Monday, February 16, 2009

What Did You Expect?

Over the past few days, I've talked with several different people who've had a similar experience. Basically, they've each experienced a close encounter with a close personal nemesis from their past. And, in each case, they've found the experience less than satisfying. Let me explain...

Each of us tend to accumulate a small set of people in our lives with whom we have the most amazing sets of disagreements, arguments and outright fights. It may be a father-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship... a wife/husband relationship... a parent/child relationship... or, even "friends". The dynamics range from an undercurrent of biting digs and criticisms, to blowups at family gatherings, to late night arguments that run until morning.

One of the challenges is that the experiences frequently aren't consistent. The person may be someone with whom we generally have an amazing relationship. Then from time-to-time, everything goes non-linear. One moment, you're with the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with; the next, you're exploring the best way to end the relationship. One moment, you're thinking that Christmas with the family isn't so bad at all, it's kind of nice; the next, you're swearing to yourself that you'll never go again.

If the dynamics and timing were consistently bad, then managing these types of relationships would be really easy. We'd just end them. But since the experience is seemingly unpredictable, and since the relationships often go beyond casual, we tend to cycle in them for years with no apparent progress or improvement. We just kind of hope that things will get better, and try to avoid whatever it is that triggers the "incidents", or in many cases, simply give up and endure.

So, I've thought of five things that have helped me deal with these types of relationships.

1. Are you a drama addict?
It takes at least two to have a fight. If you frequently find yourself in arguments that go on for hours and hours, you might be a drama addict. For many of us, although we characterize the experience of long arguments as negative, we in fact find them stimulating, engaging and arousing. Many long drawn-out fights between mates end up in a passionate lovemaking. For others, fighting is often the only time they communicate deeply and intensely for any extended period. Often people end hours of fighting with the same rush of endorphins that one experiences after a intense workout. So, before you claim that you don't like the dynamics of the relationship, you might want to check in with yourself to see if that's true.

2. Timing is everything
Have you ever noticed how many fights take place late at night, oftentimes hours after you would normally have gone to bed. When you wake up in the morning, you feel kind of stupid for things you said or for getting upset about something that seemed huge and vitally important at 2:00 AM, but, in the light of day, seems inconsequential. Have you ever woken up wondering what exactly it was that you were arguing over?

If you really want to avoid the drama, timing can be everything. If there's something that you really want to get off your chest or work out, then avoid doing it late at night... or when you're exhausted... or after you haven't eaten all day... or after you've been drinking all night... or during you period or... well you get the picture.

If you suddenly find yourself the target of an ill-timed discussion note that you have an option many people seem to ignore... walk away. Of course, this assumes that you've answered negatively to item one.

3. Take nothing personally
This may be the trickiest one. One of the best things I've learned is that our emotions, thoughts and beliefs are all about ourselves, not others. Someone may do something that I don't like or want them to do, but it only becomes charged when I make it so.

When someone comes at you accusingly with a lot of anger and emotion, remember that it's all about them. Not in a condescending or dismissive way, but just as a point of reference. Listen to them criticize and accuse you as if you were a third person watching the interaction. It's hard for anyone to maintain a high-charged emotional stream when there's not a commensurate response from the other person. It's like bouncing a basketball on a beach.

Also, avoid interrupting or explaining or defending yourself. Instead, simply listen until the other person pauses, and then, rather than responding, ask questions that lead to greater clarity and specificity. Frequently, that process alone will defuse the situation. Or, if you do end up responding, it will be to something specific that you have a clear understanding of.

4. Stop expecting "rational" behavior
I think it was Einstein who said that, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." If this is the case, then many of us could be easily classified as insane.

I periodically get calls from a friend who has a less than inspiring relationship with his daughter-in-law. She'll often call and leave messages on his answering machine accusing him of being a terrible father and grandfather, of having no regard for his family, of never having learned to love, of being a despicable character with no moral compass.

Over the years, my friend has made different attempts (perhaps not always adept) to respond and heal the relationship. Still, the calls continue.

The striking point is that my friend always seems to be surprised and upset (see item three) by the messages. Every time she calls, he attempts to understand her accusations and emotions in the context of his perspective and rationality. And every time he does this, it doesn't work.

On the one hand, everyone has a rationale for why they do what they do, feel what they feel, and believe what they believe. There is no such thing as irrational behavior. On the other hand, we often struggle to discern the rationale behind our own beliefs, feelings and behaviors, let alone that of someone else.

Men in particular seem to expect others (notably their significant others) to behave rationally. By rationally, I mean in accordance with the man's perspective and logic. The thing is this: trying to force-fit someone else's motivations, beliefs and logic into your personal framework doesn't work (unless you answered affirmatively to item one). The funny thing is that we actually know it doesn't work (if we're paying attention), yet we persist in trying to make it work.

The alternative to this approach, is to help the other person (and yourself) understand why they are feeling what they're feeling, believing what they're believing, and so on... all without trying to prove or change anything. This can have an amazing effect. As the accuser gains clarity on their own motivations, the emotional charges tend to dissipate.

Of course, this assumes that you have enough of a relationship to actually converse. If not, then it might be useful have someone else facilitate the dialog.

5. Say it, or don't say it
A great way to perpetuate a terrible relationship is to never actually say what's on your mind. People have successfully sustained the worst possible of relationships for decades simply by not saying what they think, or better yet, by using innuendo, digs and side comments in lieu of direct communication. This technique can be expanded upon to undermine entire families; simply avoid direct discussion with one person and instead, talk to everyone else.

The basic issue in these situations is one of authenticity. We have many reasons we're inauthentic. We don't want to hurt the other person's feelings (yet we talk to others about them). We're afraid of the response or want to avoid confrontation. We actually like the tension and rush (again see item one), and enjoy the ambiguous digs and comments. We believe we can't adequately communicate our feelings. We believe the person won't respond any way.

Even if the above are well intended, the result is to build unsatisfying and inauthentic relationships that lack warmth, trust, respect and love.

A simple (albeit perhaps not easy) solution to the above is this: sit down with group in question (it can be your family, your friends, even your colleagues at work) and agree to the following.

a. Take it to the source
If I ever have an issue with one of you, I will always talk with you and no one else.

b. Don't enable
If someone comes to me with an issue about another person, I will not listen, but instead ask them to take their issue to that person with one exception (see item c below).

c. Move towards closure
I will listen to one person talk about another person to help them gain clarity and understanding of what's going on for them. However, if after listening to them, they still have an issue, we will together go and talk to the other person to clear the air.

Like I said, simple and straight-forward. The inherent beauty in making this commitment in a group is that it takes a conspiracy to break the commitment. Not only would one person need to talk about another, but a third person would also need to listen.

Conclusion
So, that's my five. I would love to know what you think. Are you a closet drama-addict who by light of day complains about relationships that you're secretly addicted to? Are you "insane", trying the same things over and over and over expecting something to change? Do you find yourself being "baited" by others' accusations, taking them personally and immediately adopting a defensive posture? What about a week-long in-authenticity fast or diet?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for the post, I am thinking creating reminder braclets that say "Drama Free World" much like the braclelt for a complaint free world. I remember hearing that Raun K has the saying in his office at Option

    "May it BE"

    North

    ReplyDelete

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