There's an old — and cynical — adage I first encountered in its Mexican version. Marriage is the only war in which you go to sleep with the enemy. It came to mind with the report of seasonal increase in family violence. That unpleasant reality is not wholly unexpected in that, for many, the festive season ushers in as much disappointment as fulfillment, accompanied and aggravated by alcohol.

It's a true gift to our community if we can bring down the number of incidents of such violence, good for those directly affected, the families, adults and kids. Most of the current campaigns, "It's Not OK", for example, are focused on dealing with violence against women. Campaigns to stop violence against women have a laudable goal, especially if tragedies of loss of life are to be averted. While laudable and necessary that focus needs widening.

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"White Ribbon" marches perform a valuable service in calling attention to the problem. Publicising the issue is a good first step in that you can't begin to solve a problem when you don't even acknowledge that there is one. But a campaign that emphasises violence as exclusively victimising women is in danger of focusing on the trees and missing the forest. We need to understand that today's bad behaviours have antecedents. A significant common pathway is in the deficiencies of empathy that underlie bullying and difficulty in understanding the feelings of others. We cannot ignore the violence of words,
which is not so attention-getting from the media, as their insidious effects may be the precursor to the physical expression of the frustrated anger that is so much a part of the problem.


The physical violence must be dealt with, but it represents a train of circumstance that is far down the track. The time and place for prevention is at the earliest school ages, when kids are learning to socialise and developing an understanding of fairness and of the rules of acceptable behaviour.

We're fortunate to have a programme that helps kids develop their nascent capacity for empathy. Roots of Empathy, a school programme developed by a Canadian educator, Dr Mary Gordon, allows first graders to participate in watching a 2-4 month-old child grow by weekly visits of supervised observation. It's been successfully trialled in Canada and here in three major centres, where results included reduction in bullying. Moreover, the kids involved were later shown to be kinder, less negative in expression, more mutually supportive. We need such programmes locally.

For adults, coping with the vicissitudes of marital life, there's the inevitability of disappointment as people come down from the high of first meeting to the reality of daily living. One thing that's mitigating is a sense of humour. But the best predictor of long-term life free of violence is the ability to deal with conflict, the inevitable outcome of two people trying to maintain their individual integrity simultaneous with building a union.
The Ministry of Social Development offers some "how to's," improving relationships, on its website as part of the It's Not OK campaign:

Herewith a few more suggestions:
Don't sweat the small stuff. Don't keep a scorecard. Constructive arguing requires alertness. Drinking, which dulls thought and unleashes emotion, at the same time is therefore out.

And do learn a few rules for negotiating conflict. An elegant threesome follows: 1) Don't interrupt; 2) Don't call names; and 3) You have to want to solve the problem.
That means each one gets to have her complete grievance stated and heard.
Without insult or objectification each one might give audience to the other's position.

And finally the couple have to attempt a co-operative resolution. Even a literary giant like Tolstoy can get it wrong. In a famous aphorism beginning Anna Karenina, he says all happy marriages are alike and all unhappy ones are different. It's the opposite that's true. While suggestions from others, may be of help, inevitably, people create their happiness in marriage by finding their own unique path.

Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.