What Kind of a File Are You Keeping? Part 1
When speaking about marriage:
“No other relationship so profoundly tests the extent of our own willingness to be flexible and forgiving to learn and change — if we can resist the allure of self-justification.” — Carol Tavris and Elliott Aaronson in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)
Linda: Couples are enormously invested in making their marriage work. Partners strive to emphasize the positive and minimize the negative in an attempt to maintain harmony. But despite their efforts, many couples begin to keep a file of grievances that do not get properly addressed and mount up to become destructive.
Of course, not every partnership deserves to be saved, but many are falling apart unnecessarily because one or both partners do not understand that they have a choice in how they think about the inevitable differences that all couples have.
The unsuccessful couples have been deteriorating through a slow but insidious process. When a couple notices that they are caught in the downward spiral and have the motivation to change the pollution accumulating in their minds, it is possible to heal the relationship.
For the vast majority of couples who break up, there was not a dramatic incident of violence or betrayal. What is much more common is drifting apart because of avoidance, blame, accumulated incompletions, and justifications for not dealing with significant issues that have needed attention. Common justifications that are conversation stoppers are “That’s just who I am,” “You knew who I was when you married me,” and “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Such judgmental statements are designed to shut the other person up, and they do.
When a partner takes the victim position, feeling abused or taken for granted, they feel superior to the other. They are sure that they are right, and over time, respect is lost, replaced by contempt on both sides. The couple disconnects, to become polarized in their positions, and eventually close their hearts because it is too painful to be held with contempt.
It is not the differences, misunderstandings, broken agreements, or even angry arguments that are the problem. It’s the harmful behavior and words that come out of righteousness, blame, and the justifications that make the other person bad and wrong.
Not being able to understand the other person’s point of view and in some way validate their point of view as being legitimate is what takes the relationship down. While one person is busy being right, the other person is feeling very wrong.
Perhaps our partner actually did make a mistake. If the level of contempt has no room for an error, our partner feels that. They get the feeling that not only did they make a mistake, but that they are a mistake. It is no longer about skillful and unskillful choices but becomes about our partner’s basic character flaws. When we elevate ourselves to being the “right” kind of person and our partner as the “wrong” kind of person, we are damaging the foundation of trust.
When a relationship isn’t working well, since we need to preserve our self-image as a good person, our mind begins to make our partner appear bad and wrong. If left unchecked, the process of making then into a demon can begin to seem quite real. And it is the characterization of the partner in a negative way that takes the marriage down.
When both partners stop collecting evidence to confirm their negative beliefs and attempt to see the situation from a broader perspective, the gridlock can unclasp. There are thousands of couples who deteriorated into gloomy places and then course-corrected.
You can head off sinking low by learning early how to keep a relationship working well and can do the repair work necessary to restore wholesomeness only if you stay on task. It may be a strenuous discipline, but the rewards are sure to be big ones.
Stay tuned for Part 2 to discover the ways to counter self-righteousness.
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