fruitful relationships to grow.

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Learn more about Lydia Minear, MA, LAPC’s Counseling practice @ East-West Psychotherapy Associates here.

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