Just as I thought it was going all right,
I found out I’m wrong when I thought I was right.
It’s always the same.
It’s just a shame.
These are the opening lyrics to a Genesis song that comforts me when things go wrong between Daniel and me. It’s about the frustration of hitting the same conflict again and again, of having to admit that you’ve screwed up, of being unable to see how to resolve the problem but knowing you have to resolve it because you can’t just walk away. After almost twelve years of living together, we are painfully familiar with that situation. We don’t disagree often, so when we do it feels as if everything is out of kilter. How is it that the same dumb problem keeps popping up like a brick wall between us, and we just can’t resist banging our heads against it again in exactly the same way as last time??
I don’t have an answer to that question, but I have learned a few things through experience and reading. One is that finding out I’m wrong when I thought I was right is an important moment which is easily lost if I’m too wrapped up in self-righteously casting myself as the victim. Another is that just because we disagree doesn’t mean he’s my enemy–remembering that we love each other and have so much in common helps me find hope that we can work through our conflict together. We’ve learned that sometimes it helps to face each other and hold hands while arguing: It’s harder to coil up inside your shell and yell at someone when you’re physically connected in a way that reminds you that you love each other.
Sometimes I think cognitive dissonance is the most important single concept I learned in college. Cognitive dissonance is the tension you feel when you hold two ideas that conflict with each other, or when your actions conflict with your beliefs. Many conflicts between people, and many problems people have inside themselves, boil down to cognitive dissonance. Look for the action(s) and the belief(s) that are in conflict, and the whole snarl of a complex and highly emotional problem may begin to make more sense.
The one good line in Star Wars Episode I is, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to the Dark Side.” That is very nearly a universal truth. I don’t mean that every little fear turns people to the Dark Side–you always can stop along that path. Where this idea is most valuable is for working backward: “Why does she hate me? She is angry. Hmmm, what is she angry about?…probably X. Why is she angry about X? She is afraid. Hmmm, what is she afraid of?…probably Y.” This process often gives me a much clearer understanding of a situation or at least gives me better questions to ask. When someone is angry at me, thinking about what he is afraid of helps me to feel empathy for him instead of just feeling afraid of the anger and either collapsing in terror or moving down the path and becoming angry myself. When I’m angry, I can calm myself by walking back up the path and working on my fears.
I’d been working with that for about eight years when I came upon this article. It is religious in focus, but it led me to the more general realization that there is an earlier step on the path above: Lack of trust leads to fear. “Why is she afraid of Y? She is not trusting. Who or what is it that she does not trust?” I’m just starting with this one and not sure I can apply it to other people, but it’s giving me some insight into myself, because every time I talk myself back to, “Why am I afraid? I must not trust Z.” I find that the identification of Z is easy, inescapably logical, but my immediate reflexive reaction is, “But I do trust Z! Of course I trust Z!” and I really really don’t want to admit that deep down I’m not so confident of Z. Very interesting.
A few years ago, Daniel and I both tried to read a book on anger by Thich Nhat Hanh but found it so irritating we could not finish it! (insert joke here) What annoyed us was that it was very repetitive because its message was so simple, it didn’t need a whole book. However, I took one important lesson from it: Nhat Hanh says that when you are angry with someone, you must go to him and say, “Darling, I am angry. I suffer. I need you to help me.” This sounded like the stupidest thing ever; Daniel and I agreed it would not work…until we tried it. Now, of course it helps that we both recognize these particular words as a “code” and can use them on each other to stop a fight and refocus on loving and working together. But even when we use words more tailored to the situation, on each other or someone else, it helps a lot to think of this basic structure:
- I love you.
- I have a problem.
- This hurts.
- Please work with me on this.
It deflates the pride and defensiveness that tend to go with anger and to turn you back from the “It’s YOUR fault!” attack mode to humbly admitting, “I need help.”
So, those are my big insights, as a psychologist who doesn’t specialize in this kind of thing. From my actual work, all I’ve learned about anger management and having good relationships is: Don’t carry a gun. To put it more generally: Don’t assume that destroying your opponent is the only way to succeed, because the power of destruction is easily turned against you.