Central to Radical Decency’s approach to living – its vital pulse – are habits of mind that allow us, in every interaction, to express our needs in constructive ways and, equally, to hear the needs of others. Because we are innately empathic beings, a sustained cultivation of these skills will allow us to more easily and instinctively move toward more decent choices in all areas of living.
The formulation sounds simple. But as I have discovered in my work as a psychotherapist and coach, and in my own relationships, its application is frustratingly difficult. The reason? Because, when disagreements arise, we are culturally wired to lapse into the fight or flight ways of being that the predominant culture’s “compete and win, dominate and control” mindset have so deeply engrained in our habitual ways of being in the world.
In this Reflection, I work through one very common example of this phenomenon. A husband is about to leave for work and his wife, looking at a sink filled with breakfast dishes, says, “Why can’t you do the dishes?” His response: “Look, I’ve had a really busy morning. I usually do them. Give me a break.”
Even assuming a relatively restrained tone in the “music” of these communications, their fight/flight motivation is unmistakable. Both partners are focused on the recent past and – intent on rehashing what just happened – are locked into judgment mode; a hallmark of fight or flight mindsets.
Thus, the wife’s relatively neutral words are in fact words of judgment and attack: You didn’t do something – something you were supposed to do – and (by reasonable inference) something you all too frequently fail to do.
And how does the husband respond? Equally focused on the past, he counterattacks. Instead of dealing with the merits of the issue – who should do the dishes and when – a response that would invite further dialogue – he seeks to disqualify his wife’s position: You are wrong on the facts AND emotionally out of line in even raising the issue (“give me a break”).
What very often happens next is – nothing. Each person, being subtly attacked, feels disconnected and sore. But the interaction is, in their minds, too minor to be worthy of further discussion. Better to absorb the pain and move on.
The other likely result is not, unfortunately, an honest, problem solving discussion; that is, mutual and authentic contact. Instead, if the couple chooses to get into it, the far more typical outcome is a cycle of escalating attacks and counter-attacks.
- Her: “You’re always have an excuse!”
- Him: “You never stop complaining, get off my back!!”
And round and round it goes, until one or both of them goes cold and withdraws; that is, retreats into the flight part of fight or flight.
When it comes to our romantic partner, most of us have some sense of how to charm and seduce; an unsurprising fact given the endless stream of books, movies, and ads that promote and teach these ways of interacting. And yet, at the same time, we have little guidance in the art of lovingly engaging with our partner at our points of sensitive difference – even though much of the hard work of relationship needs to be done in precisely these small moments.
So why does this strange dichotomy exist? Why do we, as a culture, neglect this vital relational skill even as we celebrate and promote romantic seduction? Because “charm and seduce” – a wonderful gift, when done with judgment and respect – is also entirely consistent with our culture’s predominant values. In this all too typical version, seduction is an effort, through a series of manipulative moves, to get our partner to feel and act in specific ways; ways that very much suit our purposes – but not necessarily theirs.
By contrast, a loving engagement with our partner in tense times is the antithesis of this competitive/manipulative mindset. For this reason, the predominant culture has an unacknowledged but powerful interest in minimizing this skill; an interest unerringly reflected in the marginal attention it receives in popular culture.
Thus, one of the key challenges, implicit in Radical Decency’s approach to living is to learn to fight well, weaning ourselves from our current fight or flight ways, replacing them with more mutual and authentic ways of interacting.
What would that look like in our example?
First, and very importantly, both partners would focus on the near future and not the recent past.
As a child of our fight or flight culture, the wife, ever vigilant to the possibility of attack, sees the dirty dishes as evidence of danger: That her needs are being ignored; that love is being withdrawn. With her fight or flight physiology activated, her words seek to deal with the perceived source of the attack: Her husband, evidenced by his past behaviors including, very particularly, the choices he’s made in the run-up to this current interaction.
On his side, the husband is equally focused on the immediate past; moving into defense mode; judging and criticizing the words that just came out of her mouth. Why? Because in his culturally reinforced, overly vigilant state, he also feels under attack: Unappreciated, devalued, unloved.
What is so sad in all of this is that there is nothing to defend – on either side. As a functioning couple, they have each put enormous amounts of time and energy into the relationship and are vitally invested in seeing it continue. Beneath the bickering is a vast reservoir of trust and love. So, the perceived attacker isn’t a source of danger at all. He/she is, instead, the other partner’s staunchest ally in life.
Given this reality, the couple would be better served by focusing, not on illusory dangers from the recent past, but instead on the near future. Why? Because they each want to increase the love flowing back and forth between them, and the best way to do that is to focus on what they do next, rather than picking apart choices already made.
Here’s how it would work.
The wife wants to be loved in a specific way – by coming home to a clean kitchen. So she would ask for what she longs for: “Honey, it makes me feel great when you do the dishes before you leave in the morning.”
Now, he is set up for a positive, loving response (“sure, I’ll do my best to do it”) rather than a defensive counter-attack (“I am not a bad person for forgetting to do the dishes this morning”). Alternatively, he might acknowledge her desire but say, “My mornings are really tight. Taking time to do the dishes is tough.”
Note, importantly, that if this second alternative is his authentic response, the couple is still set up for a positive outcome. With defensiveness eliminated and the needs of both partners on the table – hers, for a completed chore (and concrete expression of love); his, for a routine that accounts for the pressures he feels – creative problem solving can flow from the common goal, shared by both partners: How can I best meet my needs AND the needs of this partner I dearly love?
A similar transaction can also be initiated from the husband’s end of the conversation. Instead of rising to the bait of her nascent reactivity ( “why can’t you do the dishes”) with a counter-attack, he can thank (yes, thank!) his wife for raising the issue. Why? Because he now has a more vivid roadmap for loving her. And in this frame of mind, he will be able, once again, to move toward a forward-looking outcome that attends, with equal attentiveness, to his needs and hers.
While this different way of treating our intimate partner may seem a little unusual and strange it is only because we are so relentlessly pushed toward very different ways of thinking, feeling and acting. The sad reality is that these more contactful and loving techniques are seldom taught and find precious little reinforcement in our culture.
Hopefully, initiatives such as Radical Decency can act as healing correctives in our intimate relationships – and in all other areas of living as well.