There is no doubt in my mind that I am getting old. Do you know how I can tell? First of all, there are a lot more people around me today who are important to me getting old and dealing with illnesses and disease that are related to age. The older I get, so do the people around me. The other thing that is letting me know that I am getting old is that more and more people that I have grown up around are getting divorces. I realize that being surrounded by divorce is an occupational hazard of being a relationship therapist, but it seems like every other week I am getting news of another divorce. It is not like I am unaware of the state of marriage and family in this world, but every time I hear about it I feel like someone has just punctured a hole in my body and a little air comes out.
Frankly I am tired of it.
I have done a lot of thinking about what behaviours we display that create such problems in relationships. I believe that there is no such thing as an un-planned behaviour. There is always an event that triggers a feeling, which leads us to a certain way thinking about the event, which eventually leads to a behaviour. This process can take less than a fraction of a second, but it is always there. To stop behaviours, we have to intervene somewhere between the event and the behaviour. So having said that, here is what I have found is the biggest precipitator of troubled marriages; it is the lack of checking in and defensiveness. Let me explain.
A few years ago, I was doing some work at a school and I had occasion to be on the playground during lunch and noticed two young boys playing together in the sandbox. Lets call them Jeff and Kevin. Jeff and Kevin were playing with dump trucks in the sand. Kevin became very intent on moving the sand around in the sandbox and with his mouth making noises like a big powerful truck, he accidentally sprayed sand onto the Jeff (triggering event). Kevin didn’t notice this and he kept on going. Jeff had a stunned look on his face (feeling and thought), didn’t say anything, and moved a little bit away from Kevin and kept playing. Kevin kept up with his intense play and once again sprayed Jeff. Jeff said “Hey! You just got sand on me!”. Kevin immediately said, “No I didn’t!” Jeff responded, “Yes you did”. Kevin stuck out his tongue and went back to play. Guess what happened. He sprayed Jeff a third time, maybe a bit more intentionally this time. Jeff had had enough. He picked up a large handful of sand and threw it at Kevin, getting sand in Kevin’s eyes causing him to cry out very loud. Jeff yelled at him saying, “Well you deserved it because you are stupid!” Teachers intervened and World War III was averted.
I have seen many couples where the conversations are very similar to Kevin and Jeff. The couples are going about their days and one of them inadvertently does or says something (triggering event) that irritates (feeling) the other person or is interpreted as an attacking motion. They say nothing but think to themselves, “what a jerk” and take it personally (thought). When the event happens again, often we become aggressive in our responses. (“Hey! You got sand on me!” Or from an adult’s perspective, “Do you need to use that tone when you speak to me?”). Eventually when this happens over and over, we get upset and do something to retaliate (Throwing sand in Kevin’s face, or from the adult’s perspective “Gee, it is no wonder that you haven’t had a raise in forever! Your temper would make any boss want to fire you!”).
There really are 2 problems in this scenario that if I can get through to you here will save you a ton of pain and sorrow, and frankly a ton of money as well because you won’t have to come and see me or have split your assets because of divorce.
Problem #1) So many times when we are faced with the actions of others, we take it personally. We assume that their actions are a direct result of how they feel about us or are directly related to intentionally hurting us. How wrong we are. Think about it for a second…what if the reason your partner just gave you that look had nothing to do with what you just said, but because they are trying to mask the pain of the 3 super burritos they had for lunch? What if the reason that your spouse didn’t respond to your question was because they just found out that someone they cared about started cancer treatments today rather than because they didn’t care about what you were saying?
Solution #1) Check it out. Simple and easy. “Did you know that you just blah blah blah?” If the answer is , “Yes and I meant to”, then okay, you have something to work with. If the answer is “no”, then that solves the problem right then and there. Do you know what I get tired of? People saying to me, “Yah but Jay, I am so tired of taking it. It would be so easier just to give up and call it quits”. Really? You haven’t been on this side of divorce. Trust me. What would be easier is if you stopped hiding from the issues at hand and opened your mouth and started asking questions.
Be aware that when you ask if they knew what they were just doing, if you ask it in a way that is aggressive, you will be sure to be met with defensiveness. Ask it from a place of really wanting to understand if they are aware of what they are doing, because they probably don’t. Which leads me to problem #2
Problem #2) “NO I DIDN’T!” It amazes me how defensiveness has become such a part of North American life. It is like it is a sport. Who can defend themselves better? I can make you one promise. Defensiveness will never, ever, ever, help you to build a relationship. Defensiveness most often comes when we assume that the other person is trying to attack us in some way. If your partner comes to you and says, “Hey, did you know that you were doing blah blah blah”, if the answer is no, then say, “No I wasn’t aware”. If you did do it on purpose, explain why and make sure that you do it in a way that is non-confrontational. State the facts and leave the blaming out of it. Then go back to problem #1 and check it out to see if what they did to precipitate your behaviour was what they were intending on doing. (By the way, you should have checked that out a lot sooner than now).
Solution #2) And here is the magic word. “Sorry”. It cures all ills, it heals all wounds, and it sure is a heck of a lot easier to do than fighting. If you didn’t mean to do something, apologize and move on, trying not to do it again. Simple as that
It is time to grow up folks. I have gotten in to trouble in the past for saying that but really, our behaviours some times are no better than a couple of 6 year old kids sitting in a sand box. Open you mouth and ask if they meant to throw sand in your face. If they didn’t, move on.
By Jay Timms BMT, MA, CCC