What happens to relationships when we believe there is only so much love or respect to go around? When we are more concerned with making sure we are not diminished, than in opening ourselves to vulnerability and disappointment. What happens when we think we must cling to what is ours— whether it’s our bank accounts or our insistence on being right?
What happens? The relationship dies.
It’s in our nature to keep track of what threatens us. Our brains were built for this. We survived as a species because we are good at noticing, and avoiding or combatting, the lions and tigers and bears intent on eating us. It is true, we are also built for cooperation, but when push comes to shove, we opt for survival.
For a lot of us, nothing is more treacherous than opening ourselves to love. Sure, at first, love and trust come easily. But when the diversion of new love starts to wane, our defenses rejoin the party. Keeping score of the slights and disagreements replaces the joy of “this is fun” with our Inner Critic’s favorite mantra: “I’m right.”
Being right feels so damn good! But it’s fleeting. Left in its place are what John Gottman, a relationship expert, calls the Four Horseman (as in the Apocalypse): criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. All four shut the door on understanding. And understanding, not agreement, is the key to love. Being right is irrelevant.
In calling upon the metaphor of the Biblical Apocalypse, most of us think of the end of the world. But the original meaning of apocalypse is “an unveiling.” When the four horsemen show up—or just one of them seems to have set up camp in our home—we each have a choice: keep fighting, retreat, or dig deeper to reveal what is underneath all the miscommunication and disagreement. Is it fear, anger, grief, past trauma, or something else? Then realize that these are the lions and tigers and bears of modern life. They are inside each of us, and if we cower or allow them to gobble us up, they will take our relationships with them.
When we abandon the need to be right, we understand that there is no scarcity, and no need to defend our positions. We can stand in the abundance of the possibilities and know that we can handle whatever comes along.
The title of this post was inspired by a public art installation in Sacramento, that is alas no longer up.
John Gottman, PhD. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.