When it comes to relationships we are a culture of people that loves or hates. That’s it. Those are our choices. There’s no murky middle ground where we sift the silt for hidden options, new ideas or even re-evaluate the old ones. So it’s no surprise that the optimist’s win-win question, “Your place or mine?” asked at the start of our relationships inevitably becomes the pessimist’s lose-lose declaration, “Your fault not mine!” in the throes of conflict. But for as certain as we are of this unfortunate reversal in our relationship status, we’re just as uncertain about how we’ve gone from point A to point-LESS.
That the forces of love and hate are not dissimilar, only different points on the relationship continuum, that they share the same polarity of indifference and that they both emerge from the same wellspring of passion, is not the consciousness we are taught about love. Consequently, it is not the consciousness we use to love. Nor is it the mindset we use to hate. In fact, what we are taught about love and hate does not include context, degrees or any other issues that make up the complexities involving relationships. Instead, our minds and lives are systematically indoctrinated with and into a mainstream culture of simplified, dualistic non-thinking norms so that we don’t even identify with having thoughts and questions different from those of our teachers and caregivers.
Consider the answer often given to the question, “Why do you believe that?”
“Because that’s what I was taught.”
If we were to expand on that answer, we could say, “And I never thought about whether or not I agree.”
A great example of this type of non-thinking (as I prefer to call it) is the double standard belief that gay people choose their sexual orientation. A recent YouTube video street interview conducted in Colorado Springs asked the provocative question, “When did you choose to be straight?” The question was provocative because it literally woke people up to the fact that they’d never thought about the reactive assumption and ignorance inherent in their often asked question to gay people, “When did you first know or choose to be gay?”
This projection-oriented ideology, teaches us to look and react to other people, and events as the cause(s) of who we are at our very core, our happiness or unhappiness. Rather than checking our own thoughts and our self-worth, our identities become contingent on others. Those not meeting the norm’s expectations are figuratively, if not literally, exiled to the margins. Those who fall in line are rewarded with gratuitous celebrations marking pre-destined, even prescribed rites of pro-social living. Subsequently, our relationship and commitment binding rituals are unabashedly extravagant, self-involved, hashed and then re-hashed ad nauseam. The relationships themselves, however, often remain unexamined. Celebrating life gets subverted for celebrating lifestyles. We learn to value, even expect only the positive, easy parts of life and miss how organic, elemental and vital adversity is to any and all life including the life of a relationship.
No wonder, then, that as we navigate through life’s other spectral landscapes couples run the risk of playing the shame and/or blame game. Anyone who is in any kind of relationship—work, intimate, or family—will at some (if not all) crisis points play this game.
For those of you shaking your head with certainty that this doesn’t apply to you, allow me first to describe the game. Then you can check again to see if you recognize yourself. If you still don’t, my bad. You needn’t read on. You’re light years beyond most of us. For the rest of us, here are the basics. The object of the game is to engage in and win the, “It’s you, not me, if only you’d…” and/or “It’s my fault; if only I were…” battle. How you play the game depends on which of those phrases you hear yourself saying most often in the heat of the fight with your beloved-opponent.
If you’re a shame player, then your approach relies on stealth and cunning. You must assume all responsibility for the relationship’s problems while secretly building resentment and a long list (nothing is too trivial) of your partner’s mistakes and faults. However, your arsenal of disappointments, hurts, and bitter indignation is best kept underground until your opponent is most vulnerable. This is the optimal time for showcasing the skill you’ve developed for wielding these secret weapons. An advanced player will hurl this arsenal at them while also determining whether their opponent’s infraction has broken or gone against any of his/her own most cherished rules or beliefs. Since ambush is your forte, using their most cherished principles against them will almost always shut them simultaneously up and down. If they still respond after that then you’ll at least have enough time to prepare and deliver a final blow of good, old-fashioned, self-righteous guilt. That’s if you’ve got any left over from the IV guilt drip you administer everyday on the down low.
If blame is more your style then you must approach all arguments, problems, and accusations with an adversarial mindset. Never consider yourself in the least bit suspect of any wrongdoing. Your partner, friend, sister, boss, parent, on the other hand, is never beyond suspicion and is always your enemy. Counter every accusation with one of your own and if you can’t think of one from the present, then maybe blame isn’t your game. Just saying. Seriously, if you’re stumped scan your memory’s hard drive for one from the past. You’ve kept up regular maintenance on this (some of us even bookmark partner’s wrongdoings that we graciously overlook everyday) so it should be easily accessed. A condescending, argumentative tone also enhances this approach nicely since its almost-certain hypnotic effect will have you both believing you are in the right.
Those of you with a tolerance for sarcasm coupled with good inferential learning-skills have, by now, figured out that the mindset and strategies we use to look at and support our view of relationship challenges is part of the problem.
So if we were to truly believe in the either/or logic, it suggests that we either accept the inevitable or find a way to turn the tables on the choice limitation allowed in this either/or perspective. But the either/or question is tricky. Playing on our vulnerability during conflict hypnotizes us and makes us believe we’ve only got one of two options. If we heed the ultimatum, the “either/or” phrase has worked its manipulative magic. In resisting the hypnosis we see that the operative part of the phrase is choice! It may be issued with a limited amount of choice and even with choices we don’t want. But the fact that choice itself is present can snap us out of the hypnosis and remind us to create different choices. So ultimatum is the clue that can trigger our memory to choose not to choose from those choices anyway. That’s the beginning of us thinking for ourselves.
Relationship is the unique container for the choices many of us want to create and explore for ourselves, albeit unconsciously, as a way to learn about the potential and limits of our independence, dependence and interdependence. Since this is different for everyone, so, too, will be the problems and resolutions that go along with the choices. The good news is that even though we may believe something is a relationship issue it may very well be an individual issue. Conversely, what we think of as an individual problem may be something that requires relationship work. All that remains is how to tell the difference between what is relationship work and what is individual work.
Below are a few tricks we can use it to shift us out of the shame/blame perspective and effectively navigate the conflicts in our relationships. Be advised: These are merely suggestions. If they become rules, it’s likely they will not only stop working, first, because each problem or dilemma is unique and will require a different dialogue and secondly, because a rule will inevitably be used as a way to rule over and/or overthrow the one trying to rule over. My suggestion is to use these suggestions and/or create new ones in a way that is relevant, works and creates an opportunity for awareness and growth out of each relationship challenge.
Conflicts, problems, issues, and crises don’t get resolved, relieved, or teach lessons when fault/blame/responsibility is assigned. This begins a tit-for-tat, which is really just a power struggle. In fact, both of you are losing power in this struggle. True empowerment is determined by:
1. Identifing whether you have a problem or a dilemma. There is a difference. A problem can be solved. A dilemma is a bigger life question, which rarely can be solved without creating a problem. But a dilemma affords you and your partner the chance to explore in dialogue your values, beliefs and needs. A dilemma has the potential to help a couple discover who they are and are not in a relationship.
2. If your partner has repeatedly done or not done something that goes against your stated wishes, ask yourself why you keep expecting it to change versus changing your expectation. Unless it’s something you feel you cannot compromise on (it’s more likely a dilemma), it’s clear that your partner is saying, “I will not change in this area.” If you’re willing to accept it as your work, then ask yourself how you might need to be more like your partner in the way that is disturbing you or to set a boundary with the behavior. Perhaps he/she is laid back, flexible, easy going to a fault and you are hyper, vigilant, responsible, anxious etc.
3. Couples need to share these different energies or take the chance of becoming stuck in roles. Having less of a reaction to the disturbance or behavior so that your partner has more of his/her own reaction can also shift these dynamics. If you are monopolizing that energy, then there’s literally none left for your partner to have.
A general guideline: If after the third time of asking your partner to do something and he/she still doesn’t, then it’s your work. This is not an arbitrary number. Marketing, Education, Psychology, Linguistics; these disciplines all agree that human beings are more likely to hear and register something after being presented with it three times.
Additionally, people need time to process the idea of changing anything whether it’s a shirt, a habit, or a behavior. Any type of change usually involves stages similar to and includes grief, denial, anger, bargaining, and perhaps, with a little luck and a lot of love, acceptance. This process also applies to the person coming to terms with the idea that his/her partner says no to changing.
Relationships are made up of individual and co-created dreams. In times of conflict we become so desperately entrenched in a high, low or no dream state, that we will spin stories in our heads, which support the illusion of solidarity.
Conflict signals the beginning of losing our illusions. It’s why so many of us try to avoid it and/or make conflict and drama the hub of our relationship wheel. It is only when we are willing to acknowledge, agree on and/or let go of our high and low dreams that our vision for relationship can come into focus. But our relationship ideals and fears don’t exist in a vacuum. They are, in fact, fueled by signals real and/or perceived that we are both giving and receiving. Rooted in the high, low and no dream states, they are a storehouse of relationship treasures. Even though signals are the subtext, if you will, of our everyday language, signal awareness is not part of our mainstream knowledge and skill set that we identify with being proficient in. So start noticing whether your partner’s signals are saying no even if he/she is saying yes. You trusted that instinct back when you asked, “Your place or mine?” You can trust it again. Ask yourself the question, my work or his/hers? It may not hold the same tempting allure as the blame-and-bicker or hate-and-hide drama, but there’s nothing sexier or more powerful than couples who move from Your place or Mine to Ours.
Ada Rios-Rivera, PhD is a social psychologist, educator, program coordinator, and consultant with 30 years experience promoting human growth and potential. Ada specializes in Individual and Relationship Myth; a practice that mines the inherent symbolism in origin stories as organic, creative, tools and solutions.