Enemies, Strangers, and Allies.
Most people have experienced all three of these patterns at one time or another in their lives.
The question is, “Which one is going to predominate in your relationship?”
There are 3 ways that people can react when they disagree. I’m going to show how the third option can turn an argument into a more intimate, collaborative conversation.
Think about this: If you attack or blame someone, or they attack you, you become enemies. If you ignore, withdraw, or avoid each other, you become strangers. However, if you confide in each other, and listen as well, you become friends. Let’s start with the first point. If you attack or blame your partner, you make them an enemy. What happens when someone attacks you? Either you feel bad, and just want to sink through the floor, OR (more likely) you feel like defending yourself, and blaming or attacking in return. So, this is the way the person on the receiving end of your attacking or blaming behaviour also feels. We might not feel that we have any control over our behaviour when we are attacking someone else, after all, “they did something wrong!” No doubt, our primitive ancestors needed to be prepared to attack, and physically defend themselves. Yet today many people are chronically anxious, and are easily triggered by comments that might even be neutral. Sometimes, we may have had a bad day, and we just blurt out an irritating comment, not really meaning to start a fight, and instantly the other person reacts, and they’re defensive and we’re saying, “That’s not what I meant. You took it all wrong.” Suddenly we are back-pedaling like crazy, and thinking, “I can’t even remember what I said. How can I get out of this mess?” Then our spouse says, “Not tonight, dear, I’ve got a headache!” Once you get started on attacking and defending, it is hard to break out of this cycle. I have observed that when clients attack or blame someone, very often, underneath it all is the emotion of fear. Our second option is to withdraw, or ignore the other person in hopes of avoiding an argument. One common pattern I see in couples I work with is that the woman (more often) brings up an issue, and the man minimizes the importance of it, truly believing that it’s not such a big deal. After all, it is “not a matter of life and death.” If you try to avoid engaging in an argument, the other person just intensifies the emotion and volume in order to get you to pay attention to what they are saying. Attacking and avoiding go hand in hand – the more one person escalates, the more the other minimizes the emotion. The more one avoids, the more the other dramatizes and escalates. Interestingly, research shows that withdrawing, or stonewalling is very damaging to a relationship, just as attacking and blaming are. These patterns are like a dog chasing its tail. We need to change these behaviours if we want to have happy, secure relationships. Our third option is to confide, and turn our relationship into a collaboration of allies. There are a lot of fleeting, “leading-edge” thoughts and emotions that lie just under the surface that are difficult yet important to share. That brief, in-the-moment feeling, our initial reaction that we tend to ignore or slough off is precisely what needs to be shared. Too often we jump from our split second feeling of fear or vulnerability, into defensive behaviour, when what is most helpful to the relationship, is to share that first emotion. For example, a man whose wife has a disability spoke to her in a way that she felt was judgmental, about her sometimes not challenging herself in, what for her, are physically difficult situations. She admitted that he is very tuned in to when she needs his help, and when she doesn’t. It turned out that he admires her inner strength, but also worries about her coping when he is not around for her to lean on. By getting at what he really meant, they created a moment of connection that had been missed in the original comment. It has been shown that truly successful marriages have at least 5, and up to 20 or more, positive interactions for every negative one. These include smiles, hug & kiss hello, thanks, humour, appreciation, listening. Marriages that end in divorce have a ratio of just over 1 positive to every negative interaction. From this, you can see why it is so important that we learn to collaborate with each other. The more we build positives into our marriage, the easier it is to confide and collaborate. We need to recognize that we are on the “same team.” Robert Frost wrote a poem titled Hide and Seek, in which he said, “Those who hide too well away must speak and tell us where they are.” Every one of us wants to be known and loved for who we are, yet we build walls by attacking or blaming each other, and hide in a hole so our partner doesn’t even know us. We can become enemies, or we can become strangers, but isn’t it better to become allies? Remember to focus on building the positives, increase your appreciation for each other, and talk about your relationship, your feelings, and your reactions rather than reacting. So many people have found a precious love, and have thrown it away because of a lack of knowledge and skill in how to have a truly fulfilling relationship. The cost, both emotionally and financially, is huge. Wouldn’t it be better to learn how to connect and have a great relationship?