Five Ways We Lose Sight of the People we Love when We Disagree
by Kayleigh Woolard, MA, LMFT
My business is relationships. As a marriage and family therapist, my passion is preserving intimate relationships by dialing into the complexities of conflict and the tricky dance of seeing and being seen within a family system. Studying partners is of particular interest to me because even simple conversations so often create minefields that end in hurt and conflict. Why? What happens when we speak to our partner that ignites our differences? My working theory involves the notion that we are valuing our convictions over our connection. More simply, we care more about being right than being together in conversation. As things escalate, we retreat to our own worlds and proceed to duke it out from a distance, feeling alone and unheard. But guess what? We do not have to agree to be worthy of respect. Learning to disagree and remain deeply connected is the true challenge, not figuring out how to “yes dear” your way through the next 30 years.
It is important to recognize where our efforts to connect are being thwarted in favor or fighting for our convictions. The top five ways we get tricked into valuing conviction over connection are:
#1. WE DON’T LISTEN
It is as simple as that. We pride ourselves on being top-notch listeners, but when faced with an opposing view, we retain almost no new information. In fact, to cover up that we are not really listening, we do some very predictable things: we solve, we question, we lecture, we offer excuses, we criticize, and we write it off. Consider that time your partner was obviously angry; was it easier for you to blurt out something than to listen to their perspective and tell them why it made sense to you? Did you find yourself solving (“you should not get so mad”), questioning (“why are you always so mad?”), lecturing (“Getting that mad raises your blood pressure”), excusing others (“why are you so mad, they’re just kids?”), or criticizing? (“You’re a raving lunatic”). My fundamental belief about relationships is that we all have a very reasonable need from our partners, “SEE me, HEAR me, and know that I’m not crazy.” Magically simple if you think about it, I just want you to know me and tell me that I make sense. Pretty painful too when we consider that so many of our fights ignite to do just the opposite- illustrate craziness.
IF YOU STRUGGLE WITH LISTENING: Remember that it is an act of faith that your partner is opening up to you. Stand down from your own agenda and become the sponge. Soak up the details of his/her message and tune into the feelings that are driving this story. When your partner is done talking, resist the urge to problem solve, or give opinions, and instead simply repeat the key details of the message. You don’t have to go full “robot” in your delivery, but kind curiosity that says, “did I get that right?” is a power tool for connection.
#2. WE LISTEN ONLY TO DISAGREE
Do you remember watching debates? Each participant is listening skillfully until BAM! they shift their gaze to a notepad where they scribble feverishly hoping to list every possible way to exploit words and undermine the opposition’s argument. I see this a lot with couples too, how sweet right?! No! It’s tragic for me in two ways: first, we miss out on really hearing each other and second, we erode the trust necessary to keep conversations flowing and connection operating. When we listen to disagree we are carefully tuning to the details that will spark conflict and ignoring the details that unite us. Listen to this statement “I’m so tired, I hate doing dishes at the end of the day.” Listening to disagree would bring about retorts like “oh, so I’m not tired?” or “I’m the one who cleans up 90% of the time!” On the other hand, if we make it a priority to listen to agree (“Ugh, I know- I’m beat too, and the dishes seem never ending!”), we get a lot closer to connection. Valuing conviction (being right), tells us that it is more important to get your point made than it is to show care for another person. In the case of listening to disagree- we drive a major wedge in conversation in our attempt to be right.
IF YOU STRUGGLE WITH LISTENING TO DISAGREE: Remind yourself of the commonalities in your perspectives and experience, then gift your partner with this validating sentence: “It makes sense to me that you would feel this way, because…”
#3. WE GET DEFENSIVE
Obviously, when we enter conversations with a perceived opponent, we will get defensive because we have now placed value in conviction (our side), not connection. Defensiveness is insidious in relationships because it feeds the flames of the current argument and kicks up new fires in every direction. Remember the last time you were late getting out the door together, maybe one of you expressed frustration. The defensive party may have responded, “you didn’t tell me what time we needed to leave” or “I don’t even want to go to this.” These defensive statements engage the other partner and often invite an exhausting cycle of criticism and more defensiveness. What if we could circumvent conflict by avoiding our defenses? It takes a hefty dose of vulnerability and insight (which is why we often skip it) to do the non-defensive thing, which is taking responsibility. Owning up to our mistakes and being transparent with our shortcomings lays a foundation for acceptance.
IF YOU STRUGGLE WITH DEFENSIVENESS: Identify the part of the argument that you wish had gone differently and be quick to name your role in the avoidable incident. We are conditioned to believe that taking responsibility is the same as admitting guilt and facing punishment; but, when we value our connection, accepting our role in conflict is necessary. You are not “less than” when you make missteps in your relationship and owning them shows that you value and respect the other person. As you take responsibility for your part in conflict, be sure to avoid personal attacks.
#4. WE REWRITE HISTORY
In our efforts to be right, we have a powerful ally- our own memory. Our brain really wants us to be right all the time, and it goes to great lengths to eliminate “dissonance,” that uncomfortable feeling when we hear contradicting arguments. We work very hard to get back to feeling “right” about issues. In fact, we often selectively forget information that disconfirms the beliefs we hold dear. For example; I may completely delete from my memory the two Sundays this month that we went to lunch instead of hunkering down for football games, and falsely claim, “all we ever do on the weekends is watch football!” We are guilty of changing our memory of facts to fight for our convictions. Sadly, we turn the same fate on our connection, too. We rehearse incomplete and false stories about our partner to maintain the security of our convictions…yikes!
IF YOU STRUGGLE WITH REWRITING HISTORY: Get comfortable asking the question, “What am I missing?” Out loud. Work together to get a complete account of the facts, and resist the urge to soothe dissonance with defensiveness and falsities. Beyond the facts of the situation, be descriptive of your own experience. Share how you are feeling, and what you’re thinking from a purely “I” perspective (“I’m bored by a day watching football and I was hoping for some excitement today.”)
#5. WE FAIL TO REPAIR
It is almost inconceivable to imagine not setting a broken bone in a cast, or cleaning up a major mess in the middle of your kitchen, right? Strangely, the same instinct to heal and fix is not present in many of our interpersonal struggles. We so often walk away from friendships, conversations and situations that have been tinged with conflict before we’ve had a chance to make it right with the other person. Our cultural aversion to saying “I’m sorry” is often the reason we ditch conflict interactions; but repairing does not always involve apologies. The necessary component of repair is identifying NEEDS; namely, “what do you need from me now, and/or when this issue arises again?” When we can ask for a specific change in behavior and commit to making our own changes in the future, the conflict is productive. We can move forward as a team when we have a plan for “next time.”
IF YOU STRUGGLE WITH REPAIRING: Confront your own discomfort with “sorrys” and focus on what will help you in the future. Demanding apologies forces a “winner-loser” hierarchy and has a backwards focus on what was done wrong. If connection is our priority, we can openly create a plan for what will meet each of our needs now and in the future. Keep your needs positive, looking to what your partner can start doing, not what they should stop doing.
Most heated arguments over politics, family, or even how to load the dishwasher boil down to a break in our connection. We slip easily into “my way” thinking, but the short term gains of feeling right and powerful are so minor when compared with the long term losses in our connection. As conviction rules, we begin to see each other as adversaries, we lose trust, we trade confidence for bully boldness, and we eventually forfeit engagement because it is just “easier that way.” It is important to remember, though that connection is not only necessary to share our minds, but to change them as well. Changes made without connection, are based in fear and shame, and they do not last. Only when we feel heard and accepted is it safe enough to explore change. As you consider the balance of connection and conviction, challenge yourself to be curious, not sure, about your partner; listen, find ways to agree, own your errors, tell true stories, and invest in repairs.
Repeat after me: “You do not have to agree with me to be worthy of my respect.”