There is definitely a place in the world for protest, meaning to express a complaint of an action made by an individual or a group. Sometimes it can become necessary to make it clear that we don’t agree with something that someone has said or done. In not clarifying our position, we may run the risk of creating the impression that we are aligned with a position that we disapprove of. We all know what kind of problems that misunderstandings can create. In registering a protest, I am making my position clear and minimizing the likelihood of misunderstandings. Hopefully, others will consider my concerns and act respectfully in response to them.
In a best-case scenario, they will. But what about those scenarios that are less than the best case? What if I clarify, for example, that I am not in favor of having my partner’s children from his first marriage come and visit us for the weekend. This kind of disagreement is an example of a very common phenomenon during the age of COVID 19. The virus is exposing rifts in our relationships that we didn’t previously notice.
But what about those situations in which one or both are committed to making the other person wrong, defending their position, or discrediting the other person’s point of view? These situations are all too common, and can easily degrade from an initial simple misunderstanding to a full-blown breakdown.
Rather than looking at how to repair things when they go off the track, let’s take a look at how we can keep them from getting derailed in the first place. To do so, we need to rewind the film to the point before the derailment occurred. That would be at the moment when Partner A brought to the attention of partner B that he was disagreeing with his desire to invite her children to spend a couple of days with them in their home.
So far so good. It’s always helpful to make clear our point of view when presented with a situation that requires a mutually agreed-upon decision. When clarity isn’t enough to resolve the disagreement, what is needed is to recognize our needs and desires and communicate them to the other person. We are likely to be caught in a stalemate if we try to coerce the other to agree with us. That’s a process that is futile and painful.
To prevent this stalemate from occurring, try to negotiate a settlement by making a request that allows our partner to respond with a “yes”, “no,” or a counterproposal. Doing so eliminates the likelihood of activating defensiveness and hostility that can arise when one of us feels threatened, judged, or coerced. It also provides both partners the opportunity to focus on their desired outcome, rather than the grievances they have with our partner.
This process, like any other form of negotiation, may require several, back and forth interchanges. But if conducted from a spirit of goodwill, the process itself will be more likely to have a successful outcome than it would have if each partner were to simply repeat their demands by protesting against each other. Protesting feels less vulnerable than making a request, which is why it can be more tempting to complain than it is to risk rejection.
The reconciliation of differences in relationships requires feelings of mutual trust and safety, which are more effectively achieved with requests rather than demands or threats. The risk in requesting is the possibility of having one’s request denied. But even if this occurs, there is always the possibility of continued negotiation, just as there is with any other circumstance in which there is an impasse.
While many negotiations involve material goods or money, in the context of relationships, the currency that we are dealing with is love and the fulfillment of emotional needs. Relationships are not like business transactions, or at least they shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean that there is never a need for negotiation in personal relationships. Because personal relationships can awaken deep feelings of insecurity, anxiety, desires, or pain, the possibility of becoming defensive can easily arise in close interpersonal encounters.
When we feel securely bonded, our willingness to be generous and forgiving makes differences much more easily resolved. When there is insufficient trust, resolution can be more difficult to achieve. Deep and lasting love can take a while to cultivate; but with a shared commitment, it is possible to achieve. The willingness to accept personal responsibility for making our best efforts to become the partner of our dreams is what creates the momentum that fuels this commitment. When both partners have a commitment to vulnerability and generosity, respectful requests will become their primary way of speaking. In doing our own work, we naturally come to make respectful requests, and somehow, things change, just like that.