Ending Groundhog Day

Posted on Posted in Barbara's Blog

“There you go–wrong again!” I playfully admonished Andrew when he forgot where he had placed his favorite chopping knife after pointing out where it lay under a kitchen towel on the counter top. I dubbed him “The King of Wrong” several years ago, which exaggerates the dynamic between us so that we laugh instead of getting frustrated, defensive, and, in short, locked into defending our ego-images of ourselves. Of course I have my wrong moments too, but in the rules of our game, my wrongs don’t count and his wrongs only prove to enforce his status as King. We get a kick out of this, and it keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.

If a situation can be fact-checked, then there’s no point in arguing. And if it’s a matter of differing memories about what really happened, there’s no point arguing, either, because unless you have witnesses or a 24-hour video camera following your moves, all any of us knows for sure is how we feel about our version of what happened.

I coach couples on this all the time, since many arguments (usually the same essential argument with differing circumstances) never get resolved because both individuals are digging in their heels and building their cases about who is right and who is wrong. And the more each justifies him/herself and attacks his/her partner’s position on the matter, the angrier they get until an ugly scene evolves or one person gives up. Needless to say, no one wins and nothing is fixed. Neither wants to return to the scene of the crime because they are afraid of doing it all over again. So it happens the next day, and the next, like a miserable Groundhog Day with different specifics.

I’ll never forget when John, who had been coming in with his wife Linda whenever a crisis arose in their tempestuous marriage, leaned toward me and said, “You really don’t care what the content is, do you? You just care about what process is happening.”

“How perceptive of you!” I said. “That’s exactly what I care about, because if we can change the process, you don’t need to repeat what doesn’t work.”

Changing the process means being aware of what matters to each of them. With John and Linda, I focused on learning to pull back on reacting until they had figured out the following: What do I feel about this? What matters most to me? What do I want you to understand about how it is for me? These are not right/wrong questions. These are personal preferences and experiences that need to be free of judgment if any productive movement is to happen.

John and Linda had to learn how to soothe the anxiety that was triggered whenever the other “pushed their buttons.” It had been a hair-trigger reaction with both of them, and stopping to breathe and using the questions above to clarify what they really needed to communicate made a huge difference in reducing the volatility of their relationship. They were able to resolve conflict more often without John exploding and Linda fearfully retreating, only to explode back at him if he didn’t leave her alone.

It’s an understandable egoic reaction to want to be “right.” But if that ego-need is allowed to run the show, we’re back to the question I proposed in an earlier blog: Would you rather protect (i.e., defend your ego-image of yourself) or connect (i.e., reach for understanding of the other through respectful listening and communicate what you want the other to understand about you)?

It’s as simple as that!

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