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Repairing Your Relationship "Fender-Benders"

July 11, 2016 by ·

angry coupleMy wife and I have always had a strong friendship. We are pretty good at communicating with one another and we don’t often fight. But, lately things have been off. Argghhh. We’ve been getting in to stupid conflicts and I just don’t feel like we are “hearing” or “seeing” each other clearly. What’s going on with us?

Let me play out our recent “car wreck” in slow motion.

We are both involved in working on a newly developing project.  The project is in its nascent stages – still considerably amorphous.  Conversations with various people have taken place to get input as to what the key strategies should be to stack the deck towards success.  While some of these conversations have included both me and my wife, I have had a handful of other conversations in which she has not been included.  So, I am collecting inputs and formulating a concept of how the project might get structured.  I consider my thinking a work in progress – no conclusions yet – just trying out various ideas.

Here it comes.  Watch carefully.

I sit down one morning with my wife to get her perspective on my emerging idea.  I lay it out.  What I describe is quite different than the last conversation in which we were both involved.  This last conversation was with a young adult who we both like a lot and who is hoping to get a job in the emerging project.  My wife hears me describe something that might leave this young adult either out of the picture or in a less central role.  Unfair.  Unkind. I feel the “car” starting to swerve. It is also apparent to her that my evolved thinking derived from conversations in which she was not included.  Unfair.  Unkind.  I denote irritation in her voice and her less-than-enthusiastic receptivity to what I am describing.

Bam!  The crash occurs.

I am disappointed by her response and unwittingly convey my negative affect. I accuse her of misunderstanding what I’m saying.  Of course, my “unkind” and “unfair” accusation stokes the fire.  We find ourselves talking AT one another and not WITH one another.  And it feels terrible to both of us. We realize we’re actually fighting instead of having a discussion, so we walk away from each other feeling horrible – angry, guilty, disappointed.

Later, we returned to scene of the crash to see if we could repair the damage from this relationship “fender-bender”.  Both being psychologists and both immersed in character science, we immediately donned our “strengths glasses” to understand what might be happening.  Here’s what we discovered:

  1. Yes, we’ve had some recent stressors.  Under conditions of stress, we, like others, tend to lean on our most familiar and second-nature “signature strengths”.
  2. Our signature strengths were colliding.
  3. We could defuse the hurt and frustration with one another by having a discussion of our strengths collisions and bringing other strengths forward to navigate more safely.

Among my top signature strengths are creativity, perseverance, and critical thinking.  This means that I tend to “dispassionately” consider the various facts in a situation, process them rationally to arrive at new perspectives/ideas, and be very persistent in doing so.

My wife’s top strengths include fairness, kindness, and perspective.  This means that she looks at a situation and arrives at a perspective by considering the facts BUT also with a keen sensitivity to considering the impact on others in terms of compassion and justice.

When we sat down to assess the damage I recognized that when I approached my wife that morning I had led with my signature strengths without consideration of hers.  In retrospect I easily could have anticipated that she would react to being left out of certain conversations and that what I was presenting might hurt our mutual young and enthusiastic friend. I needed to call upon my strength of perspective to realize that she felt an offense against her kindness and fairness.

She realized that she could have anticipated that my creative impulsiveness led to a variety of impromptu conversations and that my critical thinking was formulating various possible solutions as opposed to thinking that I had impulsively arrived at a conclusion of how to proceed. She quickly tapped into her strength of forgiveness as she was reminded of my top strengths and realized I wasn’t intentionally leaving her out of the plans.

You see, especially in times of stress, we tend to jam on the accelerators of our signature strengths and to kick into “reactive” mode vs. “responsive” mode.  At that point it’s like we are in one of those bumper car or “dodgem” rides at an amusement park.  At any and every moment we seem to be colliding with others!

So, to avoid or resolve collisions in your relationships do the following:

  1. Know your signature strengths of character and your partners’ by taking the VIA Survey and having a conversation about the results.
  2. Prior to any discussion that might be emotionally loaded or in times of stress, pause before starting a conversation.  During that pause, remind yourself of your partner’s signature strengths and how what you want to say will be filtered by those strengths.  Adjust accordingly!
  3. If you notice gentle “bumping” occurring, PAUSE AGAIN!  This is a tall order – easier said than done, as you need to keep listening to what is being said. At this pause, refocus your conversation on your partner’s signature strengths – speak to her kindness/fairness.  For example, “I realize it’s unfair of me to not have included you and others in all the conversations.  It leaves everyone at a disadvantage in talking with me and also gives the impression that I’m wanting to make this decision alone.  I can see how that could feel bad to you and others.”
  4. If the gentle bumping seems to be turning into a full blown crash call “time out”.  “Something is happening here that feels bad and that I don’t understand.  I don’t want to fight with you.  Let’s break, try to figure out what’s going on, and come back to it after lunch.”
  5. Understand that “crashes” are bound to happen in close relationships and that they are not indicators that something is wrong with the relationship.  Instead, realize that human communication is tricky, that language is imperfect, and that conflicts are opportunities to grow.
  6. Keep you character strengths glasses close at hand at all times.  Imagine them riding on top of your head like your sunglasses – there to be donned quickly when needed.

The follow-up signature strengths conversation I had with my wife was like sending our “car”/relationship to the body shop and getting it back with dents removed and shiny paint.  We now are wiser about how our respective signature strengths impact our communication. Like cars, our relationships need tune-ups, maintenance, and sometimes, repairs. Resources, like the VIA online course, Positive Relationships and Character Strengths, can help with these “tune-ups”, giving you strategies to strengthen and nurture your close relationships and resolve conflicts as they arise. Building a relationship based on character strengths creates better “drivers” and, let’s face it, we could all use a lesson in driving from time to time.

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