Monday, July 25, 2011

THe Slippery Slope

Here's a quick test for how your relationship is doing. If love and peace and intimacy were moving forward, and conflict and judgment is moving backward, answer this question truthfully:

What direction is your relationship moving in, and at what speed?

When couples come to see us, they are often moving backward, in a viscous cycle. In this stage, communication easily slips into reactions to reactions to reactions. Each party sincerely believes that "as soon as the other person stops, I will." This is what seems fair because each party can name an incident which predates their reaction, that the other party did something wrong earlier.

Basically, the relationship has been reduced to the "he started it!" that parents and teachers hear from children so often.

But it does feel real. How can you respond lovingly to repeated affronts? Each partner can even name moments when they did try to forgive and forget, and got slammed anyway, so better to hold out for justice.

Of course, this strategy accounts for the backward motion of the relationship. Both parties are driving their part of the relationship looking only in the rearview mirror, waiting for their partner to rectify the past, before they feel safe to move on to new territory. But since both parties are using this same strategy, the relationship just keeps backing up over the same painful turf.

There comes a time when this backward motion develops a momentum. Even without trying, even little things seem to just slide back the wrong way. Worse, even when both parties decide to turn things around, it seems like the relationship is already careening down an incline too steep to stop, and so kicking and screaming, the whole family keeps sliding backwards down into chaos and conflict.

When I'm with a couple in this state, I can see the topography of their relationship like a hill that just keeps getting steeper and steeper. After a while it doesn't seem like it has anything to do with them, it is just the shape of the terrain.

And it is the shape of the terrain, but the surprising fact is that this particular terrain responds to us, even though it feels the other way around.

When you stop speaking in judgments and reactions, the ground levels out immediately.

Often by the end of the very first session (when I am translating their judgments into expressions of universal needs for them) both parties can feel the ground beneath them level out. Often during that first week at home they slide back down into their old strategy and blame the OTHER PERSON and the terrain slants back down again.

So let me make it really clear: when you feel the earth begin to slant away from your partner, when you feel yourself moving inexorably away from them, it's your point of view of the situation which is causing that.

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