Although arguments generally can’t always be avoided, it is possible to create arguments that produce productive, rather than destructive outcomes that result in greater understanding, trust, and mutual respect. Bringing about such an outcome requires that we begin with an intention to do so. Making a conscious choice enables us to override any unconscious beliefs or attitudes that may predispose us to bring a negative perspective to our interaction, one that may be characterized by pessimism, hopelessness, resignation, or resentment. If we have had a history of failures in our efforts to bring about successful resolution to our differences, we are likely to default to a sense of hopelessness in regard to the chances of having the outcome of this argument being any different than previous ones.
An attitude of cynicism can protect us from experiencing another letdown from what we regard as the “inevitability” of another disappointing outcome. Adopting a different attitude requires that we choose to be hopeful, and forgo what can feel like the “security” of our expectation of disappointment. A willingness to make this choice requires courage and vulnerability, which happen to be two of the qualities that are needed in order to have arguments become productive rather than destructive.
The primary quality that brings about a positive outcome when differences are expressed is that of intentionality. Many couples get into power struggles out of each of their desires to control or defeat each other. When one or both partners are guided by an intention to create mutual satisfaction of their desires rather than an intention to “win the battle”, there is a much greater likelihood of a favorable outcome. When there is recognition that when one partner “wins” at the cost of the other person feeling defeated, that is a Pyrrhic victory or a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it istantamount to defeat.
When it comes to committed partnerships there are no winners and losers. When one “wins” or gets their way through disrespectful means such as intimidation, coercion, dishonesty or other forms of manipulation, there is a diminishment of goodwill, trust, safety, respect, and integrity. These diminishments will show up in many ways both overt and covert, which will negatively impact the couple’s connection. Recognizing that playing this game inevitably results in both losing, there is a greater likelihood that at least one partner will become more willing to risk the kind of vulnerability that can transform a zero-sum game into a mutually fulfilling interaction.
The more we see life as a process of making choices rather than involving a requirement to fulfill obligations, the less inclined we are to feel victimized. Feeling disempowered causes us to grab for greater control to compensate for feelings of helplessness. The price that we pay for indulging in excuse making, blaming, justifying and rationalizing our behavior, is reinforcing feelings that predispose us towards controlling behaviors.
The alternative to this self-defeating program is the willingness to accept responsibility for the choices that we make and live with (and hopefully learn from) the consequences of our decisions. In doing this, our partner no longer feels that he or she is being held as “the problem” and the source of our distress, and is more likely to feel less defensive and more open to engage in a mutually respectful dialogue.
Contrary to what we may believe it’s not because of our protective strategies that we still have a relationship; it’s despite them. As with other habits, we develop repetitive patterns of thought and behavior that we associate with survival. As long as we are enslaved by the expectations that we’ve internalized, we continue to be addicted to the survival game and everything that it entails. Doing so usually runs directly counter to what loving relationships call for. Because so few of us develop alternative ways of effectively dealing with these patterns, issues around conflict resolution tend to be the #1 cause of relationship breakdowns.
Anything that you do to gain dominance that requires any kind of a defeat, no matter how small, diminishes the quality of connection that ultimately diminishes each individual’s quality of experience. If we sacrifice ourself to accommodate to our partner, we both lose. There is a direct correlation between our ability to deal with differences effectively and the long-range prospects for our relationships. The problem with most of our survival strategies is that they are grounded in the belief that wherever there is conflict, there are winners and losers. The reality is that in order for there to be a successful resolution to any situation that involves conflicting desires, two things have to be present. (1) a commitment to both people experiencing a satisfying outcome, and (2) a means through which that possibility can be realized.
We refer to these patterns as “survival strategies” because when we are experiencing conflict, it can often feel that our very survival is at stake, particularly when our partner’s desire threatens to prevent us from experiencing something that we deem to be vital to our well-being. When we disable this emergency alarm it becomes possible to put things in a perspective that gives us enough breathing room to recognize that in most cases, it’s our ego that is threatened, not our actual being. Interrupting the impulse to control breaks the pattern of fight or flight.
Admittedly this shift doesn’t occur overnight, but only after a number of repetitions, in all likelihood more than we think should be necessary. The good news is that it’s possible to become free from obsolete defensive patterns. And it gets increasingly easier over time. So now that you know how, what are you waiting for?