Excerpted from In Each Other's Care: A Guide to the Most Common Relationship Conflicts and How to Work Through Them by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, LMFT (Sounds True, 2023)
As mentioned in chapter 2, any and all thirds that threaten the safety and security of the couple system should be comanaged by partners in a timely fashion so as not to disturb the peace. Thirds can be alcohol, drugs, people, tasks, work, porn, parents, children, friends, exes, pets, or electronics. If one primary partner experiences jealousy, that is certainly a sign of mismanagement by the other. The proper use of a third is to work with it—on it, for it, or against it—together and not separately. We’ll revisit this topic in chapter 9.
Learn to focus together on the task at hand whether it is a problem, a decision, a desire, a conundrum, or a plan. The issue between you is a third that must be managed together if you are to be an alliance and a team. Any other approach will not work as you will likely be working on each other—and that is war! Yes, there are times to express your feelings to your partner or to settle past hurts. Until you both understand how to do this, however, I’d avoid those typical talks you have that strive to repair past ills and stick with a more focused, limited, and task-oriented structure of repair and fixing things for the next encounter. That will take discipline, purpose, and intention—not feelings.
If you find yourselves focusing on each other—what the other did or did not do—stop and refocus on what you did or did not do that contributed to the problem. That will encourage the other to do the same (if they know what’s good for them). It’s easy to point fingers, but the truth is that you both represent a system that is reacting to itself. If I point my finger at you, you are compelled to protect yourself and point back. That’s all we are going to do for the next . . . however long. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, will get accomplished, and you both will walk away empty handed and angry. It’s stupid.
Understand again that all people are inherently annoying, disappointing, contradictory, self-serving, and generally irritating. That includes you.
If you can both take care of yourselves and each other at the same time, all the time—regardless of stress or distress level—you will never need this or any other book on relationships! It is the magic formula of secure functioning. So simple yet so very hard to do under stress. Here’s why:
The very moment I take care of myself—my needs, my interests, my concerns, my points, my wants—and drop you, we square off and become adversaries. When that happens, and it will, we will both walk away with nothing, except perhaps more threat, memory, and resentment. In order to show you (not tell you) that I am a friend and ally, that I have you in mind as I have myself, I must prove this fact to you at all times lest you doubt my intentions. This continuous condition in human interaction is necessary to maintain a sense of friendliness, mutuality, collaboration, cooperation, and fairness. In order to influence you and keep you as my audience, I must anticipate your concerns about me, your memories of my past behavior, your fears and wants, and all that pertains to my in-depth knowledge of you. Any other approach will alert you to possible threat.
Remember, human beings are threat animals, meaning we have a highly sensitive threat detection system capable of lightning-fast recognition of threat cues—faces, gestures, postures, sounds, movements, voices, words, and phrases. Always remember to whom you are speaking—your audience—before you speak and act. Take your eye off the ball, and get hit in the head you will.
Stress and threat reduction can and should be accomplished quickly and as soon as discovered in your partner (not you). Words are slow; gestures, facial expressions, vocal modulation, and tone are fast. Learn how to quickly recognize and reduce your partner’s threat and stress level. Never lead with an explanation, description, excuse, motive, or intention. Always lead with acknowledgement of your partner’s grievance in a manner that does not dismiss their complaint. Apologize immediately with a recognition of the behavior that caused the breach, irrespective of your own perception or belief in the matter. That is a conversation for another time. Give thanks if appropriate without pause or qualification. Learn graciousness in the brief.
Only when perceiving evidence of your partner’s return to safety and security do you proceed with any further business. Remember this principle—leading with relief—before attempting any other response, and you’ll do better than most.
Consider the following scenario: I step hard on your toe in a room full of people.
Now consider the things I could say to you immediately afterward:
Which one would you prefer to hear from someone who stepped on your toe?
Now consider this scenario: I tell you how sorry I am for leaving this morning without saying goodbye to you. I admit that it was rude and inconsiderate, despite the reason for doing so.
Your response options might be:
Which response would you prefer to hear before any other business?
“I’m sorry” and “Thank you” are simple but smart relief responses that lower stress in the other person. Relief can be offered through one’s facial expressions, vocal utterances, and gestures even while a partner complains. Nodding the head in agreement and saying “Uh-huh,” “Right,” “Of course,” “You’re right,” “I agree,” all go a long way to signal relief and friendliness to your partner prior to your verbal reply. Conflict-avoidant partners may fail to signal enough while their partner complains. Keep in mind that the human brain with its negative bias will fill in blanks with negative ideas of attribution. Leave those blanks in there and guess what will happen?
If your partner likes physical touch, use it! If your partner responds well to you staying put and keeping your hands to yourself, use it. If your partner responds well to you lowering yourself physically or just tilting your head in friendliness, use it.