Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Defense of Imbalance

For those who have been keeping up with the serial drama of my marriage, Ma'ikwe and I saw a couples counselor Monday and had a positive experience—good enough that we're going back next Tuesday for more. Ma'ikwe has taken a step back from the brink to give this a try and I am very grateful.

To be sure, there remains gobs of work to do, and it will likely be messy, but she's willing to try again, which is a huge energy shift and essential for us to have a chance. Whew!

• • •
OK, that's the news bulletin update. I received an outpouring of sympathetic responses to my previous posting (for which I thank all those who wrote), where I characterized my partnership as being on the edge of a precipice, and I want to say more about what my marriage blogs are—and what they aren't—so people don't have a mistaken idea about what I'm portraying.

For the most part (and this was certainly true of last Sunday's posting) I write about how Ma'ikwe sees me and how those observations land with me. Or, more accurately, I write about how I understand that she sees me. While sometimes that includes complimentary reflections, mostly I focus on what's problematic. This is intentional. In consequence, my depictions are not balanced at all. They are not a balanced description of how Ma'ikwe sees me, nor are they a balanced description of our relationship challenges. 

I don't do this because I enjoy high drama or self-flagellation in public. I do it because:

a) Articulating Ma'ikwe's concerns forces me to be clear about what her issues are. I focus on the problems because that's where the heavy lifting is done, and I don't want to dilute their significance with sugar coating. I have a strong sense of self, and believe in my ability to solve problems and build healthy relationships. In order for that to work well it's important that my aura of self-confidence not become a protective armor that repulses feedback, thus dedicated myself to being transparent about what I hear.

b) Articulating Ma'ikwe's issues (if I do it well) demonstrates that I'm listening and at least have gotten off to a good start on the road to resolution (the point being that if you don't understand accurately what your partner is saying, it seriously undercuts your ability to have a productive response).

c) I am highly suspicious of relying solely on my own judgment in assessing what weight to give criticism of my actions and patterns. By sharing the criticism with a wider audience, I get the benefit of other perspectives on my not-so-great tendencies.

d) Dark corners are less scary when you shine the light on them. By openly admitting how bad issues can be, they become more tractable.

e) It generally works much better if I can prioritize understanding ahead of being understood. I'll still get my chance to say what's bothering me, or the ways in which I think Ma'ikwe criticisms are unfair or off base. First though, let's make sure I've heard them right.

f) Even though Ma'ikwe often feels that I hear her criticisms as more extreme than she means them, my aim is to lay them out as they landed with me. If I've overamped it, fine, let's dial it back. In my experience this is a lesser problem than the danger of underplaying the criticism. To be clear, I don't strive for exaggeration—I strive for energetic accuracy (articulating how Ma'ikwe's statements have landed with me). If I've missed the import (blowing it out of proportion), this gives us the chance to make the correction in real time.

g) Talking about the ways in which I get into trouble tends to be far more useful to readers than my writing about my relationship successes. Not only does it make me more human, but it's easier for people to connect with me. While I am loathe to make shit up for this purpose, it turns out I don't have to—I get into hot water often enough that I'm sufficiently illuminating and entertaining just reporting on the Best of Potholes as I stumble into them.

h) While it may well be interesting and instructive if I also wrote about my issues with Ma'ikwe (the other side of the story, as it were), I have a standard of not writing critically of others in my blog unless I have their express permission, and that definitely includes my wife (I first articulated this in my April 19, 2010 blog, Writing About My Life, But Not My Wife). While I sometimes choose to intentionally obscure attribution when I want to write about others critically, that is hardly a viable option when talking about my marriage ("I was in a conversation with one of my wives the other day…" would not mask anyone's identity).

i) I believe one of the greatest challenges to personal growth and robust relationships is our inability to welcome and hear accurately critical feedback. By focusing in my blog solely on the ways in which I'm perceived to be contributing to the problem—while resisting the urge to slop tar on others at the same time as a salve to my ego—I am trying to witness my ongoing efforts to handle feedback better.

In Defense of Imbalance
In working through tough issues it is my style to first probe criticisms to understand their underpinnings and the context in which they are experienced. If I'm having a significant reaction to receiving the information (which, luckily, doesn't happen every time, yet is always a possibility), there is a danger of my jumping into this probing step too abruptly—before admitting (either to myself or the other person) how their criticism is landing. This can come across as brittleness in my voice or a sharpness (lack of grace?) to my questions, which can then take on an inquisitional tone. At its worst, I can be flat out defensive, essentially punishing the speaker for their "temerity" in voicing concerns. When this happens the whole exchange goes south in a hurry.

Next I tend to go through a period of catastrophizing, where I imagine the worst and feel through the awful things that may ensue if the analysis is correct and I don't address it. While I don't tend to stay in this dark place for long and it helps me gain perspective on what's at stake and how my behaviors may be inadvertently damaging relationships, it can be awful for Ma'ikwe to witness my transit through this phase, which tends to include double doses of self-incrimination and remorse for bad things, many of which have not happened yet and probably never will. Ma'ikwe, I think, finds this a colossal waste of energy and painful to observe, yet it's part of how I get to center, how I demonstrate that I'm taking criticisms seriously, and how I prepare myself to respond without shying away from touching the tender spots.

Fortunately, Ma'ikwe and I have made considerable progress over the years in navigating this step better together: I indulge less in beating myself up, and move through this phase more quickly (sometimes minutes instead of days); in turn, Ma'ikwe has learned to give me room to go through this, trusting that I'll come out the other end, where we can begin constructive problem solving. 

The keys here are that I know I'm not being balanced, that I take full responsibility for my reactions, and that I then reengage with open ears and an open heart. Essentially, I am reporting here just my end of the work of tending the garden of our marriage. Ma'ikwe has her part in this as well. If she wants to write about that, that's her business.

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