Last week, I went over to Reid Mihalko’s place with a bunch of sex geeks to watch some DVDs about building and promoting a business. At one point, the speaker said something that I think connects to a lot more than branding and teaching.
“People Protect What They Create”
One of the patterns I’ve seen a lot of folks get stuck in when it comes to relationship challenges is that one partner comes up with what they see as the solution to a problem and then try to convince the other person/people to go along with it. I’ve seen this happen in romantic/sexual relationships, in family dynamics, among co-workers, for groups of friends, and in communities of various sizes. It seems to be a pretty common pattern: I know what the answer is, so you should all do what I say. And almost invariably, it leads to resistance or rebellion because the other person feels like they’re being controlled (probably because they are). And even if they go along with it, they often end up not putting as much energy into the ongoing health of the relationship or community.
That’s because people protect what they create. If we build something together, we’re both more likely to continue to take care of it, guard it, and help it thrive. The process of collaboration makes it a partnership and when it’s done well, everyone has a vested interest in keeping it going. If you tell me what the problem is and what you want me to do about it, I might comply with you, but I’m certainly not going to care as much about it after that. And if you keep hounding me or punishing me for that, my resistance is only going to increase. Plus, if I don’t see it as a problem or if your proposed solution doesn’t suit me, I’ll resist it.
Clearly, that’s not limited to sexual relationships, but for some reason, this seems to come up a lot in those situations. A lot of my therapist colleagues have told me about couples in which one partner has dragged the other one in, without getting any kind of buy-in into the process. Or couples in which one person is convinced that they know exactly what’s wrong and if the other would just get over themselves, everything would be better.
While it’s pretty common for one person to identify a problem first, or to have more motivation in dealing with it, trying to force the other person to deal with it is kind of like dragging a dog on a leash. You might get where you want to go, but it’s a lot more work and takes much more time. If you can find ways to get them on board, it becomes a lot easier to change things.
What Can We Do About That?
I think there are lots of ways we can move forward more productively. First, instead of jumping to the problem-solving stage before you even talk with your partner(s), family members or friends, wait until you’ve found some agreement that there’s an issue to address. That can be challenging because it requires that we stay in the discomfort of the situation. But the advantage that it offers is that the other people will more easily see your discomfort and (assuming that they want you to not be uncomfortable), they’ll be more willing to see that there’s a problem.
Another reason to stay in the discomfort until they join you is that you can figure out what to do together. Collaborating on solutions is usually a much more useful approach, even though it can be frustrating or take longer. And the more you practice it together, the smoother the process becomes. If you’re willing to get over your learning curves together, the payoff will be worth it. That means that you need to become more comfortable with uncertainty. After all, if you let yourself remain open to your partner’s input and ideas, your next steps probably won’t look like you expect. The more you can accept that, the easier it will be for you.
I’m also a big fan of learning how to talk productively. One of the things I’ve noticed is that most people are convinced that they know how to communicate well, especially the folks who really don’t. In my experience, we can all learn new ways to talk about what we think, feel, believe, and want. I found a lot of great tips in Taking the War Out of Our Words.
Author Sharon Ellison points out that one of the sources for miscommunications is that there are multiple places where things can go awry. In any situation, there’s our perception of an event, what meaning we think it has, how we feel about that meaning, and how we communicate that to another person. They, in turn, will have their own perceptions, meanings, feelings, and responses. So the more we can line each of those parts up, the fewer opportunities for miscommunications to sneak in.
Other people have had good results from workshops like Steve Bearman’s Interchange seminars or similar workshops. But what these resources usually have in common is an understanding that working together to build solutions is much more effective than telling the other person what to do. Well, that and offering a lot of tools to be able to communicate more clearly.
But whatever skills you learn, I think it’s important to remember that people protect what they create. If you genuinely want your partner to be invested in the relationship, if you want them to support it and help it thrive, then build it together. Let it be a real partnership, rather than trying to control it. You’ll almost certainly discover that they’ll put much more energy into safeguarding it and supporting it. After all, once they have some skin in the game, they’ll have much more reason to do so.