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Portrait of an incident

Let’s call them Al and Alice, and a nice normal couple they are. They get along pretty well, too. But they had an incident. Not a huge one, as relationship incidents go, but definitely unpleasant. And I want to talk to you about this incident because it pulls together a lot of the things we’ve been talking about.

Now Al and Alice think of themselves as the main actors in this incident, but...nah! They’re not. Sorry! Like all of us in relationships, they’re just bit players when the shit hits the fan, collateral damage by the time the bad guys get finished with their business.

In this case the major players—credits above the title—were Stress, Difference, Self-esteem issues, and, of course, Power.

Here’s the incident. (No need to send the kids away: it ain’t that dramatic.) Al and Alice are remodeling their kitchen. They’ve worked out a design. They have a contractor. And Al is doing some of the work himself, especially the part that involves demolishing stuff before the contractors start.

The incident was that Alice came to Al near the end of the day to suggest a change in their design. And it didn’t go well.

Al was dismissive, patronizing, insulting—at least from Alice’s point of view. He made her feel stupid and small.

From Al’s point of view, here he was, not only exhausted from a hard day tearing stuff up, but stressed out over how much still had to be done before the contractors were due to show up. And he was annoyed that Alice was talking about changes to a design they’d long since agreed to.

The incident itself probably took all of five minutes. But like a twisted ankle, it took days to heal.

Now let’s look at this from the point of the lead players.

Stress first. Stress always comes first, because of one simple neuro-psychological fact: the more stressed out you are, the less you can take anyone else into account other than yourself. And Al was very stressed out. The only way Alice could have really gotten Al’s attention would have been if she’d walked in on him waving her arm, torn off at the shoulder and held in her other hand.

Only fools go up against stress.

Next comes difference. The difference here—putting stress aside for the moment—is that for Al a plan is a plan and an agreement is an agreement. Lots of people are like this. And for Alice, every journey is open for discussion until the plane is in the air. And lots of people are like this too.

But when one of each type of person is in a relationship with each other, then difference itself, twirling its evil moustache, will be in charge, making mischief.

Only fools pretend the difference isn’t there.

And finally comes power. Now here’s the thing about our big-shouldered friend power. Power never wants a role in any one of our dramas. It’s just that when players like stress and difference get going, power always gets dragged in, and that’s when the shit hits the fan.

There’s Al, all stressed out. In comes Alice with her idea to move the island from here to there in their design, all innocent of how differently this’ll play out in Al’s head, even without the stress. At this moment, given that Al sees this as a violation of their contract and he’s under stress, he just wants to swat her like a fly. To shut down the whole approach. To make Alice afraid to ever approach him with anything like that ever again.

Not in his intentions! But he’s not running the show. Power is in the limelight now, while Al’s become a bit player. And power is playing to win. And Alice does feel squashed indeed.

And mad as hell. Which is when self-esteem issues rushed in to raise the stakes. Al humiliated Alice. With power running to her side, asking how he can help her. Power: what a jerk. It never has any loyalty to any one side. Just wants as much action as possible. And believe me, self-esteem issues will always lead to the need to re-empower yourself when the going gets hard.

So what do you do if you’re Al and Alice?

Well, you gotta know these goons are always around, always ready to do their mischief. Once they take charge, you’re in trouble, no longer starring in your own damned drama. So here’s what you do.

First of all, for God’s sake, don’t bring up something stressful with a partner who’s already under stress. That’s like begging a bad guy to call out his goons. Like messing with a mother bear’s cubs when she’s already stressed out by you being there in the first place.

Second, minimize the difference. For example, send Al an email he can look at his leisure and say something like, “Honey, we both want the kitchen to come out really well [NOT a difference!] and I was thinking we could move the island from here to there and it wouldn’t affect the remodeling but it would make the kitchen better. What do you think? Do you like the change I’ve come up with?”

And if you’re Al, jeez man, just because you’re under stress doesn’t make you a moron. So write these words on a card and have them ready for any occasion: “Honey, I’d love to talk to you about this, and we will talk, but I can’t even begin to think about your issue until I’m finished with _____ and had a chance to _____. Would that be okay?” That’s your get-out-of-jail-free card! Use it!!

And you’ll keep the bad guys far, far away.

THIS is how you de-construct an incident, by the way. NOT who was right or wrong. But what each person could have done differently to have prevented this mess from occurring.

Why Couples Fight is all about how to talk about conflicting needs without making a mess and with achieving a good and sustainable solution.


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