The Gratitude Challenge’s seventh topic is “Love”.
I believe that communication and trust are the basis for any kind of successful relationship, especially if that relationship includes what we would describe as “love”.
As philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues, in every communication the two dimensions of “relationship” and “content” are intertwined. Once a conversation shifts to a pure relationship level – for example because someone feels hurt – there is no possibility in that moment to reach the person on a rational “content level”. This is very much in line with the idea of Non-Violent Communication where we want to empathize with our counterpart in order to understand and feel the need behind the pure words. Even if the other person is shouting at us, maybe insulting, or threatening us, we should not forget that the fact that this person is communicating with us already is something to be grateful for, because they express a desire to be understood and they give us a chance to do so.
Of course, it does not mean that we should be fine with other people crossing our boundaries, but if we understand “trust” as “the confidence that the other person’s intentions are good”, I believe we can have much better relationships when we try to follow this idea:
Defuse stress by emphatizing with others.Rosenberg, M. B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press.
Instead of desperately trying to win a fight with – seemingly – rational arguments, we need to take into account time and circumstances. Sometimes it’s time for emotional support and validation of the other’s feelings, rather than rational arguments. As Habermas suggests: In each new conversation we optimistically assume that we can try to argue on a content level once the conflict on the relationship level is resolved.
I’m still learning this, as I tend to shut down my feelings when I sense that someone is treating me “unfairly” or acting “unreasonably”. Instead of empathizing I then just increase my efforts to desperately and furiously make the other person “see” why my point of view is logical and “correct” – which in turn just hurts the other person more as I fail to validate the pain or any other feeling that my counterpart might have in that moment.
Many people also have the idea that “love” would come along with harmony and the absence of conflict. And that in turn conflict and arguments are a sign for absence of love. I myself am working on becoming aware of my own thoughts and physical reactions – for example with meditation – to realize such moments when I sense conflict and suddenly for some reason associate this with “hatred” and the “absence of love”. Once I am able to have this awareness of my own feeling and that my fear might be a pattern that I can break, I can see an arising conflict as an opportunity to make my relationship stronger and to work together with my partner to remove roadblocks. This is still very hard for me because I feel that throughout my life – especially in a professional environment – it is very much valued to be “rational” and that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. Only recently do I realize that even in a professional setting this is not true. People and their emotions play a major – maybe even the major – role. As Gerald Weinberg writes in his book Secrets of Consulting:
No matter what they tell you, it’s always a people problem.Weinberg, G. M. (1986). The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully. Dorset House Publishing Company, Incorporated.
Since it is much easier to temporarily “overlook” an issue instead of addressing it, we can fall into the trap of introducing politics into our relationship: “Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think”. This quote is from the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I found that what is written there, although originally meant to improve teamwork in a professional context, can be completely transferred to interpersonal relationships in general. The book works with a model where there are five interrelated dysfunctions that threaten a relationship. These dysfunctions are shown inside a pyramid, while on the right side to the pyramid, the evidence for each of these dysfunctions is shown:
As you can see in the image above, everything begins with trust: If trust is not there, people do not genuinely open up, do not talk about weaknesses and instead show invulnerability in order to protect themselves. They do not have confidence in the genuinely good intentions of their counterpart.
People then do not dare to address uncomfortable issues that should be resolved because they do not believe that the other person is on the same page. At first it might even seem like a very good relationship then, as no conflicts come up and there seems to be a lot of harmony. Of course, as unspoken issues pile up, this is nothing more than artificial harmony.
As problems are not addressed and consequently not resolved, people do not fully commit to decisions that supposedly were taken in mutual agreement. In a romantic relationship, partners might see more and more “nuisances” in the other person and equally reduce their commitment, as they gradually conclude that it might not be the right partner after all. They might be keeping some “backup options” around, so that in case the relationship does not work out, at least the investment – then maybe perceived as “sacrifice” – was limited and a breakup might not hurt all that much.
If things then gradually become worse in a more apparent manner, people do not assume responsibility but rather blame the other person. I subconsciously made this mistake several times in my relationships: I rationalized why my partner after all was not a good match, rather than looking inside myself:
- Why was I attracted to this person (is there a pattern that allows me to not face an issue within myself?)
- Assuming that the other person was equally “right” in what they felt and said (there are not “wrong” feelings), did I do what I could to understand and feel with them and validate their feelings?
- Did I acknowledge my shortcomings and when I made a mistake and did I actively work on these to improve?
- Did I understand and talk about my own feelings and give the other person a chance to react and clarify, rather than maybe feeling hurt or upset because of what might have been a misunderstanding?
Many times and without realizing I started out with a fear to get hurt. I remained “invulnerable” and kept many details of myself and my life as a “black box” for my partner. I did not share details that could be used “against” me during an argument or after a breakup, I kept other people around who gave me attention to have the reassurance that I would not be “alone” if my relationship would not work out. Obviously, with my guards up in such way, not being committed while I thought I was, such relationships were doomed to fail. When it happened, instead of holding my partner and myself accountable, I found many reasons why the other person was not the right partner for me, just to make the same mistakes again during the next relationship. I avoided to reflect on the abovementioned questions which could have potentially “damaged” my ego. Equally, by not confronting, I did not hold my partner accountable, I basically had a lot of unspoken expectations, but I thought that “trust” would mean that I am confident that my partner would anyway do the right thing. But how could they, if no expectations were communicated.
This is then very much in line with the top of the pyramid: Inattention to details. If the relationship failed, I told myself that it was not a big deal, because it anyway could not have worked out with that person. My ego did not allow me to look inside and acknowledge the many unspoken needs, the many uncommitted behaviours that I would not have liked if my partner had done the same to me. Instead of embracing constructive conflict as a sign of a committed partner and as a chance to grow closer together, I saw it as a fight against each other.
I very much like the Japanese language, how it sounds, the concepts and ideas in the many phrases and idioms. Yet, I came to realize that part of why I like it might also be that the way you would naturally communicate in Japanese tends to be very indirect. Issues are not directly pointed out, as harmony is very important. To avoid confrontation, people follow the idea of とりあえず謝る (toriaezu ayamaru): Whatever happens, first apologize. It does not matter if it’s your fault or not, don’t upset the other person, don’t depart into a conflict. Maintain harmony. This then comes together with 空気を読む (kuuki wo yomu): Read the air. Since no one openly communicates their needs and feelings, you are expected to “get the cues” out of nothing – literally reading the air.
For a long time, I thought this would be a good concept and I still need to make an effort to not fall back into this trap of temporary conflict avoidance. But I learnt that a short uncomfortable talk is a much better – and less hurtful – relationship “strategy” than avoidance. We can always find reasons why it is not the right time to confront: In one moment we don’t want to “destroy” the nice atmosphere, in another we don’t want to make a tense situation even worse. We might tell us that it’s not a big deal and that we do not want to irritate or “hurt” the other person. We might fear retaliation (absence of trust) or just perform an act of revenge ourselves (lack of commitment). We can always find excuses to not confront, but in the medium run we are only hurting everyone involved even more.
I am grateful to have people in my life who love me enough to accept my shortcomings, who have the patience and resilience to help me understand that artificial harmony is not better than constructive conflict. People who confront me with my actions, who have expectations towards me, who “expect me to have expectations” and to address these. I am grateful to have people in my life who I love enough to not protect my ego by telling me that they are not the right person for me to be with, but rather to see my ugly sides and take the chance to work on them.