It was one of those nights where nothing felt easy and everything felt like a grind. The kids were hungry, dinner was taking too long, we didn't have enough clean silverware, we were out of ketchup. You know, those kinds of things, nothing huge, just the regular-ol'-day-to-day stuff. But something was definitely different about the air that night. There was a static, a mild hostility, an edge to it.
We were talking about hamburgers (I know, exciting stuff). Do we have buns? Can you grab the pickles? Should we make a salad? The kind of regular household parent to parent conversation that isn't what typically makes or a breaks a relationship. But, his sentences were short and clipped and so were mine. Even though we were making our best efforts to be kind and civil, something was off. Before dinner was even on the table, our stilted conversation blew up into an honest-to-god argument. Over hamburgers.
In one of the bazillion relationship books I read long ago (trying to save my ex-marriage), I have never forgotten Dr. Gottman's work. He said he could predict with 91% accuracy whether a relationship would last or fail just by watching a couple argue for 5 minutes. His premise was that arguing makes little or no difference to your overall happiness and likelihood of staying together. It's the way you argue that predicts how things will work out.
He spoke of for four key warning signs: criticism (attacking the other), contempt (feeling disgust toward the other), defensiveness (seeing yourself as a victim or being attacked) and stonewalling (shutting down).
Additionally, one of the biggest mistakes I see my clients and students repeat time and again is that they avoid conflict altogether. They pretend and fake nice or they drink/eat/watch TV to distract themselves from the thing that needs to be addressed. They go focus on the kids, or the pets, or on cleaning the house. They do whatever they can to not have to even have the argument in the first place. And this strategy always ends with disastrous results because all of that unprocessed anger, resentment and loathing can only be capped for so long. It will either blow up into some kind of apocalyptic argument or it will implode into a raging fury within you.
So back to our dinner-gone-wrong. I knew we were at one of those crossroads where we could either suck it up, sit down for dinner and pretend that everything was fine, hoping that everything would just blow over. Or we could lean into the conflict, communicate with one another and get to the other side of whatever resentment was lurking underneath this burger fiasco.
I've come to learn that you can completely avoid those four key warning signs by answering "yes" to one simple question: Are you willing to keep your heart open?
The minute we close our hearts, we disconnect from one another and from ourselves. Once we're disconnected, it's easy to get lost in our story.
Here are four open-hearted qualities that you can reach for the next time you find yourself on the edge of a full-blown burger-gone-bad debacle:
- Generosity - Can I be generous in this conversation with my love, connection, empathy and compassion?
- Soften - Can I soften my heart, my opinions and my beliefs to allow some more flexibility into this conversation?
- Surrender - Can I drop all defense and give permission for the other person to feel/act/think what they do?
- Stay - Can I stay connected, right here, right now, and work through this without shutting down, retreating, pretending or hiding?
For the record, keeping your heart wide-open during an argument is crazy-difficult. It means that you stay in the conversation, with receptivity, without defense, without attack, without judgment and you just listen. It means that you stay connected not only to the bigger and more enlightened part of yourself, but also to the bigger and more enlightened part of the other person.
From this connected place, it's easier to sort fact from fiction. It's easier to hear what's really going on. It's easier to meet in the middle and find a place of strengthened intimacy. This is the place from where extraordinary relationships are made. This is the place of love.
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