“Is not general incivility the very essence of love?” — Jane Austen

If this is how the doyen of romance and happiness sees love, then what hope is there?

Hollywood has relentlessly drilled us on the inevitable outline of romantic relationships. We meet cute. But we only see our differences. Gradually some eye opening experiences change our minds about each other. We tentatively give the relationship a try. Bumps on the road to love raise doubts and we pull back in fear — until we realize that life would be empty, pointless without each other. We reconnect. Renew our love, free of all doubt, and vow to never spend another moment apart. The essential work of the relationship is done and we, of course, live H. E. A.!


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We get to the parts of the relationship that Hollywood leaves out of our preferred picture.

As we all know, it is exceedingly difficult to manage one life well. It’s ever so harder to combine two lives well – AND preserve love. Regardless of how similar the values, outlooks, lifestyles, and dreams of two people are, they remain very different individuals. Those differences will inevitably lead to disagreements, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and ugly battles.

All that is unlikely to be in the sequel to the original love story, since Hollywood can’t make much money with that plot line. But those events will definitely be regular parts of our lives together.

The illusion that if we find the “right” partner all problems will be avoided is bound to fizzle. And without the guidance of the silver screen, we are left on our own to find the essential skills necessary to avoid, manage, resolve, repair, and recover from the minor tiffs and total nuclear wars of a relationship.

No one person can long stay on their best behavior. We need to be ourselves in our primary relationship. Why bother otherwise? And no one can long suppress their natural instinct to defend themselves. So when we feel hurt, disrespected, attacked, and so on, we counterattack to defend ourselves.

That happens even if our partner meant no offense, but we BELIEVE they did. Once we have responded to what we believe was a real attack with a genuine attack of our own, our partner feels hurt, and attacks us in return. And the war escalates. Fights are incredibly easy to start, less easy to end.

Such discord, as I suggested in my last article, can be avoided or minimized if we carefully consider our partner’s ego. And, if they carefully consider ours. By “ego” I don’t mean some grandiose, overblown sense of oneself, some exaggerated sense of one’s importance and infallibility. (And, to complete the picture of ego, let’s add a huge head of hair . . .) I mean, instead, our sense of who we are, our identity, and sense of worth. Our value, competence, our basic “okayness”, and integrity. When any of those aspects of our identity feel threatened, we defend; and we typically defend by threatening those same aspects of our partner’s identity.

That doesn’t mean that we have to constantly “kiss up” and act like a vulnerable apprentice on some TV show, walking on eggshells and carefully considering every word. It means that we are fully aware that some things are more fragile and require greater care. We wouldn’t toss our finest crystal like a ‘cold one’ because we see the delicacy and value of that crystal and act accordingly. Likewise, we should handle our loved one’s ego with the same kind of respect and care.

The Masters’ Methods

Previously we learned that the Marriage Masters are able to create and sustain satisfying relationships partly because of how they approach conflict. They avoid the “4 Horsemen”: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, all which damage our partner and our relationship. The Masters also have clear and specific goals and methods for resolution. What are they?

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Conflict Discussion Goals:

The Masters aim for a mutually satisfying and enduring outcome, a win-win type resolution wherein both parties are content with the agreement. Think of the positive impact that approach has on the resolution of future conflicts and the relationship, the safe and cooperative atmosphere it establishes, then consider the corrosive impact of seeking win-lose outcomes.

The Necessary Conditions For Attaining That Goal:

Both sides must be calm, open-minded, collaborative, and desirous of a win-win resolution. Both must be willing to truly hear each other and look at their own contributions to the problems and be willing to make the changes necessary for settling the matter.

Creating Those Necessary Conditions:

To be open-minded, calm, etc. we must do everything in our power to avoid arousing defensiveness in each other. We must avoid attacking, belittling, and injuring our partner. Because once defensiveness is provoked, calm, open-mindedness, and collaboration are lost. To assure success and a positive outcome, we must treat each other with respect, understanding, and concern for each other’s well-being. In short, act with the same kindness and generosity seen in the Masters’ marriages.

Two of the Masters’ specific steps for producing these conditions are:

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Using “Soft Start-Ups”

Respectfully REQUESTING behavior changes in our partner is key. Demanding a change in a demeaning way will only provoke defensiveness, create conflict, and reduce the chances of getting what WE need. Portraying our partner as broken or defective will guarantee their refusal to cooperate.

A key here is to not make our partner the problem. Couples often fight over household cleanliness, for example. Approaching our partner with a “YOU are the problem” attitude will probably provoke more defensiveness than collaboration. “YOU are a slob” or “YOU are a neat freak” is unlikely to win our partner’s cooperation. Try instead to frame the issue as “WE have a problem with cleanliness. WE disagree about how much cleanliness is necessary. Can we explore a level of cleanliness that’s suitable for BOTH of us?”

YES! I am saying try to be civil during arguments. It takes a great deal of restraint. And it offers great rewards. Try it. One can easily return to the uncivil approach.

Listening With Empathy/Listening To Learn:

People in conflict typically try to teach each other how wrong their partner is and how right and righteous we are. How well does that work? Listening with empathy, listening to learn how the partner feels and what things mean to them, creates calm, safety, cooperation – the conditions necessary for resolution.

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Conflict Positions And Applying The Masters’ Methods

There are 3 general conflict positions. The first two are:

  1. The Ideal Circumstances: BOTH Sides are Calm, Open-Minded, Collaborative, and Desire Resolution.
    It may seem that under these dream conditions, we can just “go for” our needs. “Let it all hang out”. Why waste any time? As if there’s no reason to show any concern for our partner’s ego. That would be a big mistake. Those attitudes can quickly turn ideal into awful. A warm and sunny day can quickly become overcast and stormy if we trample on our partner’s ego. Each other’s feelings should be our first concern, resolution second.
  2. The Worst Possible Condition: BOTH Sides are Furious, Hurt, and Going for Blood, Going for a Win-Lose Outcome.
    It may seem that under such frigid conditions nothing will work. Siberia’s never a day at the beach, so stop looking for that beach. Don’t even try.

But not trying can produce an even colder relationship.

Actually, this is when we MOST need to follow the Masters’ other methods: Putting on the Brakes, Making Repair Attempts, and Apologizing Effectively. As bad as things are, they can get worse. If we keep screaming and calling each other names, taking pokes at each other’s vulnerabilities, things won’t get better. We might think that if only we yell louder we’ll finally get through to our partner. They will finally take us seriously, surrender and meet our needs.. But what worked in 1945, can destroy today’s relationship permanently.

So we must try to prevent the speedy slide down the slippery slope to the total destruction of the relationship. But how?

First, we must apply the BRAKES and CALM DOWN. We can’t effectively listen to our partner, problem solve, and repair the damage when we’re upset. One of the best ways to calm down and put on the brakes is to take a break! Stepping back from the problems allows us to catch our breath and reduce our arousal. It’s amazing how differently a situation can look when we’re calm.

Some partners may resist such a pull back, fearing that they’re being blown off, insisting on continuing the “talks”. Here we must assure them that this is only a temporary cooling off period, we have every intention of resuming the discussion, but under much better emotional conditions-for both of us.

During that break we might ask our self, “What do I really want to accomplish here? Do I really want to destroy my partner and our relationship?” Or, “Would I like to resolve this peacefully?” If it is the latter, then ask, “What can I do to turn things around?”

Once we’re less worked up, make a REPAIR ATTEMPT: some effort to heal the wounds we have caused each other. Acknowledging where our partner is correct is a good start. This does not mean they are totally correct and we are totally wrong; that they win and we loose. Rather, we’re acknowledging the obvious; that each of us is right about some things. Such acknowledgement reduces tensions and creates a more cooperative tone. Our partner, and we, feel: “I’m finally being heard.”

Are you sure that you can’t be wrong about some things? Remember that Jane Austen quote at the beginning? Was Jane actually saying that incivility is an essential aspect of the love between two people? Looks like that doesn’t it? It looks straightforward and unambiguous.

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What she was really saying, however, was that when a couple is deeply, hopelessly in love, they ignore others around them; they are “uncivil” to others. So what looks clear and obvious to us, ain’t necessarily so! We are definitely correct about some of the issues and details in our dispute. And, given, the ambiguity of language, we may be mistaken about what our partner meant. It’s especially hard to be clear headed when we’re “ballistic”.

That’s why a LEARNING STANCE is always helpful and calming. “Am I sure I understand everything correctly?” That’s strength, not weakness.

Most importantly, both need to offer EFFECTIVE APOLOGIES. None of that sarcastic ‘my bad’ BS, but a sincere expression of regret for hurting each other accompanied by a genuine promise to try to avoid that in the future.

While these efforts will not bring a heat wave to Siberia, they can begin the move us back to a warmer, friendlier relationship. And restore the benefits that keep us connected to each other in the first place.

Next time: “Civil Unions Too!” We’ll look at the third general conflict position. One of us deeply wants to resolve, while the other refuses to even acknowledge we exist. What options do we have then?

Any thoughts or suggestions? I’ll take a learning stance:

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Written by Tony Johnson is a retired university mental health center psychologist. He has lived, learned and enlarged his happiness in the Costa Ballena for over three years. He has the curiosity of a coati about all things life! These articles are his best shot at answering those “Life Questions”. Hopefully, you will find them informative and useful.

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