commodorified: a capital m, in fancy type, on a coloured background (Default)
[personal profile] commodorified
I was discussing this with [personal profile] fairestcat and she suggested I write a blog post about it. I'm grateful to her and to [personal profile] staranise and [personal profile] yatima for moral, intellectual, and practical support in writing it and, indeed, in general.

So, many years ago I was a member of alt.support.step-parents, and I made some amazing friends, many of whom I still have today (you know who you are; I love you all), and I learned a truly vast number of useful things about relationships. This may possibly be the most universally useful: how to bootstrap a relationship that's become angry and despairing and combative, or just grimly resentful, with or without the active co-operation of the other person — that last being especially relevant because I learned it in the context of parenting, where it is frequently incumbent on the part of the adult to make unilateral decisions.

[personal profile] staranise and [personal profile] yatima both recognised it, when I started talking about this, as coming originally from Dr John Gottman, which was news to me. I learned a much simpler, third-hand version of it, freely modified for parental situations, and then modified it back on my own, so I think it's fair to say the exact phrasing and ratios he discusses are optional.

I can honestly say that it's been instrumental in saving two of my current relationships, and has improved all of them.

It's simple, if not always easy, but a bit counter-intuitive: don't worry about the conflicts. Don't worry about fighting less, or "more fairly", or whatever. Don't try to minimize the negative or difficult aspects of your relationship. When things are going badly, it's natural to focus on those things, but the more we focus on them the more overwhelming they can become.

Instead: focus on maximising the number and quality of your positive interactions, however you can.

Say "thank you." Say "I love you." Hug. Go for walks. Send each other silly pictures. Admire their shirt. Pat their ass, if they like that sort of thing. Give small silly gifts - quantity beats quality, here. Flowers on your birthday is nice, but coffee every weekend morning or cocoa at night or a cup of tea when they're exhausted are way more to the point.

Whatever you can think of and make happen. You'll still fight. Try not to fret too much about it. Fit the positive stuff in around the fights. Wedge it in with a mallet if you have to, in the ten minutes a day when you quite like or at least don't much mind each other, which I swear is very nearly where we started.

Your conflicts won't vanish, but the number of times they drive you to waves of overwhelming despair will diminish rapidly. The fights will get shorter, less damaging, more productive. Next thing you know you'll be discussing things respectfully and with obvious affection, and having valuable insights into each other's mental and emotional processes and stuff.

What you're doing, basically, is building strength and resilience into the relationship. That strength and resilience, in turn, generate trust and comfort, which will give you more energy and more will to use to address the conflicts, and more motivation to keep conflict from becoming combat. Plus, it becomes a pleasant habit very quickly: I cannot actually count the number of rituals and habits and kindnesses and silly in-jokes that have built up in well over a decade of this, and every single one of them both makes me, personally, happier, and makes my relationships stronger.

Ideally, in a peer-to-peer relationship, you want to discuss this and get everyone onside, as soon as possible, but I confess that I'm fairly certain that my husband is finding out, um, nowish that this was a conscious, planned thing I did. (Edit: I ran this past him before posting it, as one does: would it surprise you all to hear that I am not nearly as subtle as I like to think I am?) So, it's ideal but it's not absolutely vital. If you're trying to repair your relationship with your kid (or stepkid) or if you're at the point in your relationship where you really can't talk about anything at all without it potentially turning into a battle, or you're trying to repair a professional or collegial rather than a personal relationship and discussing it isn't on the table, it really does still work. It takes longer, but it still does work. They'll start doing it back, just because it's enjoyable, and it's really not that hard to get people to do enjoyable things. You won't always end up with a great relationship, but you'll get the best one it's possible for you to have with that person. Sometimes that's still not good enough, but usually it is.

I'm finding this surprisingly hard to write because it sounds too "one weird trick" to be true, but amazingly, it actually is that simple. See, we tend to think that we treat people badly because we dislike them, so we try to address the emotions so that the behaviour will change, but actually, we tend to dislike people who we treat badly, and like people who we treat well. Nobody wants to be the sort of person who treats their friends and family badly for no damned reason but habit, so we tend to invent reasons. We don't mean to. It's unconscious.

There are only a couple of caveats, but they're important: firstly, it's important not to try to use this to try to make someone else feel badly about how they're acting or to derail or shortcut conflicts. The goal is not to persuade the other person that things aren't that bad, or to praise them for things you actually hate. Equally, the goal is not to convince them that your behaviour is kinder and more loving than it is. That's gaslighting. The goal is to do more kind and loving things and appreciate the kind loving things they do, and so make things actually better.

The second is, if you know or strongly suspect that you're in an abusive relationship, exercise extreme caution in trying this approach. If you're doing this unilaterally the other person may not reciprocate right away, but they shouldn't respond to your efforts by becoming more angry, hostile, or demanding (as opposed to more clear and open about what's already bothering them.) If you're working to lower the bar and they respond by raising the stakes, you've moved out of the area of problems you can both take an equal hand in solving and into problems that require outside intervention and fundamental change on the part of one person before anything is going to get better.

Date: 2017-05-03 10:18 pm (UTC)
niqaeli: cat with arizona flag in the background (Default)
From: [personal profile] niqaeli
It is that simple, much of the time! Simple is not the same as easy, though.

We, social creatures that we are, really do mostly reciprocate the signals we get from others, and our emotions also tend to follow after our actions. Change the signals you're sending, you'll often see change in the signals you get back. Change your actions, you'll often see change in your emotions. It's not one-to-one, your caveats are very important to bear in mind, and it will almost always take time, but it works much more than it doesn't and -- barring flat-out abusive dynamics -- generally won't makes things worse, which is better than you can say for a great deal of relationship advice.

But making yourself enact those changes when all you want to do is scream is where the difficulty is. *wry*

Date: 2017-05-03 10:43 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
Yeah, and in my experience -- altho I never had as nicely thought-out and logical a plan as this -- the temptation to internally go "Well YOU'RE not being nice to ME, why the FUCK should I be nice to YOU?" can uh override the better impulses.

But OTOH I remember seeing the difference when one time my partner was bitterly complaining about something, and rather than trying to offer help or argue him into a 'better' perspective or say you know I don't feel like listening to you bitch about this right now, I did the whole mirroring thing -- active listening, it sounds like you feel and think blahblah, that must be hard, and within like FIVE MINUTES he relaxed and was a lot more logical and open about it and back to his usual rational good-humoured self. I was all "It works! Magic!!"

So it's like you have to be willing to let go of the zero-sum game, of "well you weren't nice to me about X so I'm not going to listen to you about Y." That way lies disaster.

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Date: 2017-05-03 10:24 pm (UTC)
thatyourefuse: Vanessa Ives from Penny Dreadful, walking along a bloodtrail in the snow. (Default)
From: [personal profile] thatyourefuse
... emotionally complicated response.

(Which is to say, there is only so long one can go ON making a conscious effort to be extra super special nice to someone whose behavior does not respond in a meaningful way, before the whole effort snaps like a stretched rubber band and one ends up being more resentful than ever. I mean, not that that was the only thing that went incredibly wrong in the relationship I'm thinking about, but it contributed.)
Edited Date: 2017-05-04 01:33 pm (UTC)

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Date: 2017-05-04 02:58 pm (UTC)
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] staranise
Yep, that's why I'm so bitter with my father. The other person has to reciprocate for this to bear the fruit we want it to.

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Date: 2017-05-03 10:39 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
Oh wow, that is interesting. Thank you for writing it up (feel sick, so lacking in eloquence).

Date: 2017-05-04 12:27 am (UTC)
nolivingman: (Beauty)
From: [personal profile] nolivingman
Thank you for articulating something I've sort-of known but couldn't ever make conscious. I have done this without knowing it was a thing. It just seemed like a way to stop resentment inside of me, because I hate to carry that stuff around. And I was surprised to learn it worked in mysterious ways when I did it; all of a sudden I was repairing things with people at work, in friendships, etc.

I did not learn this in time to make my marriage be the thing it maybe should have been, but it's made my post divorce relationship with my ex a truly blessed thing.

Date: 2017-05-04 02:24 am (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
What is that old saw, resenting is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die? Heh. Only in this case it would be 'not doing anything positive and waiting for them to do it first.'

Date: 2017-05-04 01:27 am (UTC)
mycrazyhair: (Oooooh!)
From: [personal profile] mycrazyhair
I kind of adore you.

That is all.

Date: 2017-05-04 01:55 am (UTC)
villeinage: (Default)
From: [personal profile] villeinage
This is so much good --I want to frame this post; or maybe snuggle it in a cozy sweater and give it a mug of hot cocoa with whipped cream. Or have someone do that for me?

Anyway, really great advice!

Date: 2017-05-08 07:09 pm (UTC)
tenacious_snail: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tenacious_snail
what a lovely and eloquent way to express praise!

Date: 2017-05-04 02:26 am (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (Family by hsapiens)
From: [personal profile] princessofgeeks
I've tried a version of this, and it really does work.

With the caveats you already mentioned -- it has to be tried in a relationship that you do want to salvage and in which you do actually still care very much about the person... Or in the case of parent changing how they act toward a child or stepchild.

It can make a space of calm and goodwill that is a wonderful stepping stone to other things.

I agree that it's not really going to do much if it's an adult child trying to act this way toward a parent, because of the longstanding dynamics, but it would certainly help keep things more cheerful, I think.

For me, the person I worked this approach with got way less defensive almost immediately. My grievances were real, but they responded by feeling judged and criticized. By letting go of my grievances as much as I could for a period I set in advance (I think it was six months or maybe a year), and trying this basic "BE NICE ON AN EVERYDAY LEVEL" approach, much, much better things developed.

There's great information along these lines for parents or stepparents in that great book "How To Talk So Kids Will Listen..."

I also used a book whose name and author have slipped from my memory, but it was something along the lines of, How To Improve Your Relationship When the Other Person Won't Lift A Finger At First." It was kinda sexist, honestly, but the technique did indeed help. One key for me was setting a deadline in my mind. I couldn't do it forever with no improvement. But setting a deadline allowed me to try it as an experiment. For science!

Thanks for the post.

Date: 2017-05-08 07:10 pm (UTC)
tenacious_snail: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tenacious_snail
For a variety of reasons, I've been in a more appreciative mood lately. With one person in particular, but kinda in general, and I've noticed that it seemed to make things better. This is an excellent explanation of the phenomenon that I've been seeing, and it will help me do more of it. Thank you.

Date: 2017-05-04 05:09 am (UTC)
linaelyn: (trusted friends)
From: [personal profile] linaelyn
OMG WOMAN. HOW WHAT WHY HOW did you know I need this post SO BADLY.

Thank you. That's all I can say at this time, but... THANK YOU.

Date: 2017-05-04 11:36 am (UTC)
rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)
From: [personal profile] rmc28
This is really interesting, thank you.

Date: 2017-05-04 01:04 pm (UTC)
graydon: (Default)
From: [personal profile] graydon
One thing to keep in mind about this technique is that it presupposes a common understanding of "kind".

Whether from different brain chemistry, different life history, or just distinct social construction, that's not a given, and if there's definitional disagreement[1] about "kind" things can go entirely pear-shaped from sincere and heartfelt efforts to be kind.

It's an effective technique. People remain horrid complicated.

[1] distinguishing definitional disagreement about "kind" from definitional disagreement about "a relationship", well, I know an algorithm for undoing knots in string. No idea if there's a meaningful general case for that one.

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Date: 2017-05-04 01:17 pm (UTC)
ironphoenix: (flaming)
From: [personal profile] ironphoenix
Thank you for sharing this, it's a very good thing to keep in mind. It's worth doing even when there isn't A Thing, but as you say, it can be a relationship-saver when there is.

Date: 2017-05-04 04:48 pm (UTC)
cathexys: dark sphinx (default icon) (Default)
From: [personal profile] cathexys
I think I've been trying to do this with my younger son to a degree, who's really fighting me right now every step of the way. It wasn't until reading your post, however, that I became aware of that. Thank you! It allows me to work it more purposefully, and it also made me realize what was happening when after a day of fighting and yelling, we sat down to watch TV and he told me, I love you. So I may have to do the heavy lifting but it's not all one sided I think :)

Date: 2017-05-05 05:37 am (UTC)
danaoshee: (Default)
From: [personal profile] danaoshee
Can this be a reshareable sort of post, possibly? I just read it aloud to one partner, and his immediate response was to want to make many people read it.

Date: 2017-05-05 07:09 pm (UTC)
transcendancing: Darren Hayes quote "Life is for leading, for not people pleasing" (Default)
From: [personal profile] transcendancing
*lovelovelove* I didn't realise I was doing this, but without any conscious effort I do a bunch of this and seeing it all articulated so wonderfully is awesome. I have definitely found that the committed kindness works.

Date: 2017-05-06 02:36 am (UTC)
nenya_kanadka: Wonder Woman poster (kneeling with sword) (Default)
From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka
focus on maximising the number and quality of your positive interactions, however you can

This is something I've kind of stumbled on myself, and it really does seem to make a difference. And, key point: It's a thing I *CAN* do in most situations, and it's not some huge complicated eighteen-step process that I'll forget. It's do-able, basically, which means it's a lot more likely to actually be done.

I think the self-help book quote (don't ask me from where, but maybe Couple Talk, Chuck Moorman? were given copies at our wedding) that makes me remember this is "Say yes, as often as possible." You know, "Yes, I'll make some tea," "Sure, you can borrow my favourite towel that I'm not actually using right now," "Yeah, okay, I'll pick up milk when I'm buying cookies" "I can indeed tell you what year Gregory Peck was born, Mom!" Just kind of...Add More Good Stuff?

It does seem to work. And doesn't have to wait until things get super dire, either.

Date: 2017-05-10 03:14 am (UTC)
estelendur: (Default)
From: [personal profile] estelendur
I just got back on DW after several years' absence. I am also, for the first time, in a relationship that I dearly want to sustain where I also realize that I am a significant part of the problem. And so this is beautiful and useful. Thank you for it.

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