Communication, Relationships

The 3 C’s of Conflict Management is something I began to noodle on years ago in personal blog posts. It also came up in my grad school classes from time to time in different formats, including a “5Cs” version that IMO is really just the 3Cs with a couple of expansion packs. Having the concept ?arise in the class context totally validated what I’ve been apparently thinking about the 3Cs for years. In conflict management, or any kind of mediation exercise, there are three principle decision models: Capitulation, Compromise, and Collaboration (the 5C version also lists Consensus and Co-existence, but in my experience, both can be achieved through any of the original three options). One class wit suggested Conflagration as a potential model of conflict, and while that’s technically a possibility, it’s more often the signal of immediate termination for the relationship in question, rather than any state in which the relationship might feasibly continue for an indeterminate period of time.

In my own personal relationship lexicon, Capitulation is “The act of surrendering or yielding; in relationship terms, capitulation often means simply giving in or giving up in a negotiation or confrontational situation for the sake of ending the conflict as quickly as possible, whether you have achieved the desired results or not (and generally the party who capitulates is the party who “gives up” the most, in exchange for early termination of a tense situation). In Capitulation, one party gets what is desired, and the other party generally does not.” Individuals with a history of low self-esteem or a low threshold for conflict are more likely to capitulate on a position than defend a line; this could be for any number of reasons, most commonly out of one form of fear or another: fear of abandonment is a big one, in which non-capitulation will cost someone the relationship s/he wants to maintain, even if it largely toxic. Teenage girls are particularly susceptible to this, but it’s a pattern that manifests in both men and women, often learned very early in the family of origin as a need to please one’s parents or caregivers.

Compromise is “consent reached by mutual concessions; everyone gives up something in order to achieve a tolerable closure to a negotiation or confrontation. Unlike Capitulation, compromise often means that neither party gets exactly what is desired, but both sides can usually accept the sacrifices made on the personal level to gain some degree of acceptable overall closure or balance.” Compromise represents a common-ground approach to relational conflict management in particular, as the nature of the power struggle generally involves someone driving for either a clear “victory” (such as might be achieved if one partner forces another’s capitulation) or a sense of “parity”, in which each partner must give up something in order for one or both partners to feel a sense of equality or “balance of fairness”. A previous lover used to describe this state as “No-one gets what s/he wants, but at least everybody gets something they can live with.” It’s often the less-tactful way of establishing peace, but often as a zero-sum game in which both parties have to *lose* something in order to gain something else.

Unfortunately, in both capitulation and compromise, when there is *any* sense that someone has to sacrifice a want or a need in order to achieve balance and the impression of peace, that state of calm is inevitably temporary at best. When core needs in particular are being sacrificed, there is often a subtle biofeedback loop that gets set in motion, because we all constantly move to get our needs and wants met, whether we realize it or not. I have been documenting for many years my battles with my own inner weasels, which are the anthropomorphic versions of those internal motivations, the little voices that urge me to do things I rationally know I should not do, but find myself acting on anyway. In following my weasels, I would?compromise myself, giving up a moral high ground for a short term immoral or amoral itch-scratching. I would often find myself in this kind of situation, as so many of us do, because I have compromised myself elsewhere in a relationship, giving up something I wanted (for better or for worse) because my wanting that thing somehow upset my partner and introduced conflict and tension. So I would have either capitulation or compromised in order to end the conflict, without necessarily finding out whether those decision models were the most effective choice for my situation within the relationship.

Which brings me to Collaboration, or (as it has often been termed here) “collaborative solutions”: “A joint process shared by two or more people to examine all the known or discoverable needs in any given situation, the known or discoverable options available for addressing those needs, and discussing how each of those outcomes addresses or affects the needs in question. In theory (and with practice) the discussions will yield increased understanding and trust that make mutual Agreement and Buy-in to any jointly-designed proposal not only possible, but likely. Both (all) parties must be equally involved in the process of examining and proposing solutions, must stay Present while discussing needs, and be honest about their buy-in, for any solution to be truly collaborative. Unlike Capitulation or Compromise, the result of collaborative solutions is all parties feeling like they have achieved what they wanted, that their individual Needs have been met, and the results support and sustain the relationship.”

For collaboration to work effectively in relationships, it requires a lot of things from the participants:

  • self-awareness (you can’t collaborate effectively unless you know your own wants and needs, and understand what you have to offer),
  • vulnerability (a willingness to engage the process in good faith and to put your own needs on the table without subterfuge or manipulation),
  • compassion and empathy (the willing engagement of your partner’s needs and wants as they are presented to you in good faith),
  • an authentic desire to find collaborative solutions (this isn’t about forcing someone to capitulate to your fears just because their needs may provoke your internal fears; “sacrifice” is NOT the initial intent in collaboration),
  • and full presence in the engagement (being willing to stay focused on the process work, and not go haring off into fearful blame-storming or aggression; this isn’t about you, this isn’t about me, this is about the “us” of the relationship).

Collaboration is most likely the best means of achieving “together decisions”, because by their very nature, collaborations require partners to work together to achieve something that brings value to them and to the relationship, not decreases the perceived sense of value, nor diminishes individual position(s) within the relationship. True collaboration requires authentic buy-in from both parties to the belief that all needs are being respected, not lip-service to an agreement that actually disregards or fails to meet identified needs from the outset.

The reason I don’t include Consensus and Co-existence is because I consider them to be corollary to the three models above. The idea of consensus in a dyadic (2-partner) system is a little silly; as soon as both parties agree on something, you have consensus, regardless of which of the three principle decision models generates the agreement. Consensus works better in larger structures; it’s a better decision model for certain types of decisions within poly structures, for example, in which more than two potentially diverging viewpoints are required to be in agreement before a decision is enacted. Co-existence, on the other hand, is more likely to be the result of a failed decision model than a decision model itself. When partners fail to make “together choices”, they will increasingly make “apart choices”, and the slow continental drift that results from those “apart choices” can eventually result in partners living more like room-mates than like romantic intimates; vulnerability suffers, engagement erodes, collective buy-in becomes something that happens to other people. One can choose co-existence; one term for it in relational therapy is “parallel lives”. It’s not a relationship style that attracts proponents of authentic and intimate relationships; however it can become what those proponents find themselves in should they fail to make effective collaborations a lifelong habit in their authentic and intimate relationships.


Copyright 2009, 2011 KGrierson

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about choice, especially in how it relates to validation in relationships, which in turn relates to how people self-soothe (or don’t) their anxieties through either self-validation or other-validation. This in turn has lead to examining motivations for selecting relationships, both monogamous and polyamorous. (If you’ve read or are reading David Schnarch, you’ll have a better understanding of terms I’ve only got space and time to define fairly superficially; consider this further incentive to buy or library-loan yourself a copy of Passionate Marriage to learn in more depth what I’m about to go on about.)

David Schnarch?s phrase ?emotional terrorism? is a loaded phrase, especially when the lights come on and one realizes it’s a loaded phrase pointing most annoyingly at oneself. Inasmuch as we all generally make some astounding leaps in personal growth as we grow older, we all carry numerous human anxieties that connect at a molecular level to the equally-human need for validation.

Validation, in this sense, means an acknowledgment that one is a “good and worthy person” (as measured by a vague and often indeterminate set of personal values, the impact of which we may or may not be consciously aware). In the clich?d sense that “no individual is an island”, we all seek validation as a means of measuring ourselves in and against the world we inhabit, amidst the people with whom we share common space, be it a family, a workplace, a church, a community theatre company, a marriage or other intimate relationship. Schnarch conveniently illustrates the difference between self-validation and other-validation as the difference between being grounded and centred in a strong sense of Self, or being dependent on others to be mirrors reflecting back at us the things we think we want them to see.
When others don’t show us that we’re as good as we want to believe ourselves to be, other-validated individuals are easily crushed, and the more importance and value placed on the Other in the equation, the greater the despair when the mirror fails us. Self-validated people, however, can stand more easily in the absence of mirrors; they’re less concerned with other people’s reactions to them, ride the waves of social contact more easily, maintain a sense of balance that better weathers the unpredictable, surprising slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortunes. They don’t need other people’s company or noise to drown out the anxieties in their heads ? that doesn’t mean they don’t have anxieties, just that they are far better at self-soothing than people who depend on constant reassurance from others to soothe anxieties.

How does this relate to choice, specifically relationship choice?

Firstly, consider what I mean by “relationship CHOICE”.

Do you pursue specific individuals with a specific intent to create and maintain a particular type of relationships from the outset? Or do you “just fall into” relationships because you get comfortable with a person, and one thing leads to another, and next thing you know there’s a UHaul truck and a moving party and someone else’s toothbrush now lives permanently in your bathroom?

Do you *choose* to have relationships as a conscious decision, or do you decide not to think about them and just let them happen? Do you wonder if your partner(s) chose you to be *with you*, or got into the relationship more to avoid being alone, or to get away from some other form of untenable situation (for example, the White Knight rescues the Damsel in Distress from a Dastardly Family Situation, and she says, “Oh, thank you, Mr Knight, but I have no money, how can I ever repay you??” Cue the “bow-chicka -wow-wow” music, and three weeks’ worth of Gratuitous Gratitude Sex later, you’re both in a relationship because, really, what else is there to do in the country?)

Choice and validation are immutably connected by the simple fact that if you did not consciously *choose* to be with your partner, or one day you start to fear that s/he did not *choose* to be with you, that realization is going to cue a huge sky-rocketing anxiety for most people, especially if it comes after a long-term relationship (marriage or otherwise) has been established. That kind of fearful anxiety can tear relationships apart, because it cuts to the core of our need for validation:

If someone didn’t choose me, is it because I?m not good enough to be chosen?

If I?m not good enough to have been chosen, how can i now trust what my partner has been showing or telling me all this time, if I?m not the person my partner actively chose or chooses?

For almost all of my early significant relationships (2 in high school, 3 university/post, including my first marriage), I did not choose my partners because they themselves were people I wanted to be with. First and foremost, I fell into relationships without thinking about it. If I choose them it was because they could, in one way or another, take care of me. They soothed my anxieties and supported me long before I had a clue how to do so personally, professionally, spiritually, financially… any way you can think of. In one case, the relationship started less because he was someone I wanted to date, and more because we engaged a fantasy first, and he reflected back at me an image of myself I was trying on for size. Turns out, I wasn’t enamoured of that image, but by the time I came to that conclusion, we’d already moved in together and were hitting the rough seas that would eventually send us to our own relationship counseling.

There are a lot of relationships of both open and illicit natures that come about because an individual simply responds unconsciously to another person’s attraction. Sometimes it?s not even an explicitly sexual attraction being offered, yet it provokes a conditioned response, one that people often learn in their teens or early years, to respond to sexually as a means of trying to engage or anchor more of that positive-seeming reflection (“If I sleep with him/her, maybe s/he’ll like me more”). This conditioned response is as equally true for men as for women, in my experience.

In those moments, we don?t choose the person, we choose the image, the validation; it’s a subtle but profoundly-influencing objectification at work in that kind of choice. If the person offering the validation to us changes, we often cannot accept the change, and fight the loss of that validation it avidly. Change means a shift or distortion in the reflection; Other-based validation wavers, becomes inconsistent or absent, and our Other-based sense of self-definition is jeopardized, or evaporates completely. We struggle to change to Other person back to the person who gave us the sense of validation in the first place, often encountering resistance to the change-back message. When we are the ones who are changing, potentially throwing someone else?s Other-dependent source of validation into uncertainty, we hear or experience the ?Change Back!? message ourselves. When we hear the cry, “Change Back!” during the process of personal growth or differentiation, what we’re really doing is trying to force the changing Other back into the mirror frame so that the distortion goes away and we can restore normalcy by seeing the reflections of our selves as we expect to see them.

This dependency is emotional fusion at work, the kind of fusion that stifles growth and thwarts healthy development. It engenders and relies on emotional dependency on others to soothe anxieties, and we become emotional terrorists when our mirrors fail to show us what we want to see. This has been the pattern of normal relationships for as long as there have been relationships. Relationships can destabilize frighteningly quickly when specific things in a person?s world feel threatened, and most of us will react with varying degrees of emotional violence to force the quickest course-correction to put things back where we need them to be. That?s what Schnarch means by “emotional terrorist”. It?s not a pretty thing, even when it gets the short-term job done. Often the best we can do is to at least recognize when it’s happening, sometimes even in the moment, sometimes in time to at least make conscious choices about our responses to that attending anxiety. Learning to self-soothe the anxieties before they spike so enormously is a job reminiscent of pushing rope up a steep incline; it can be done, but it’s a lot of painfully-useless-seeming-at-the-time work.

So how does this all relate to developing poly relationships?

In complex systems, two is an inherently unstable configuration; three is more stable because more options provide more options for interaction, and in architectural geometry, the leaning angles of a three- or more-sided figure balance the structure. In short: a two-legged stool is unstable; a two-legged ladder cannot stand on its own. Add a third leg, however?

In Bowenian family systems, adding a third party to a dyadic (two-membered) relationship almost immediately reduces the stress between the two members of the dyad, by providing a third party to focus on (a child, for example, or a sibling, parent, coworker, job, pet, etc.) or to confide in (in the case of an adult family member, friend, or lover). Adultery, in its own way, reduces the stress within a marriage by enabling one partner to meet immediate needs elsewhere, reducing the pressure ? in this case, for sex ? on the spouse to provide sexual contact. While the adultery example is rife with other problems, it does provide a very clear illustration of how a third party can help bleed away some stressors and pressures within a relationship.

In polyamory, there are multiple intimate relationships present in the relational network, and any one of them can serve as a stabilizer or destabilizer, depending on the relationship skills of those involved, for any other relationship in the intimate network (the ?system?). Imagine how this, then, becomes an extremely important factor for Other-validated individuals: now there is not just *one* relational partner from whom one receives back mirrored validation, but potentially *many* partners. The crucially-important stabilizing factor is that if one relational angle then fails to mirror as expected, there will always be an assumed other lover(s) to turn to fill in the gap, thus ensuring that anxieties in such an Other-validated person never spikes so highly as to disrupt the functioning of the system as a whole.

When people talk about “selecting for type” their mates and lovers, often what they have is a certain type of personality they will seek out that best reflects their expected mirrored sense of Self. That?s why people tend to gravitate towards a particular predilection for personality types like “the good girl/the bad boy”, to stereotype a popular few. Those “types” are likely to offer particular views back at us that we expect to see that mesh with our own internalized senses of self. Abused spouses return time and again to abusive partners because the abuser reflects back at the victim the victim’s own sense of self, validating what the victim “knows” about him/herself.

We seek out, consciously or otherwise, lovers and partners who reflect back at us what we think we know about ourselves, as a way of validating ourselves. It’s a form of “confirmational bias” in which we only see what we already believe; seeing anything new about ourselves, and being open to the possibilities of being something other than what we expect, is tremendously, impossibly scary to a lot of people, and the lengths to which people go to avoid seeing themselves in new ways is truly awe-full.

Some people date for breadth, not depth, if you can say so without taking the obvious innuendo-laden tangents. Putting more people in one?s “intimate sphere? means more mirrors, increasing the odds that one can establish a stabilizing-if-superficial exposure when feeling anxious, rather than improving the internal ability to self-soothe. People who do this often won?t let anyone get close enough to become mirrors of things we do not want to see in ourselves, especially if those uncomfortable reflections and perceptions already occur at home in the primary relationship(s).

Lovers became objectified, serving as distractions and diversions from current or ongoing relationship work. Lovers who are too much work, because they threaten stability at home or detract from Self- or relational work we need to be doing elsewhere, are cut loose or held off to cool their heels in long intervals between dates. They are welcome as Other-validation until they became too challenging to an existing, ineffective, impression of the individual?s sense of Self.

Even for lovers who aren’t a lot of work, long intervals also meant a degree of perceived security for some. Lack of frequency is one way we controlled our own emotional investment levels, playing it cool and casual in order to avoid the temptation to “fall in love” or get uncontrolled NRE goo all over my nice clean life. Of course it works… to a point. For myself, the breaking point was realizing that even though I am ostensibly involved with a lot of people, I?m really not “involved” at all. It?s hard to have good, authentic relationships with people you genuinely like through the cocoon of armour and misdirected desires. It?s also impossible to have authentic relationships with people when you let them ? nay, when you *rely* on them to ? do all the work of managing your anxieties for you.

Honestly… I don’t think this is an uncommon pattern, in or out of the poly community. Seeking validation from others is such an insidious need that permeates so much of our unconscious motivations in relationships that it’s really difficult to peel back the layers of intentional self-misdirection to look at what we’re really doing: in effect, making ineffectual choices that meet a short-term, anxiety-based need, while encouraging our other-dependencies and undifferentiated perceptions of self-in-relation-to-other. For me, the uphill slog to learn the difference between raw emotional content, and the active response to that content has been a necessary part of sorting out my own tools for self-soothing. We all have anxieties; they are huge and well-defined by the number of hidden land mines connected to them. Learning to trust *ourselves* when they go off is, for most of us, a work in progress. But the key lesson to note here is: we CAN learn to trust ourselves instead of relying on partners, say, to change their behaviours in order to soothe our anxieties. Learning to stay present in the moment of those fearful surges is crucial, because when we can’t stay with them and soothe them, the only thing left is to shut them in a box and go distract ourselves with someone or something else. Distraction soothes to an extent, but the raging beast is still awake, and still raging behind a door we now can’t open or even look at, for fear of setting the anxiety surge loose all over again.

People who live like that eventually become nothing but a hallway of doors they cannot open, I think. I don’t want that to be me.

So it all comes back to looking at the choices we make in relationships:

How do I choose partners in the first place? Can I clearly identify whether I am, or am not, responding to a need to see myself validated by them as attractive and desirable? (Trust me, as I ease into my mid-40s and the Realm of the Cougar, this actually becomes the kind of stuff I find I have to think about). Am I expecting a potential lover to validate something that isn’t being validated in my primary relationship? Am I looking for the relationship equivalent of a pacifier or soother? Do I just want someone to be with when my partner is elsewhere so I don’t have to deal with soothing myself alone (often more of a driving motivation for more non-primary relationships than many of us will admit)? How am I behaving when the selected-for-unavailability-lovers actually prove to be as unavailable to me as I fear? What happens when I really *am* alone?

Some things have changed for the better. Schnarch also distinguishes between “genital prime” and “sexual prime”, taking our standard common societal impression of “sexual prime” and transferring that to “genital prime” (when men’s refractory period is fastest, and women’s genital response is also faster and/or more pronounced). Schnarch’s concept of “sexual prime”, however, is all about availability for emotional intimacy that only comes with experience and willing effort to be vulnerable; he uses a lot of language reminiscent of Goleman’s emotional intelligence; the crossover concepts are hard to miss, actually. In Schnarch’s opinion and experience, individuals and couples don’t reach his version of “sexual prime” until they’re old enough to have some profound relationship and self-definition experience under their belts: in their 40s and 50s and beyond.
This gives me some hope for an easier future, at least. the fact that my partner and I have made such a career out of doing the hard work of building a more conscious and authentic relationship (which is not to say we don’t still have Good Days and Bad Days, even recently) makes it easier to take the things that work out into the field of other relationships and make more conscious, functional decisions about how and why I engage those relationships. Mind you, the fact that I have no consistent label that I can apply across the board to the rapidly-decreasing number of people I?m arguably “dating” means I?m pretty much doing the work of treating each relationship as an individual thing from the get-go. That?s perhaps a more effective, consciously-mindful way of approaching the relationships… it’s a bucketload of work though.

Since my corollary relationships aren’t currently ones that cause me any anxiety, the work of self-soothing occurs mostly at home, and mostly at my partner?s expense. The work of the next indeterminate-while involves looking more closely at what anxieties get spiked by what kinds of triggers (some of that work we’ve already done in other situational contexts), and figure out for myself what I can learn to do as effective self-soothing when those fears get out of hand and explode messily, because they’re going to keep happening. These kinds of fears and anxieties are rooted so deeply that they don’t come up with the usual kind of weed-pulling tools. It’s also important to note that self-soothing fear and anxiety isn’t the same as “letting someone off the hook” for his or her part in the anxiety-spiking situation in the first place, but it does help clear space for a more effective manner of communicating that needs to happen in the resolution process. There is a time and place for channeling rage and fury into a situation, and a time and place for… something else. I?d like to be able to keep both as tools selected by choice than to depend solely on one manner of response as the only available, pre-programmed option. I prefer the effects I get when I know I?ve chosen the response consciously.

Also in progress for some time now is a decreasing dependency on others for my validation. This is not to say I don’t enjoy the ego boosts when they happen (who *doesn’t* enjoy positive responses to a flirtation or soul-searching tome of a blog post?), but I don’t *need* them like I used to. I don’t get crushed when my crushes don’t reciprocate interest. I don’t get crushed when lovers don’t make contact for months at a time (though I suspect there’s something complicated going on there that *is* wired to a residual mirrored validation issue, but that’s a tangent for another time). I don’t rely so much any more on other people’s responses to me to shape the space that I can fill; I define my own space more effectively by myself these days. This doesn’t mean I?m not interested in intimate relationships, rather the opposite; but now I pursue relationships because I want to and because I choose to, not because I *need* to in order to feel desired or desirable. Being secure enough in my Self to choose things, rather than being restricted to the limited options of pre-programmed responses, gives me far more… well, choices.

Being (relatively) free of anxiety-driven dependencies doesn’t diminish my interest in those intimate and engaged relationships; quite the contrary. It does increase my opportunities to be something other than an emotional terrorist struggling to keep the mirrors from distorting the limited external-based view of my Self. It also invites me to be “all that *I* can be”, without having to struggle into combat fatigues at the drop of a wrongly-worded comment and write more blog posts before 8am than most people write in a. Not having to be always in my armour and on the defensive against those shifting perspectives and availability of the Other is liberating, a revolution from the inside out.

And those relationships I choose to have for more effective reasons than dependency will, I think, be the stronger for it.


You know your world is too small when a friend in northern Virgina blogs something that sends a coworker into my office in Waterloo to shake his fist at me in a “shoot the messenger” kind of way.

The NoVa friend wrote:
“And indeed, we have discovered that some of our well used communication tools are, well … broken. In talking to [me] and [my partner] this weekend they pointed out something very simple – “tools break”. I tend to think of relationship/communication tools as handy, reliable and vaguely unbreakable – but that’s a fault in my thinking. I got lazy, we got lazy – whatever it is, I forgot that everything needs a tune up now and then.”

Having the friend’s words thusly reinforced by the coworker’s reaction, it surprises me (in a “this-really-shouldn’t-have-surprised-me” kind of way) to learn that people don’t realize that all things wear down – and sometimes break – over time and with repeated, occasionally forceful, use. As with workshop tools, so too with relationship tools.

Human beings are not carved in stone, and those actively pursuing any path of self-awareness and improvement are even more dynamic, in terms of changing things in themselves and their environments. It stands to reason, in my mind at least, that tools that worked at one stage may cease to work later on as needs change, as communications evolve, as faith and trust are established and change. Blunt-work tools that worked when a relationship was new and you spent most of your time just trying to hammer in *any* kind of process, generally get refined over time as you build trust and intimacy. But most people who have established long-term relationships also know that, after a while, it’s easy to get lazy and take things for granted… you start making assumptions, communicating from those assumptions, and BOOM! Suddenly things that worked even a few weeks ago suddenly seem to not be working at all.

There are two things to consider when you’ve reached that point.

a) Did the tools actually stop working, or
b) did you just stop applying the tools with as much care and attention as you used to apply?

If a), you might want to sit down with the other party(parties) in the relationship, and work back to what changed – what knot in the wood or pocket in the stone did you hit to cause that previously-fine chisel to turn in your hands and break? Why wasn’t the change communicated immediately (either by the person in whom the change occurred, or in the partner who may have noticed it and “let the little things slip until they became big things”, for example)? Was it a fear that kept notification of change under the rug? Or did everybody just miss it, by not being conscious of needs, and actions towards those needs?

If b) you might want to look at your own methods of communication, your own needs. Why did you stop driving that particular process? Did your needs change, did you start acting towards changed needs? Were you just getting tired of “all work, all the time” in terms of relationship management? Did you assume that falling back on patterns of expectation without any complaint from your partner meant that everything was OK, or worse, “all better”? Or did you stop because you felt you weren’t getting anywhere with your efforts – the return was no longer worth the investment of effort?

In either event, realizing that tools *can* stop working appears to be something of an earth-shaking revelation for people. I suspect that’s in part because we’re (some of us) reasonably new at this “conscious application of tools” business, and so, having met with a degree of success in our limited experiments to date, we trust they are universally infallible, and stop doing the homework, as it were. “Ah, I?ve hired a math tutor to get me through the exam – I don’t have to worry about learning this stuff for myself anymore, because the tools I get from the tutor will fix all my problems” – only to discover that those tools fix you for this year’s algebra course, but do absolutely nothing for you next year when you move on to calculus… unless what you learned was better tools for *learning*, and not the short-cut, learn-by-rote formulaic fixes.

When you learn how to create tools as well as wield them, it’s much like learning how to learn in school. You can’t take a single formula and apply it across all problems and all people; you’re better off at the very least learning how to observe people, and how to notice and communicate change. Learning how to analyze processes and risks to implement some kind of process for managing those risks, is another level of process complexity some people won’t want to see value in, let alone implement, let alone check in on regularly to see how well those tools are working, let alone fix the tools when they break.

Nothing is static; everything changes. You can get mired in the adherence to the ideal of stability, bury your head in the sand against the inevitability of change, assume that things you create will never fail you – or you can embrace the fact that change is something over which you have little control, other than control of how you manage the opportunities that change presents. Being fixated on unchangeability and reluctant to constantly re-evaluate, upgrade, or completely toss outgrown tools is simply another way we cling to things we shouldn’t, and close ourselves off in our little boxes of hurt and confusion and anger.

Tools break. Be prepared for that, in the mind and in the relationship, as much as in the hand and in the workshop. The question of how you will deal with those breakages goes a long way towards informing the kind of character you are, the Stuff of which you are made.

Copyright 2006, 2011 KGrierson


In the world of Contextual Therapy, the core principle of relationships is that we develop or dismiss/destroy relationships on the basis of merited trust, that being trust earned from having more positive transactions than negative ones on the relational ledger. Try though some might to deny it, all relationships have ledgers, because all individuals keep tallies, whether we do it consciously or not. If we don’t keep those tallies, how do we know who to trust and who not to trust? When someone says, “I trust a person on the basis of a gut instinct”, what they are responding to is often the prompting from a subconscious consultation with their internalized ledger of transactions. The decision may be based on minimal or comparative information only (this new person behaves or otherwise reminds me of some other person to whom I already assign a high degree of merited trust) and especially in early relational transactions, may be based predominantly on unconscious or non-verbal communications that we record, analyze, and respond to equally unconsciously.

The relational ledger is a huge component of relationships. People seek professional intervention (reparative counseling, personal development, legal proceedings) generally when the balance of the ledger has tipped to, and remains consistently tipped to, the negative side of that ledger. Merited trust is dented, eroded, or absent. The damage may be on both sides of the relationship, or it may be one party’s perception that the other party is just “bad”. frequently, both in and out of therapy, one or more participants in the relationship may become focused or fixated on the other party’s negative aspects – their contributions to the negative aspect of the relational ledger.

The fixation happens because, at our core, we are cellular organisms. as such, cellular organism learn faster and more strongly from negative stimuli than from positive stimuli. Self-protective aversion is a non-conscious reaction: even single-cell protozoa will unthinkingly flinch away from a negative stimulation; there is no analysis of the dangers or possible responses required. Movement towards positive stimulation is not, however, as fast, and learning to move into positive stimulation is something that higher life forms sometimes need to be trained to do. We all seek food when hungry and warmth when cold, but in both cases, there are scientific and psychological schools of thought that label those instinctive behaviours as reactions away from the negative stimulus of “cold”, or “hunger”. We instinctively move away from pain or discomfort; moving towards something is an entirely separate set of analytical functions.

In relationships, we often witness people responding to a relational stimulus in a largely unthinking fashion. We move away from pain. Sometimes we do this by relabeling the pain as anger and changing the direction to focus it on someone or something external to ourselves. Sometimes we seek to remove the thing we identify as the source of pain from our relational radius (up to and including removing people we perceive as causing us pain). Sometimes we look inwards to find what that pain is attached to, what other times in our lives we’ve felt pain, and how we have developed the response in which we’re currently engaged as a result of repeating patterns. the latter approach is common to several therapeutic models.

Where relational ledgers come in, is the fact that because we learn fastest and most efficiently from those protozoan aversion-responses, at an almost cellular level we are programmed to retain the negative far more strongly and for far longer than we do the positive transactions. This isn’t a justification to allow people to wallow in the pain, but it’s an explanation of why it’s such a common thing for people to fixate on the negative to the detriment of any focus on the positive, and why the experience of “depression” isn’t limited to the human species. So we store far more data on the negative ledger (or at least we tend to focus on it more) than we do on the positive ledger. when a relationship comes into trouble, often it’s because the negative focus has superseded any sense of accumulated merit, and that shift in focus is what erodes the trust; it’s not that the relational transactions themselves have changed, but rather that something in the participants themselves has (for whatever reasons) caused a shift in the focus.

Frequently, young relationships hit this point after the “honeymoon phase” ends, and the participants start looking past their own romantic projections to the other party with whom they interact. That?s a difficult transition in any relationship, and one that can often lead right into what Wong & McKeen refer to in The Relationship Garden as the cycle of power struggles, in which the participants try and change each other back into those early romantic projections, or fight internally to adjust themselves to the new perceptions. Change, particularly opaque internalized changes, often leads to external behavioural changes, which are a big factor in the tipping of the relational ledger. Our protozoan selves don’t like change, change means “Unknowns” and “Differences”, and on some level, change is generalized as a negative stimulus, so we try to avoid it. Aversion may take the form of ignoring the signals and actions of change and remaining rutted in our comfort zones; it may take the form of trying to force the source of those changes to stop whatever s/he is doing to upset the status quo; it may take the form of engaging change but only on our own terms as a means of micro-managing our own fears in and of the process. It may also take the form of embracing change for change’s sake, without having a goal for change to help inform the decisions we make as part of the change process (which leads in turn to all kinds of other tensions and issues within the relationship, and is equally culpable in the disruption of balance within the relational ledger).

In times of relational tension and crisis, many of us (me included) find ourselves tallying the internally-maintained “list of grievances”, or clinging to the hurts to justify retaliatory behaviours. This is how people most commonly respond to the balance tipping towards the negative side of the relational ledger. It’s a kind of psychological narcissism (making the hurt and pain all about ourselves as a means of justifying further responses to and on the negative ledger), and leads to something called “destructive entitlement”, in which we inefficiently attempt to rebalance the ledger by forcing another party to “pay for our hurts”. (The principle of “destructive entitlement” is, by the way, a whole other post or series of posts; it sometimes ties in with legacy values we inherit from others, particularly previous generations in our family of origin, or legacy values that we inherit from chosen family or social spheres, any or all of which we respond to in ways that come only at cost to someone else.) Equally often, by the time a relationship reaches the point of drastic rebalancing on account of pervasive negative focus, one or more participants are past the point of being willing or capable of considering, or even viewing, the positive aspects of the relational ledger.

At this point in time, the first step in diffusing the tensions is giving the emotional content (the personal grievances) safe space to be expressed and acknowledged, without judgment, but more importantly, without expectation of a reactive response. a grievance is not necessarily best interpreted as a signal requiring change. Sometimes a grievance just needs to be aired and heard in order to reduce the tensions associated with the grievance. At some point thereafter, a subsequent step (not necessarily the next step, but an important one to include somewhere in the investigative process) is to force a review of the positive ledger. It may something as simple as asking, “what is it that initially attracted me to this other person? What positive factors does s/he bring to the relationship, then and now? what do I like about him/her?” the positives may not be immediately accessible in a tense or conflicted relational period, but making any entry onto the positive ledger is crucial at this juncture, creating a foothold from which balance, or at least a less-critical angle of tippage, may be more easily restored. It also forces the perceived-aggrieved party to step outside the entrenched Self and consider, even if only briefly, the merits of Other. This is a huge step not only in relationship counseling, but in any kind of mediation scenario; “consider the other person’s perspective” is a hugely important tool for breaking tension, and increasing the potential for establishing a different kind of relational modality than the one which brought the parties to their current emotionally-laden impasse in the first place.

Working one’s way out of the aggrieved entrenchment is difficult; the fact that a lot of people can’t do that on their own can’t unhook from their own emotional aversion-responses, is part of why the field of family & relationship therapy is flourishing. Part of our job as therapists is to supply the multi-directional partiality that creates safe space for each party to explore the relational ledger, assisting them to collaboratively determine what they want to do about any perceived imbalance. it occurs to me that relationship therapy is best described as “psychological archeology”, because by the time people make it into counseling, the root issues are often lost. Individuals hit a negative stimulus, and react. People around them, perceiving the reaction as some kind of change in behaviour, will react themselves. Often this reaction/response is confrontational in nature. As soon as the original responsive party perceives confrontation, the response is often defensive, without necessarily explaining at all the original stimulus/reaction sequence (at least not in any rational way). The continuing opacity of behaviour may lead to further perceived challenges, which then cause the originator to justify the defensiveness – this is the stage at which the relational transactions are most likely to become externalized as anger and blame projected onto the other participant(s). so by the time the relationship arrives in the counsellor’s office, the participants are several stages away from the core issues, and the presenting problem – the only aspect of which many people coming into therapy are immediately conscious of – is at the tertiary level of justified anger, firmly entrenched on the negative side of the relational ledger. The archeology comes in by way of digging past the immediate hostilities or tensions, back past the defensive responses, and looking for the root sources of the current imbalances. Treating only the tertiary stage, and trying to reset the balance of the ledger or restore the merited trust on the basis of that level of transaction, is leaving the relationship participants wide open to ongoing problems as a result of not examining the foundations of those interactions for weakness, and bringing the unconscious protozoa reactions to the light of conscious evaluation within the ledger. We respond unthinkingly to the negative; we consciously condition ourselves to consider the positive.

Copyright 2008, 2011 KGrierson