Linda: If you’ve ever been in the middle of a painful breakdown with your partner and felt overwhelmed with rage, fear, pain, despair, or some combination of the above, you’re not alone. Even couples that share good relationships can occasionally experience feelings like this. At these times, it can also seem that turning this situation into a “learning opportunity” just isn’t going to happen, and the best that you can hope for is to do enough damage control to prevent things from falling into the “catastrophic” category. And even doing that is no small feat.
This is not to say that we should try to avoid doing or saying things that could cause upsets. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. What it does mean is that whatever we do, it is important that we take the steps that are necessary to bring about an outcome in which there is a net increase in goodwill between us, even if in the process of getting there, uncomfortable feelings arise. Like the admonishment of the Hippocratic Oath, “first do no harm”, it is important that at the very least, our response to distressing situations should not result in additional and unnecessary suffering to an already painful situation.
Doing so may require self-restraint and self-discipline. It may also require a lot of courage to speak from the undefended truth of our feelings, which requires the willingness to be emotionally vulnerable, rather than the security of our judgments, which inevitably activates defensiveness in our partner. Until we have developed enough inner strength to resist the temptation to indulge ourselves with defensive or aggressive reactions in the face of provocation, our responses to conflict will probably just add fuel to the fire.
Fortunately, the opportunities to practice truth-talk and committed listening present themselves continually throughout the course of our lives. It’s helpful to first identify the nature of our work so that we can become more attuned to opportunities for practice that show up in our daily experience. Many of the people with whom we have worked have commented that once they realize what their work is, they notice that the opportunities for practice present themselves on an almost continual basis. Whether they are just noticing opportunities that have always been there, or whether there actually are more of these situations in our lives after the commitment to learning is made, is any body’s guess. A more important question has to do with how we respond to these opportunities when they show up in front of us.
Creating a successful partnership does take work. It is not for the faint of heart. Despite our hopes that our partner (or we) will change overnight, instant transformation generally tends to be a rare occurrence. The process tends to be incremental rather than instantaneous. Relationship building can feel like we’re standing near a very hot fire. And then there are times when we feel that we are standing IN the fire.
If we have used our time wisely and practiced on the small breakdowns and improved our ability to address upsets rather than reinforce defensive habits, we will be much more likely to minimize damage and bring about positive outcomes, even when we’re in the midst of the hottest fires. And if or when big breakdowns do occur, rather than defaulting to familiar defensive patterns, we will default to effective efforts that are much more likely to bring about mutual understanding.
When we hold our goal as the fulfillment of both of our needs, rather than the satisfaction of our own desires, there is there is a shift not only in the outcome of our interaction, but in the quality of our relationship. Our relationship is no longer based upon zero-sum thinking where there are winners and losers but becomes about defining “winning” as a function of mutual satisfaction.
And if you think that such thinking is Pollyannaish and unrealistic in the “real world”, think again. Or better still try it out and see for yourself whether we’re talking about a fantasy or a genuine possibility.