Every parent knows that dealing with other human beings is not always smooth. We find ourselves interacting with different people all the time, with a wide variety of communication styles, values, beliefs and perspectives. That diversity can cause all kinds of misunderstandings, awkward moments and sometimes even serious friction.
Yet much of the time, most people operate under the assumption that “every child knows” what they know, that what seems clear and simple to them is as clear and simple to others. In fact, it is not the differences between us and the other people that create the friction, it is our expectation that they can see our point of view.
The TV series Lie to Me has brought the interpretation of facial expressions and body language into our living room, but unless you have developed these skills with a lot of supervised practice, it is likely that you can read what someone else is feeling correctly as often as not. If your partner walks in the door looking upset, are they sorry they are late, did they have a flat tire, did they get fired or did they just step in something unpleasant? It is hard to tell.
Here is an example.
John gets fires from work. He is so upset he cannot speak and decides to wait until the kids have gone to bed before sharing the bad news with Betty. Not knowing what has happened, Betty casually asks him if he can pick something up on his way back from work tomorrow.
Betty has no idea what just happened.
This example is blunt in order to be clear, but things could be a lot more subtle.
Betty’s love language is Quality Time. When John travels on business, Betty becomes an emotional porcupine and grows quiet and touchy. Subconsciously, she feels deserted when he is away. When John finally returns, she needs some time to adapt to his presence and gradually warm up to him.
But John’s love language is Affirmations. When he comes home, he wants to hear Betty say how happy she is to see him. He wants her to listen to his stories of success and provide words of encouragement that will make him feel good. When Betty seems distant, John feels hurt.
To Betty, it is obvious that being apart is difficult and requires great effort. What loving partner goes away for so long? Although she understands the benefits of John’s business travels, this is the best she can do. To John, this is not obvious. Their loving phone call the night before was enough for him.
To him, it is obvious that when a loved one walks in the door, the person at home will show love by cheering, stating how happy she was with his return and verbally acknowledging the positive points in his very interesting story. Short responses and a focus on his absence are no way to treat a returning partner. To Betty, this is not obvious. How can anyone be cheerful after being alone for two days?
So John and Betty resent each other for doing the “wrong” thing “to them”. By expecting their partner to share their feelings and experience things in the same way, they conclude there is something “wrong” with their partner and that maybe their partner does not love them as much as they do.
Trying to tell each other what they expected of them does not help as long as it is done with the same expectation. It becomes a competition for being “right” and in most cases, since the expectations are so self-evident, they are not even stated.
John might say, “What’s wrong with you?”
And Betty might answer, “What’s wrong with me?! If you’re not happy with me, maybe you should go away for a few more days”.
But what if Betty was John’s 3-year-old daughter?
John would probably walk in the door, pick her up, give her a long, warm cuddle and be very understanding towards her when she looked upset. He would start by saying, “Hello, Betty-boo. Daddy missed you so much at work today. Did you miss Daddy too?”
And if John was Betty’s 3-year-old son, she would not consider him a deserted for going to Kindie and playing with other kids. She would put a big smile on her face, give him a long, warm cuddle, ask him about his day, listen excitedly and encourage him, no matter what he said.
When a toddler does something we disagree with, we explain to them in detail why we would rather they did something else and what we would prefer them to do. When a teenager or an adult does something we disagree with, we get upset with them, because “every child knows” what the right thing to do is.
Except they do not.
Because nothing is absolutely right or wrong.
We simply prefer things to be different.
And when a toddler insists on doing something against our advice (and there is no danger), we are likely to let them do it and think how cute they are and maybe this shows that they have character. But when a teenager or an adult insists on doing something against our advice, we call them and their choices names like “stupid”, “pig headed”, “ridiculous” and plain “wrong”.
Except they are not.
They are just different to what we would do.
They simply prefer things another way.
So one quick way to overcome relationship conflicts is to ask yourself, “If <the other person> was 3 years old and looking cute and cuddly, what would I say?”
Try it a few times and come back to tell us how you went.