I was discussing this with fairestcat
and she suggested I write a blog post about it. I'm grateful to her and to staranise
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.staranise
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.