Linda: Morihei Ueshiba is the originator of Aikido. He was a gifted marital artist and a great spiritual teacher. Mitsugi Saotome Shihan was a student of Ueshiba for fifteen years in Japan, and then went on to become an accomplished Akido master himself. Shiban recounts a profound teaching story about addressing Ueshiba saying, “Your techniques are perfect! You never make any mistakes. You never lose your center!” To which his wise, accomplished teacher replied, “I lose my center frequently. I just find it again so quickly that you can’t see it.”
When we are learning any new skill, there is a process of moving forward and then slipping backward. Developing new relationship skills is the same way. We make more skillful choices and then relapse into our old patterns. This pattern shows up repeatedly when we are attempting to develop better conflict management skills. We may intellectually appreciate that both of us contribute to an argument when they occur, but in the emotion of the moment, it sure looks like it’s the other person’s fault. And every cell in our body may want to blame them and make them wrong, wrong, wrong.
Although the impulse to project blame onto the other person can be very strong when a couple is caught in a pattern of resistance or control, it’s often the case that both partners have in some way, contributed to the breakdown and the ensuing frustration that has come as a result. But the truth of that understanding can be eclipsed by the intensity of emotion that sweeps us away momentarily. At the first possible moment, we can reengage the neo-cortex in the brain in order to think more creatively. We can begin to investigate what we may have to do with the breakdown in the first place. And then we can explore what we can do in this moment to soothe ourselves and soothe our partner so that we don’t frighten them or put them on the defensive.
It’s easy to misjudge and underestimate the way in which we’re coming across to our partner when we’re experiencing strong emotions and unmet needs. One person may think that “I’m just expressing my feelings”, while the person on the receiving end feels like they just got clobbered with a heavy hammer. This is often the case in situations in which there has been a long term accumulation of unspoken resentments that begin to come pouring out when there is finally a degree of receptivity after a period of prolonged silence.
It’s not unusual for one person in the relationship to be more acutely aware of and sensitive to a loss of freedom and personal power, and the other to be more concerned about the health and stability of the relationship. This polarity is present in most relationships.
Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the person who has the higher degree of concern about the relationship to continue to make an effort to engage the other in a dialogue in which it can at least be acknowledged that ‘we’ve got a problem” (note: the key word here is the pronoun ‘we’ as opposed to the accusatory pronoun ‘you’ which if used is more likely to generate or amplify defensiveness on the part of the other person.
There is no ground of neutrality when it comes to relationships. We are, to paraphrase Bob Dylan “either busy being born or busy dying”. Allowing unfinished business to accumulate puts relationships on a trajectory towards destruction.
We may become inflamed and loose our cool a number of times in the midst of the same conversation. This is common, and we are challenged to start over again. Declaring our intention to learn and understand is a good way to begin again. It can get us off on a good foot. We may have to repeat our intention a number of times to remind ourselves that it’s not about getting our way, but to find some solution that works for both of us. To go on the record, to be heard with respect, to be understood, to learn more about the other person’s point of view, experience, feelings and needs are all examples of worthy intentions.
There is a frustration factor that must be managed to stay with the process until we can feel complete somehow. It is not unusual to have hundreds of conversations about some core issue that is an irritant in the relationship. For some couples, it’s about money, others sex, power, in-laws, emotional intimacy, how owe spend our leisure time, or disciplining the children. It can feel tiresome to go over the material numerous times, but for many couples, the issue is so fraught with intense feelings, that only a bit of headway can be made at a time. It can feel that we haven’t gotten anywhere, and that we are back to square one.
But it is often the case that we aren’t at the very beginning, but are just taking a deeper cut at the issue. The process of coming to understanding and completion on an issue is more like spiraling than climbing the ladder of success. It is a more circular process, but hopefully taking a deeper cut at the issue on each pass. It takes faith, persistence, and perseverance to begin again and begin again. But it is the depth of commitment that will bring success. I am reminded of a quote by Jonas Salk “Evolution is an error-making and an error-correcting process.”
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