You want to get pneumonia? Start with a cold. Then go out—not warmly dressed—in the cold and rain, and next thing you know you’ve got pneumonia. Mis-handling small problems turns them into huge problems all the time.
Particularly with couples. I was working with this young couple yesterday. She due to give birth to their first child in about 6 weeks, so there’s that challenge. Also he has the possibility of a new job right at this time, with significant risks and responsibilities. Another challenge.
So far, this is just a difficulty. A manageable set of problems people can deal with. Especially normal people like these folks.
But here’s a list of things people do to turn resolvable difficulties into relationship-destroying catastrophes. It scares the shit out of me when I see this starting to evolve right in front of my eyes.
--> “I’d prefer you didn’t...” People say this when expressing a preference or a need. But it’s incredibly confusing and can be catastrophic.
If I say I prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate I might be saying I like dark chocolate better. Or I might be saying you could threaten to gouge my eyes out and I’d never choose milk chocolate over dark chocolate.
Stating a preference is not saying NO! You’re free to do either one, depending upon what your truth is. You can take any position you want! But take the position that is true for you!!
What will end up as a catastrophe is if you say “I’d prefer it if you didn’t adopt that dog,” when you know having a dog is going to make you miserable.
--> Don’t wait till you’re enraged before you talk about things. Lots of us don’t like conflict and don’t like delving into difficulties. I get it! But here’s what that leads to: All your attempts at problem solving are launched in the poisoned, stormy seas of anger. That’s the very worst way to begin a discussion about something difficult.
I beg of you: break this terrible habit. Talk about your difficulty only when you’re not angry. At a time after you’ve calmed down. But not with anger.
But do you deny your feelings? There’s no need for that. Talk about your anger calmly. That’s going to make it much easier to hear you.
--> Don’t fall into the minimize/maximize trap. Couples fall into this corrosive behavior all the time.
Let's say you and I are in conflict over something, say, my mother coming to live with us for several months. I’m trying to make the idea easier for you to accept. So I start talking about how we’ll hardly notice my mother living in our house. I’ll mention, for example, how self-sufficient my mother is.
You—reeling at how wildly I’m distorting how needy my mother is—will start talking about how my mother will take over our house with every single one of her tiniest needs.
I’ll start making it seem as though you’re crazy, and talk about all the times and ways my mother’s been a model of self-sufficiency.
At this point we’re not interested in working through a difficulty. We want to sell each other on something when we know in our hearts that’s impossible. It’s insane.
The goal should be, instead, to work toward a shared realistic vision of whatever the hell it is that you’re talking about. Life with mom, the new job, that new house that’s going to cost more money.
--> It’s all in the follow-through. Don’t agree to anything you won’t follow through with. A quick agreement on a difficult problem is just a sugar high if there’s not a strong likelihood that you’ll both follow through.
“I’m tired of nagging you to do your share of the chores.” “Let’s set up a schedule of who does what and when.” “Oh, good idea!” A schedule is quickly set up. “Okay, then I’ll be vacuuming every Wednesday.” “Looks like we’re all set!!” Hugs and kisses.
No!! No agreement is worth a pint of piss unless you’ve thoroughly talked about why in hell you should trust me to vacuum every Wednesday. How is this actually going to happen? Every. Single. Wednesday.
And this is huge because the bitterness, resentment, and mistrust growing out of agreements not followed through with is a terrible thing, to say nothing of the fact that if there’s no follow through, you haven’t really resolved your difficulty, have you?
But, Hey! None of the things I’m talked about here are hard:
* Don’t say “I’d prefer you didn’t” if you really mean “no way in hell”
* Don’t wait till you’re enraged before you talk about things
* Don’t fall into the minimize/maximize trap
* It’s all in the follow-through
And if you follow these 4 guidelines, your difficulties will indeed stay small ones.
For a book full of ideas for how you can both get your needs met without conflict, Why Couples Fight is the best source in the world.