Saturday, July 16, 2011

Intimacy Redux—Encore on the Dance Floor

Yesterday I received this comment in response to my blog of last Wednesday, Not Getting Stepped on During the Dance of Intimacy:

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on one area of asymmetry in the interaction that you described. Recognizing that your description is condensed, it struck me that Chris is shown to have made several choices and suggestions, generally aimed at meeting both personal needs and Pat's. When problems are voiced by Pat, Chris makes an effort to find a solution that might improve things for both of them.

Pat is described as protesting/criticizing Chris's choices, and demanding that Chris earn forgiveness. Pat is not shown as looking for mutual solutions. If Chris is lucky, s/he may be able to get back to a neutral position, in Pat's eyes.

I think this pattern is reasonably common (and in some couples, partners may exchange roles on different topics). I'd like to hear your thoughts on how to improve communication in relationships, where the couple usually begins working on a problem only after one partner makes it clear that the other partner is already in the doghouse.

I like this question. While I'm extrapolating beyond what I know about the couple that was modeling the Pat & Chris dynamic in Wednesday's blog (where Ma'ikwe & I were essentially playing the hand we were dealt), I agree that some couples do not start engaging on tough dynamics until reservations in the doghouse have been confirmed.

What can be done? In the example I gave three days ago, both Pat & Chris were in distress, and unhappy at how the other was responding. As this is typically the hardest dynamic to handle, let's assume that's the case. To borrow from Abbott & Costello, the opening challenge is who's on first? That is, who receives focused attention first?

When I teach facilitators how to work with fulminating conflict I suggest they start with who's bleeding the most, by which I mean who's in the greatest distress. In general, the person with most upset is the one who's least able to hear accurately what's being said and is the least able to reach out to the other. While I've found this works pretty well, there can be nuance to it. How, for example, do you compare the upset of someone who'd enraged and yelling, with the distress of someone who's clammed up and not speaking at all? Where does sarcasm and provocative goading fit in? The calculus on this can be tricky to compute.

If neither partner is willing to hit the pause button long enough to attend to the other's distress, it doesn't take a psychologist's perspicacity to predict gridlock. Then, on top of not getting the attention they're seeking, both protagonists are susceptible to having their upset compounded by a sense that their partner really doesn't care that much (or else they'd be willing to listen and try to help sort it out). In the presence of a patterned struggle to get attention (and let's face it, how many couples do you know that are good at this shit?) some learn the nasty habit of amping up their distress just to make sure that they get to go first. (I don't recommend this—if you want theatrics, I suggest a movie instead.)

The way out of this box canyon, I believe, is to have a conversation about the dynamic before you're in it, where the couple discusses what constructive responses might look like. In particular, I think each needs a guaranteed opportunity to tell their story—with the feelings clearly delineated—and you agree (this is important) to not switch over from Alphonse to Gaston until Alphonse is satisfied that Gaston has understood the heart of Alphonse's experience—both sequence and emotional response. This is not about Gaston agreeing with Alphonse; it's about accurately hearing Alphonse. Then Gaston gets a chance to be the teller, and Alphonse does the active listening.

Don't get drawn into a pissing contest about who's in the greatest distress. Just make your best guess and move on. The key here is constructive, reciprocal responses—not who gets to speak first.

Going back to Pat & Chris, in the dynamic we explored it was Pat who presented in the greatest distress, and thus it made sense to start there, with Chris setting aside their story to listen first to Pat. Because, in that instance, they weren't able to complete that part well (Pat was right back in distress when Chris proposed having a beer with someone else while waiting for the food to be prepared), they never got to the part where Pat listened to Chris' story.

While the stories and emotional responses may be wildly different (to the point where it's hard to believe that both were in the same room at the same time), this approach should lead to a significant deescalation, rendering attempts at problem solving much more tractable.

There are two main ways that I find this approach provides significant leverage on stuck dynamics. First, most of us are scared of working with strong emotions. Few have experienced it going well and we've mostly learned that it's dangerous. If you start to have better results, then it won't be so frightening and you can get off the merry-go-round earlier. In particular, you don't have to freak out that someone (your partner) is freaking out. I'm not talking about being cold or condescending; I'm talking about being curious and caring. I want your attention to be heightened when your partner is in distress, but not your blood pressure.

Second, I think it's helpful to let go of the expectation that people won't be triggered, or that their personalities will change to be less triggering for you. I think it's healthier (and far more realistic) to expect partners to continue to be triggered as they have in the past, and to focus instead on altered responses. This is not about anyone selling out or suddenly becoming a different person; it's about hanging in there and being emotionally available when your partner is hurting—knowing that you'll get a turn receiving attention in proportion to your giving it.

Dance with the one you're with, not the person you hope they'll become.

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