“I can’t stand it anymore!” Says my client who is clearly distraught
“What can’t you stand,” I say in my most empathetic tone of voice, though I know from experience their next statement is going to strain my patience.
“They never put the cap on the toothpaste tube and it dribbles out all over the counter – I don’t think I can live with him anymore”
It may sound crazy but this is the substance of most of the conflict in our homes. We seem to turn seemingly trivial offenses into grounds for divorce. The underlying truth is these arguments are rarely about the toothpaste tubes in our lives? Our conflict is at a much deeper level. Here are some examples that I have seen:
- He doesn’t clean up, therefore, he doesn’t care about me
- She is late therefore she doesn’t think I’m important
- He didn’t remember to pick up milk on the way home, therefore, he doesn’t love me
- She bought an expensive dress, therefore, she doesn’t respect me.
All of these events are interpreted through the lens of our own insecurity regarding the relationship and therefore validate our underlying assumption. For example, did the husband consciously decide to make a statement about his lack of love for his wife when he forgot to bring home the milk? Or did the wife say, “I’m really going to stick it to him” when she bought that dress? No! But we act like they did and therefore judge our spouse’s actions as if we were prosecuting a murder trial and have found the smoking gun. This leaves our spouse feeling misjudged and condemned saying things like … “relax, it’s only a toothpaste tube!”
But it isn’t a toothpaste tube … it’s much more, it’s how we experience relationships.
Let me propose an alternative. John Gottman in his 45 years of research into marriages has concluded that good marriages have the ability to default to the positive. This means that when something happens that could be interpreted negatively it is instead seen in the context of overall positive experiences and therefore overlooked as an isolated negative event. In what he calls “good enough marriages” this happens often. Couples just don’t make a big deal of all the little irritations that happen in their relationship because they are fundamentally secure in their mutual love for one another.
But this doesn’t mean that you should let everything slip by. Sometimes our spouse does something that we simply must confront for the good of the marriage (not to mention our sanity)
And here in lays the challenge, when should we confront and when should we just let it slide?
Below is a visual for what I refer to as the Tolerance Line.
Those things that are below the Tolerance Line you let go but when something rises above this line that is when you must address it.
Some may be asking, “Why don’t we just let everything go?”
Because when happens that is at the core of the vision you have for your life or your relationship you must confront or be in danger of losing yourself. Healthy conflict is a golden door to intimacy because it is where you define your values, dreams, desires, hopes, and beliefs. In short, it is where you draw the boundary lines around who you are as a person. If you lose that, then you lose yourself, and if you lose yourself then you can’t possibly be in a healthy relationship with another person. This is because there is no authentic person to connect with the relationship. When we enter into a healthy conflict we allow ourselves to be seen and known because the situation we are addressing is in some way touching one or more of these vital areas. How are we to know each other unless we talk about the things that cause us distress?
The key to this type of healthy conflict is that we carefully consider what to let go and what to talk about. And if we choose wrongly (i.e. we fail to have the courage to confront) these are some of the consequences we experience.
- Unresolved anger
- Passive aggressive behavior
- Lack of intimacy
- Loss of self
How do you know the difference? Here are some principles for bringing up issues that cross our Tolerance Line.
Is it trivial?
If it is trivial, then let it go. This means that we stop being oversensitive and realize that somethings just don’t rise to the level of confrontation. Let’s face it, our spouse is much different than we are (that is one of the main reasons we are in the relationship) therefore they are going to think and act differently than we do. This means there are going to many, many times when we just need to step back and say in our best French accent “vive la différence!”
Is it about me?
By this I mean, is this our issue and not theirs? Are my unhealed emotional wounds being triggered? Am I asking those in my life to walk on “egg shells” because I have a problem with crunching sounds? (yes, I am speaking metaphorically … I hope!) If this is your issue then you must not put the burden on them to accommodate your problem. This means you need to get serious about your own healing. I believe that part of the healing process is to let those closest to us into the process by telling them where we are struggling. But this is a far different conversation than the condemnation, shaming or otherwise controlling behavior we often exhibit when our insecurities are triggered.
Will this negatively affect our relationship?
Is this is something that will not go away, and will create distance between us if left unchecked? If so, then it has crossed the Tolerance Line even if you don’t want to confront it. Sometimes when the Tolerance Line is crossed it is not accompanied by our strong emotions. Sometimes, we need to become courageous and speak even when we are loathed to do so.
Will this negatively affect my spouse in other areas of their life?
We are our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers, and a part of the commitment to our marriage is a willingness to watch each other’s back. This means that when we see our spouse do something that will sabotage their life in some other area we must confront it. Not merely when our own comfort zone has been violated. This is love: “To do what is in the best interest of the other person, no matter what!”
Can I put aside my prejudice and judgments and listen to their side?
We are not ready to confront until we are ready to listen. Why is this when we clearly see that something they are doing is wrong? Two reasons come to mind.
- They will not listen to us if we don’t listen to them. Yes, what Teddy Roosevelt said many years ago is still true. “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” One of the chief ways we show that we care is when we take the time and effort to understand their reality by listening to them. This shows ultimate respect and when someone feels respected they will most likely offer up the same honor.
- When we listen (I mean listen for understanding and empathy) to our spouse it helps us discern if we have been thinking wrongly. Yes, when we believe that someone has crossed the Tolerance Line we often can’t see ourselves clearly. We think we have a righteous argument but in reality, we are just being self-righteous. Confrontation with humility and a willingness to listen and learn is the greatest safeguard for this condition.
Am I willing to share my vulnerable emotions?
Nobody likes being confronted by an angry person. It is the surest way to end any chance of a successful compromise by creating a defensive response. We need to lead with an emotion that will draw them in and help create an atmosphere of understanding. In Gottman terms, this is called a “soft startup”. Think of it this way. If you saw a person on the street ranting and raving, waving their arms in anger would you walk up to them and ask them what’s going on? No! You’d cross to the other side of the street or even call the Cops. But if you saw someone sad and crying you’d probably be tempted to walk over and ask if you could do something to help. That’s the difference between soft and hard emotions? Sadness, confusion, fear, loneliness and the like draw others closer to us but anger, hostility, aggression repel them. Next time someone crosses your Tolerance Line lead with a soft emotion and see what a difference it will make to their receptivity.
The bottom line in all Tolerance Lines is forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not restore a relationship but it does empty the relationship of the toxins that keep people stuck in the revolving door of resentment and retribution. If you want to be in a relationship you will need to get very, very good at forgiveness. Even if someone has crossed your Tolerance Line there is still no excuse for not to forgiving them, no matter how many times they do it. Yes, you may need to confront them, and yes there may be no successful outcome but that does not mean that you have the right to remain in a state of unforgiveness. Forgiveness does not guarantee reconciliation but unforgiveness does guarantee continued conflict. Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself that keeps your heart from growing cold and hard and allows you to grow in love, peace, and joy.
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