There are two critical necessities for a good relationship: (1) Get along, (2) Talk skillfully when you can’t.
Much of our culture focuses on the first. Thus, we are not good at the second.
Ways of getting along promoted by our culture include a wide variety of avoidance strategies (see this post on intimacy and avoidance strategies): being polite, avoiding uncomfortable topics, distraction, being nice, being positive. Our culture also teaches us how to ignore various aspects of reality, chief among them unpleasant emotion (see this post about “the dark side of looking on the bright side”). Finally, our culture emphasizes the role of the individual, the power of one. These are all gifts our culture has gifted to us. They work well…until they don’t.
And there is a particular cluster of habits that make it very difficult to get along with someone. They are precisely the cluster of habits that make it almost impossible to communicate skillfully when conflict arises (this is the most severe form of “the two-planet problem” discussed near the end of this post). I call this cluster of 3 habits, the “unholy trinity”. They are perceptiveness, defensiveness, and lack of self-awareness.
Perceptiveness is the ability to perceive subtle cues, such as small aspects of body language. This is a good thing though our culture often tries to “toughen” people up, encouraging obtuseness rather than perceptiveness. Sometimes, we use the word “sensitive” to describe this quality, but since that word may have negative connotations for some, “perceptiveness” is a better word.
Defensiveness is responding as if you have been criticized when there has been no criticism. This is one negative side effect of focusing on individual responsibility: we are trained to view things as our fault. No wonder so many of us are defensive!
Lack of self-awareness. The mainstream interest in mindfulness meditation is encouraging as an indicator of our culture’s interest in increasing our own self-awareness: awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations that represent the available data for a given moment. But, lack of self-awareness means someone who does not recognize their patterns.
The Unholy Trinity in Action
Defensiveness is always a problematic habit for relationships, but when combined with perceptiveness and lack of self-awareness, we get a particularly potent mix. Specifically, we get someone who picks up on subtle cues, interprets them as criticism, is unaware of their own tendency to do this, and thus attacks the person who has been “critical” of them. Such a person may also be unaware of their own unpleasant emotion and thus sincerely ignorant that they have been hurt, feel anger, etc. Thus, they are attacking the other simply “because the other is wrong” and will sometimes deny the presence of emotion that is obvious to everyone else. The more fragile a person is, the more this set of defenses is important, and the more strongly they will cling to them.
Even skillful communication can cause things to deteriorate. And, of course, it’s difficult to communicate skillfully even under the best of circumstances; the presence of the unholy trinity represents very difficult circumstances and thus, skillful communication is difficult if not impossible for most of us.
If others have ideas about how to skillfully communicate with people unfortunate enough to have the unholy trinity, please share them. In the meantime, my best ideas are simple (though unfortunate): (1) minimize your interactions, and (2) keep any interactions you do have “light and easy”. You may notice that these two rules correspond to some of our culture’s rules about “getting along” and demonstrate that sometimes avoidance strategies are, unfortunately, the best we can do. (I suspect another solution involves the ability to be truly vulnerable to such people, but this hypothesis requires further thought and in vivo experimentation.)
Married to the Unholy Trinity. Some people are connected to folks with the unholy trinity, either through blood, marriage, or some other type of difficult-to-escape connection (e.g., your boss, your co-worker). If that’s the case, it may be difficult to minimize our interactions, leaving only the attempt to try to keep things light and easy, and acceptance that misunderstandings are inevitable.
Those of us unlucky enough to find ourselves cursed with the unholy trinity can work on improving in each area. Know that these 3 habits exist in us because they were trained in us: we learned them because they helped us survive until today, and, from that perspective, these habits are not our fault. That knowledge can facilitate compassion for ourselves and others.
Even if we don’t have strong elements of the Unholy Trinity, the vast majority of us can improve in each of these three areas, working day-by-day to be more perceptive, less defensive, and more self-aware. Compassion for ourselves and each other is a part of this practice. If we would like to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves”, it is important work because only when we know and have compassion for all of who we are, including our pleasant and unpleasant qualities, can we know and have compassion for those same aspects present in our neighbors. One of the major benefits of being tied to people through marriage or other strong connections is that those connections almost force us to grow. Without the connection, we would bail and we wouldn’t learn to improve, becoming more skillfully and fully human.