Anger is contagious and so is goodwill.
Schismogenesis. It’s a term that you’re not likely to have heard very often, unless you’re studying esoteric words for a spelling bee that you’re planning to enter, or if you’re a graduate student or researcher in anthropology. It was coined in 1935 by Gregory Bateson, who was married to Margaret Mead, who were two of the most influential and highly regarded anthropologists of the twentieth century.
Bateson used of the word to refer to unskillful forms of social behavior between individuals and groups. In his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, he defines schismogenesis as a “creation of division.” The term derives from the Greek words skhisma or “cleft,” a division into opposing factions. Bateson’s hope was that researchers would discover methods that will allow one or both parties to stop escalating cycles of misunderstandings, distortion, reactivity, and breakdowns in communication before things reach the destructive stage. Eighty years later, therapists, marriage counselors, researchers, and the general public are still continuing the search for how to deal with interpersonal differences in a way that relationships can be enhanced, rather than damaged by them.
Like when a couple is engaged in a conversation that has become adversarial. At such times, there is no point in continuing the dialogue when schismogenesis has shifted things into the destructive zone. When tensions and emotions increase beyond the point where clear thinking and non-defensive listening are no longer possible, a mutually satisfying outcome is impossible unless a de-escalation of tensions occurs between the two parties. Often, just a few moments of quiet can be sufficient to cool things down. But in cases of extreme emotional arousal, a thirty or forty-minute time out may be necessary in order to regain composure.
Interrupting the downward spiral, however, isn’t always sufficient to break the cycle. Another factor often needs to be in place in order to effectively re-engage in a meaningful way. That factor has to do with the “I” word. That would be “intention”. When steamed up couples take a time out and use their break time to nurse their resentment by dwelling on hostile thoughts, they are reinforcing rather than diminishing the angry feelings, and this will continue the amplification of tensions. Unless the break time is used with an intention that is more likely to soothe each person’s inflamed emotional state, the desired outcome of mutual understanding will in all likelihood, not occur.
How we soothe ourselves during the pause can be the determining factor in the process of de-escalation. It is important to not use this time to continue to steam ourselves up and prepare ourselves to go back to fight the next round and defeat our “opponent”. Such a view predisposes us to view the other person as an adversary who we must defeat in order to prevent them from defeating us, rather than as a partner, with whom we will benefit from co-creating a supportive alliance.
An effective way to honor an intention to re-establish a suitable environment between the two of you that will make reconciliation more likely, is to focus your mind on thoughts that promote compassion, hopefulness, appreciation, and gratitude towards your partner, rather than thoughts that reinforce feelings of being victimized by him or her. You might, for example, want to remind yourself that you have gone through difficult interactions in the past and successfully restored good will, even when there had been animosity between you and your partner. Or you can tell yourself that “I am lucky to have a partner who will continue to engage with me about tough subjects, who is willing to hang in there even when things get heated, and who won’t give up easily. on.” This kind of self-talk admittedly, isn’t particularly easy to do when our mind is inflamed with fear, anger, or hurt feelings, but when we create a mutual agreement to temporarily separate, it opens an opportunity to come back together again with an attitude that is more conducive to a more open, understanding, respectful, and honest exchange.
Finding or creating your own self-soothing stories can help you to avoid schismogenesis and the slippery slope from disappointment to resentment and hostility. The ability to do this skillfully is one of the things that distinguishes couples that fall into the pit of despair from those who manage to stay out of it. These stories help us to regain our composure and open-heartedness, which allows us to re-engage in a non-defensive rather than adversarial way with our partner. While this doesn’t guarantee that he or she will join us in a stance of openness, it makes this outcome much more likely. Just as defensiveness begets more defensiveness in response, so does openness and respectfulness invite a reciprocal response. Our way of being for better or worse is contagious.
This movement towards reconciliation promotes the possibility of bringing about a creative synthesis in which both people feel respected and safe to express their feelings and needs without fear of reprisal or judgment.
Trusting the possibility of reconciling even the most difficult of relationship impasses and knowing what that process entails, gives us the hopefulness and motivation to develop and practice new skills. Cultivating focused intention and the self-discipline that is required to move towards interpersonal harmony, gives us the confidence and strength that we need to keep practicing to become skilled in this process. It all boils down to the notion that “like attracts like” or as many of us have come to believe through our own experiences, “What goes around comes around”. If you agree with this idea, the answer to the question, “How can I make my relationship as great as it can be?” becomes pretty obvious. Don’t you think?
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