Social Dissonance: Your Relationship Jiu-Jitsu
Recognizing the Problem
I used to be in a very poor relationship. Not in the sense that we didn't have money (though we didn't have money, now that I think about it), but in the sense that we kept getting in the exact same fights over...and over...and over again. As much as I cared about her, the fights, which were always about nothing even remotely important, kept getting triggered somehow. Sometimes she would say something that was obviously trying to get me to start a fight, and sometimes I would say something that was an attempt to get her riled up.
But after all these fights, while we temporarily felt a little better that it was done, nothing happened. Absolutely nothing about our relationship changed, we just felt a little better after getting upset and then calming down.
It got me thinking about the root cause of those fights. Specifically, those triggers that each of us seemed to habitually re-ignite. How could I stop them?
Driving a Car
When you learn how to drive a car, your entire conscious awareness is on full blast. It's very clear that you don't know how to handle this situation, so your body automatically recruits the help of your conscious mind to figure it out. After a few months, for most of us, that process becomes ingrained in us--it becomes habitual.
If you've ever known someone who was a bad driver, they probably stayed a bad driver for a long time. Unless they get in an accident, after all, what reason do they have to change? What they expect to happen, keeps happening. From their point of view, they have no need for their conscious mind.
But, if they get in an accident, or they get a few traffic tickets, they might feel the need to completely fix their driving habits. Their conscious mind is then re-recruited to fix this problem, and to teach themselves some new skills. This is the basic formula for life: make something habitual so you can focus on more complicated tasks.
Relationships Become Like Driving
When my girlfriend would do something to start a fight, she was expecting a particular emotional response. She would say something to specifically get me riled up because she expected there to be a fight. This was a habit that we let ourselves get into--it was a habit that neither of us were going to change unless we "got in an accident" or "got too many speeding tickets."
In other words, we needed to change the response. It was my duty as her boyfriend to respond in a way that was so different that it shocked her into conscious awareness. I needed dissonance: something to contradict the result she expected.
It was our only hope to change this unhealthy automated response pattern.
What I decided to do was simple: Whenever I thought she was starting a fight, I would completely change the subject
to her. I would ask her how she was doing, and if everything was alright. Usually, she would respond with "everything's fine." Then, I would remind her that I'm always there for her, and she can talk about something if she wanted to with me. If she kept trying to start a fight, I would act confused--kind of like a dog that gets confused when you're actually leaving home without him. It was also a "take it or leave it" attitude. I told myself, "I can only help her if she lets me," but I was determined to change the fighting culture that our relationship had undergone.
I would be sincere, because it was the truth, but I would also say it in a very matter-of-fact tone. I was there for her if she needed me to be, but in the context of her trying to start a fight she did not expect that. She was thrown off by these responses because she didn't anticipate me reminding her that I was there for her at that time. I acted confused and further caused her to be in a totally new situation: in other words, she had to relearn how to drive.
By completely and consciously changing the click...whir response system inside her head, and by helping her analyze the response she expected vs. the response she got, I brought her conscious mind to the forefront. I helped her call upon reason and logic to fix the problem, instead of trying to convince her that she needed to be reasonable and logical.
I've found that this method works not just in romantic relationships. With enough persistence on your part (because they will keep trying to get the same response), you can improve relationships with friends, family members, coworkers--all by insisting that you're looking out for their best interests when they least expect it. If you're perfectly fine, and calmly confident, in the way that you say it, the sky is the limit.
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