It has happened to all of us. Things seem to be going well in your relationship and then suddenly something happens: a misunderstanding, a disagreement, an unmet expectation, or perhaps one of you is just feeling really down or overwhelmed or is having a tough time with a friend or coworker.
How do you handle sticky situations in your relationship? Of course, a lot of that depends on the situation and the dance between you and your partner, but what are your tendencies? Are you quick to get upset? Do you try to avoid confrontations? Do you tend to shut down and stop communicating? Are you quick to complain? Do you have the tendency to hold things in? And what about the times when your partner comes to you with an upset or complaint? Do you tend to be too accommodating? Are you quick to get defensive? Do you tend to go into problem-solving mode?
Of course, each of these tendencies is a wonderful doorway to life-changing personal discovery and growth. But the thing that I want to get into here is that, as you have undoubtedly experienced firsthand, far too often our ways of handling these situations don’t produce our desired outcomes.
Let’s look at a real-life example. As always, the names of individuals are changed for confidentiality. Bill and Jane had been in a relationship for about two years and really cared for each other. Even though they both wanted to be supportive when the other was down, neither of them actually felt supported. When Jane was down, Bill would let her be and would try his best to not take it personally. But Jane’s interpretation of this was that Bill didn’t really care and wasn’t there for her when she needed him most.
When Bill was down, Jane would show him how concerned she was; she would try to talk to him and find out what was bothering him. And when Bill wouldn’t share what was going on with him, she would start taking it personally. This really frustrated Bill: “Why can’t she give me some space and let me deal with my thing? She being so concerned about me shows that she has no faith in me being able to handle my issue on my own. And on top of feeling down, now I also need to worry about her not taking it personally. What kind of support is that?”
You see, Bill and Jane were in fact being very consistent in providing the exact kind of support that they wished to receive. They were so busy being “right” about their way of offering support that they had forgotten to take the time to find out exactly what kind of support was actually needed.
HOW TO APPLY THIS IN YOUR LIFE
Wouldn’t it be nice to know how to handle sticky situations with your partner before they come up? In fact, in relationships with strong foundations, people do.
One way to achieve that is through a lot of — sometimes painful and frustrating — trial and error; that is if your relationship survives through it all. Another way to achieve that is through a simple process called Designed Foundation.
To do this, find a time when there is good energy and connection between the two of you. Then have a conversation with each other about the following:
A) Ask each other: When you are feeling down, what is the best way for me to be supportive? What would you like from me when you are feeling overwhelmed or upset?
* I’d like to be listened to (without problem-solving)
* I’d prefer to be left alone
* If you need to pull away, tell me that it’s not about me… and that you’ll be back.
* Ask me (at that time): How can I help or be supportive?
* Don’t take it personally
* It would help me if you somehow show that you are not worried about me
B) Tell on yourself: Think of any of your tendencies or habitual ways of behaving that can affect the relationship in a negative way.
For example, if you have the tendency to over-react, tell your partner about that. But do this from a place of responsibility. In other words, this is not intended to pave the way for you to keep over-reacting. Rather, it is about you owning up to the fact that you sometimes over-react, preparing your partner so that s/he won’t buy into your drama, and even asking for his/her support in helping you grow out of it.
Other examples: “When I get upset, I sometimes tend to keep it to myself. This is how you can help me be more communicative…” Or “I sometimes have a hard time trusting. This is how you can help me overcome that weakness…”
You can also talk about things such as giving one another tips about how to bring out the best in you. Or point out what would help you talk about the big elephants in your relationship. And so on. But avoid doing too much. Remember that you can always add things later on and keep fine-tuning your Designed Foundation.
The hardest part of this process is actually initiating it. Once you do, you will wonder what took you so long!