Jill is pale and near tears.
They’re discussing Tupperware.
Two minutes ago Jack said, ”I hate how it always falls out on the floor whenever I open the cabinet.”
“Well, that’s what Tupperware does,” Jill replied.
Jack frowns. Jill tenses. We’re off to the races.
As a trained mental health professional I can tell that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Though a trained cocker spaniel would probably sense the same thing.
I start asking questions. Thirty minutes later I’ve learned that Jack coped with growing up in the chaos of his dysfunctional family by becoming a perfectionist who now regularly imposes his need for order on the people around him. And I’ve heard Jill describe how her mom used to prowl through her personal belongings, and how nowadays the only room in Jill’s life which feels remotely like hers is the kitchen.
Given those histories, Tupperware war was inevitable.
Axiomatic among therapists is the idea that most relationship problems boil down to problems with communication.
Fair enough. But the next questions are “Where do communication problems come from?” and “Why do they keep recurring?”
Here’s how I see it.
Communication tends to break down whenever partners either haven’t learned or have forgotten three key principles. The first is
(1) There’s no such thing as a grownup human being.
This is the secret truth behind the vast majority of emotional problems. Human beings grow faster physically than psychologically, so regardless of how big or old or emotionally healthy we are there’s always part of us that retains the feelings, perceptions and vulnerabilities of the child we once were. That part — the famous Inner Child you’ve probably heard about — is usually what gets triggered by criticism, rejection or conflict.
And when you and I keep having the same fight over and over, it’s a fair bet that the fight is really between your Child and mine.
Which leads to the second principle:
(2) All feelings are legitimate.
This actually means two things: that all feelings make sense, and that all feelings are worthy of respect.
Jack’s excessive anger at unruly Tupperware makes sense in light of how he’s come to associate external control with internal safety. Jill’s anxiety at Jack’s ”invasion” of her kitchen and criticism of her housekeeping makes sense in light of how it reminds her of her mom’s disregard for personal boundaries.
Neither can help feeling what they’re feeling. Their only real choice is between feeling them secretly or out loud.
Which brings us to the third principle:
(3) Every conversation occurs on two levels.
Level 1 is the level of What We Talk About.
Level 2 is the level of How We Feel When We Talk About It.
Communication tends to break down when couples are unable to leave Level 1 and drop down to Level 2.
Jack and Jill will keep fighting about Tupperware because the fight isn’t about Tupperware at all. Tupperware’s just the trigger. The real issues are Jack’s need for a sense of order and safety, and Jill’s need for boundaries and respect.
More than any other, this principle explains why communication problems tend to recur and why couples repeat the same fight over and over.
When feelings are involved, Level 1 talk won’t resolve much, because Level 1 talk doesn’t address feelings. So we’re talking about the wrong thing.
And trying to resolve conflict by talking about the wrong thing is like mowing the tops off dandelions. Expect a new crop tomorrow.
* * *
Yesterday I drove my mother and father to the VA hospital in Albuquerque for a doctor’s appointment.
I had never been to a VA hospital before.
I guess I should have expected the numbers of crutches and canes, armless and legless veterans, young and weathered faces alike.
I was personally witnessing the costs endured when humans war against each other.
“Isn’t it odd,” I said to my mother, “that human beings war with each other?”
Why in the world do we do that?
Then I considered the ways in which we war on an interpersonal level.
We humans war to varying degrees with our partners, our friends, our bosses, our co-workers, our siblings, our parents—pretty much all in the name of our need to be “right” or the need not to be wrong.
~ From The freedom of not needing to be right by Hannah Eagle.
* * *
In the wake of our recent, glorious Bert Mug contest several readers wrote to ask if they could buy a Bert Mug.
“Sure,” Steve replied. “I can order some. But I’ve no idea what to charge.”
Then Bert had a bright idea.
“They’re cheaper in bulk, right?” he said. “So find out who else wants one, order a bunch and set the price accordingly.”
Steve now thinks Bert may be the smart one in the family after all.
Anyway, that’s what we’re doing.
If you’d like an original, not-available-in-stores (or anywhere else on the planet) Bert Mug, let us know sometime in the next couple of weeks. Steve’s email is email@example.com.
We’ll place our order at the end of the month.
A closer look before deciding? Here you go:
* * *
Lieberman watched the movie, trying to remember the name of the actor talking to Joan Crawford.
“You think my father is an asshole?”
Lieberman looked at his gandson, considered the question, and scratched his chin.
“No,” said Lieberman. “Who said he was?”
“You heard your mother tell someone on the phone.”
“Your father is not an asshole. Nor is your mother. They are both stubborn, confused, directionless, and self-destructive. That is the human condition. Watch this part here. Joan Crawford’s eyes. The way they go up.”
~ Stuart M. Kaminsky, Lieberman’s Day (Henry Holt, 1994).