Hey fellow human who also probably has a small subset of humans they love having in their lives… don’t you also hate them sometimes? What’s that about? A favorite couple of mine started their journey of love while both in high school, because it would be weird if only one were, and has continued on until the modern age after 65 years. Their relationship has seen us go from sheet music to Rick Rolling, German scientist lobbing rockets for less distance than Warren Moon can throw a football to Elon Musk shipping his car to Mars to call ultimate dibs on what he considers a place soon to run out of parking spaces. When I was invited inside I was offered a glass of water and got to witness the most focused existential relationship crisis it has ever been my privilege to witness. He dries glasses upside down so dust doesn’t get into them, she dries glasses right side up so they dry faster with less chance to grow mold. This has been going on for the majority of of his life now, it is chipping away steadily at his very being, it is a war that can never be won except through total destruction. For a brief moment I saw despair, contempt, grief, and one more attempt at acceptance cross his face, it was beautiful. Obviously master’s of relationshipping, how do they do it!? I found out it was through acceptance that times get hard for everyone, understanding our partners is critical, and knowing how to come back together is vital.
Relationships are a Journey, Not a Destination
Research from the Gottman Institute tells us that ~69% (heh, it’s the funny number) of conflict issues in a relationship are perpetual, like the drinking bird toy, they will never stop until something is broken with the fundamental laws of our universe. Ranging from whether or not to have children to a nesting partner’s deep seated need to spend a significant portion of our income on drinking tumblers (the whole point is you only need one!), there are just some things you’ll never see eye to eye on. In fact, most things. Step one is to pick your battles. Do I love that I can’t put real glasses in my cabinets due to having more mismatched lids, straws, and tumblers than a tupperware factory targeted by a terrorist bomber? Unequivocally no. Do I have to sit with and ruminate on the disorganized chaos that is now the “Tumbler Cabinet” which surely is a symbol of my partner’s bizarre internal world? Also no, I can shut that door and realize it’s a dark place never to be opened, just like Dana had to deal with her fridge in Ghostbusters. Can I choose to appreciate that forcing me to keep a number of glasses on our countertops allows me to immediately pick and use one, yes. We call this ACT therapy:
- Accept a situation. Some people are just wrong about life, some of them aren’t just people you argue with on the internet, but actual human beings you choose to have in your life. I love my tumbler-gremlin, hoarding nesting partner.
- Choose a way of being. Consider all the ways you could react, both mentally and with behaviors, and pick one that you believe represents your best self. Petty Cody would make an effigy out of tumblers and attempt to set them on fire. According to their tags, most of them are nigh indestructible and I could light it up multiple times! Passive aggressive Cody could order custom ones with petty jabs printed no them. Best Cody will engage in my nesting partner’s “hobby”, buying a couple they may value until the next shiny / funny one shows up.
- Take Action. Now that you’ve mentally role played what Best You would do, try your best to do that.
Also, rather than just having to accept that this wonderful person you love only has a barely functional level of having life figured out according to you or yelling in circles, these disagreements can become moments in which the relationship is strengthened.
Building Love Maps, accurate charts of our partner’s internal world, is a great bond affirming practice that leads to fulfilling stable relationships. While I first considered that if I stare long enough into the black void of a tumbler, it stares back at me, ultimately I decided to study my partner David Attenbrough style. I, and the Gottman Institute, suggest an exercise called Dreams Within Conflict. The things you fight about have within them values and symbols of meaning that are worth exploring. Here’s how you do this:
- Draw a circle you’re going to write in, then a bigger circle around it. The inner circle will be your core values, things that absolutely define who is “I am” for you and can not be changed. The outer circle represents points you can be flexible on. Compare them with each other.
- We will now begin asking questions about what we see. Begin with pure curiosity, don’t try to solve the problem at this point. Just really dig in and listen to learn about what matters to your partner.
- When you both feel well understood, move to creating temporary solutions based on empathy fostered in understanding your partner and what you’ve learned that is flexible.
Some of the reasons you make temporary agreements is this problem may be unsolvable but managed, nobody gets in trouble when a temporary agreement needs to be changed because it’s meant to be temporary, and it may actually grow into more long term agreements.
Well Now You Tell Me! What Now?
Let’s just pretend, for funsies, you haven’t just nailed every moment of conflict with those you love and have at times said or done something regrettable. Just pretend with us you gorgeous and perfect human being. Here’s what the rest of us can do to repair from these moments. The Gottman Institute swoops in again with just the exercise to try out, Aftermath of a Regrettable Incident, and here how it goes:
- Begin by asking how each other they felt during the conflict. Just that. Something like, “I felt scared, overwhelmed, and frustrated.”
- Everyone involved will have a different point of view of what went down. You may be surprised that sometimes you don’t even have the same understanding of when the conflict started or ended. Give your side without judgement or negativity. Describe only your self. When your partner describes themself, summarize what you hear and validate them. See if you can agree on what really escalated the conflict.
- Own your part. It takes two to tango, and at least two to have a tumbler throwing fight in the backyard like a game of cornhole gone askew.
- Make a plan that includes how you could do a little better in the next discussion. This does not include improving your aim in my scenario, yours might if you’re arguing about the bathroom.
Is there a Tumbler Support Group by the way? Asking for a friend. Extra points if it’s hosted on Tumblr. If you or someone you know feels like their argument playlist is stuck on shuffle and repeat, reach out to me using the contact information below for a free consultation.