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What do we really want?

Life is all about making problems smaller, not bigger.


And marriage is the place where the unskilled and vulnerable (you and me!), under stress, make small problems much bigger.


Let’s see if we can make all this better for you.


A little while ago, some idiot—a nice, normal guy, actually—said to his wife in the course of a barely heated conversation, “You know nothing about people.” Now I know the wife. What that guy said would be like saying to Michael Jordan that he knows nothing about basketball. It was worse than a stupid thing to say. It was a silly thing to say.


But you can never overestimate the depths of people’s vulnerability, and she took it seriously, even though he tried to take it back, and of course they quickly got mired in whether he did try to take it back and whether he did apologize and whether, even so, his original comment, didn’t reveal how he actually felt.


From the guy’s point of view, she was over-reacting. Yeah, guys always say women are over-reacting to everything, but if he really didn’t mean it, and if he took it back right away, well, who knows?, maybe she did over-react? Who knows? God, do you wanna step in here and make the call?


Anyway, what was an over-reaction from his point of view made him significantly less likely to be overcome with grief and remorse over what he’d done and rush to the knife drawer to kill himself immediately. In which mini-drama, she’d be overcome with grief and remorse and would rush to stop him, shrieking, “It’s okay, it’s not a big deal, I forgive you,” as they fall to the kitchen floor sobbing in each other arms.


But, no, instead, what to him was her refusal to accept his offer of “I didn’t mean it and I take it back” and his refusal to accept her offer of “Can’t you see how devastated I was by those indelible words that came out of your mouth?” led to his being drained of any desire to heal her hurts. To him, now, they seemed self-willed and power-generated. To her, he was just a guy who said bad things and wouldn’t take responsibility for them.


So let’s look at this the way a couples therapist might, the way you might if you were in this situation and wanted to make the problem in front of you smaller, not bigger.


She was stuck in the truth of how she felt. He was stuck in the truth of how he felt about how she felt.


But the real question was—and always is—what problem are we trying to solve? This is the moment where you stop whatever the hell it is you think you’re doing in your unskilled and vulnerable way and actually say, “What problem are we trying to solve?”


In this case, I’d have to say, the problem is when the things we make happen aren’t what we want or intend to make happen. If I want a divorce and I say, “I want a divorce,” well, that might cause an uproar, but as they say you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. I might feel badly you’re hurt, but I can hardly apologize for doing what I’ve done quite deliberately. But if words pop out of my mouth while I’m trying to make a point and these are very unfortunate words for which I’m immediately sorry, we need a way back.


And if unintended words or actions cause hurt, we need a way back from that. If I forget your birthday when I well should know when your birthday is, that’s hard to excuse. But if I remember your birthday and get you something nice that you happen not to like, then what? How do we deal with the issue of whether I could have or should have known better than to have gotten you that instead of something else?


All this is made easier by coming back over and over to our goals. What do we want? This is good, because now you’re talking about us. When you’re both talking about me, that, my friend, is not a conversation; it’s a tug of war.


So, for example, do we want a free-wheeling, wide-open kind of relationship where anyone can say thing, no self-censorship allowed? Fine, but that’s gonna be like football without referees or helmets, and how are we going to deal with the damage? We can have it if we want, but we do have be willing to expect the outcome, or have a way to deal with it.


Or is the basis of our relationship kindness above all. Yes!, you might say. How I’d love that. But, hey, unless you’re really skilled, kindness requires great effort, especially when you’re under stress, and it’s especially hard for people who retain a loyalty to the truth of their feelings. How much caution and suppression are you willing to live with to have the kindness you say you want?


Listen, there are all kinds of ways to work things out that result in the best possible set-up for both of you. You’d be amazed at what is do-able if you ask yourself “What do we want?”


And then when you get there, you’ll find there is really only question left for each of you: “What am I doing for to make it easier for you to give me what I want?”


If I say I want honesty, am I welcoming honesty when it’s not what I want to hear?


If I say I want kindness, am I showing satisfaction with the lack of affect that maybe accompanies the effort we put in to avoid unkindness?


To take just a couple of examples.


But, again, everything is possible for those who try to work together for their common good.

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