Lyn and Danny (names changed) came to me for pre-marital counseling. Lyn was uneasy—everything was fine, so what were they doing seeing me? I explained that my approach is from a communications angle and I don’t have a structured format.
Still uneasy, she said they didn’t have any problems communicating, though at times she “might” be a bit too passive in their arguments—especially when Danny’s his usual “pigheaded” self.
Danny readily admitted that he’s competitive and enjoys arguing even when he knows he’s wrong—even with Lyn.
I asked Lyn if she enjoyed arguing when he was in the “zone.” She said it didn’t matter because although she hates it, she just shuts down and lets him have his way. At this point, Danny jumped in saying that he hated when she shuts down. I asked if he heard why she shuts down. “Yes, but. . .” and before he could finish, Lyn demanded, “Then why do you do it? You know I don’t want to argue. I just want to get what I want,” she matter-of-factly explained.
“There, that’s the kind of attitude I don’t like,” said Danny. “She doesn’t take what I say seriously. I’ll explain why we need to do something a certain way and she just ignores everything I say.”
“Is that true?” I asked Lyn.
“I know what he’s going to say and I don’t want to be told I can’t have something when I feel I should have it. He doesn’t respect me when he doesn’t listen to why I want something.”
Exasperated, Danny tossed out, “She doesn’t have reasons for anything. All she has are feelings.”
I want to point out that Danny and Lyn were actually very polite in the way they spoke to each other—this was not a shouting match.
However, by dint of personality and profession (engineer) Danny values logic. Lyn, by dint of personality and profession (sales), values feelings. He thinks logic is going to win the day because that’s how logic is supposed to work. But, as soon as Lyn begins to feel that he’s clobbering her with facts, she shuts down. “What’s the use? He’s not interested in what I have to say” is her mantra. Then Danny becomes frustrated when he sees her give up. He wants her to fight for her ideas. He’s a competitor and that’s what competitors do!
They’ve created dance steps for arguing. He lectures. She shuts down. He pushes harder. She digs in her heels (very expensive ones). Then—silence. He’s frustrated and she plots to get what she wants without his help.
I asked Danny if, when he’s in an argument with Lyn, he notices that she’s becoming passive. He said he does. “Then, why keep hammering her with the logic?” His response was so simple: “I want her to see it my way.” The frustrating thing for him is that at no time has she said, “You’re right—I wasn’t thinking straight.”
So why does he persist? Embarrassed, he admitted, “It’s fun—frustrating, but fun!”
Lyn has just one goal when arguing with Danny—“To get what I want. I’ll plead and then when I get frustrated, I’ll just ask, ‘what do I have to do to get X?’”
When I asked her if she asks in a tone of voice dripping with attitude she flashed a guilty smile. “Do you pout; cross your arms, and make it sound like a demand if not an ultimatum?” She looked shocked that I knew.
She tuned him out when he started to lecture. He tuned her out when she started to pout. No one likes a know-it-all and no one likes a whiner. And no one is going to put up with either.
So, what to do? Well, it’s not possible to magically change personality; nor is there any reason to do so. However, choices can be made in how to communicate.
Lyn needs to understand that “because it feels good” is not a reason that’s going to advance her cause. How do you respond to a reason like that? And Danny needs to understand that people don’t always make decisions based on what’s most logical.
He needs to help her explore her feelings so as to help Lyn understand what she’s really thinking. And, she needs to help Danny explore his thoughts so as to help him understand what he’s feeling.
Because what we think influences how we feel and how we feel influences what we think, Lyn needs to understand the reasoning that’s generating her feelings and Danny needs to understand the feelings generating his “logic.” Life is seldom lived at the extremes—it’s lived in the messiness of the middle—and the middle is made up of both thoughts and feelings.
When I told all this to Danny and Lyn they each said, “What’s the point? We know how we’re going to react.” Like Danny and Lyn, do you feel frustrated that your arguments are all Groundhog’s Day—a droning repetition of clichés that ultimately don’t get you what you need and want?
Well the truth is you won’t know what the other person is going to say if you talk with them in a way that is different from the old dance steps. New ways of dealing with conflict will bring about new conversations.
SANITY SAVER Questions:
• Are you satisfied with the way you and your partner deal with conflict?
• What would you like to see each of you do differently?
• What does a “good fight” look like to you?
Remember: You protect and keep each other sane when you give up the need to win, give up shutting down, and when you resolve to help your partner explain what he or she is feeling, thinking and needing—and when you work to understand what you’re feeling, thinking, and needing.