Collectively, we are very bad at educating people about healthy interpersonal relationships. There are no class modules on it; there is no culture of parental guidance regarding it; there is no expectation of “interpersonal education” in school, universities, or professional settings.
That’s because we have media. We have books and movies and television shows beaming in endless, derivative permutations of family life, friendship, and love. This is our life module on “interpersonal education”. And it’s rather a shame.
Some among us got lucky—we had a community with strong ties or a family life characterized by openness and discussion. Those favorable circumstances meant that those folks could learn, gradually, how to interact with fellow humans in a constructive and mutually beneficial way. Or, at the very least, end conflicts before sharp objects were introduced.
The rest of us were given TV: the great, viral educator. From ‘Sesame Street’ to ‘Friends’ to ‘Vampire Diaries’, our context for counting to 10, maintaining lifelong friendships, and initiating relationships (with vampires) came to us in 300,000 pixels.
And it messed with us.
This became unavoidably apparent when myself and my boyfriend had our first fight. During a meal, he became heated and expressed jealousy/anger about a friend/ex of mine that he believed had not shown him proper respect during a social interaction. I had been reviewing my day planner, and immediately set it down to open the floor for discussion. He looked at me, dumbfounded, and noted that I seemed eerily calm.
But I was not eerily calm—I was participating in conflict as I had been trained to do by my past experiences. These included a lifetime of interaction with my mother, who is one of the most respected Human Resource professionals in the Bay Area. I was not educated to fight, I was educated to mediate. And that made me seem eerie.
The boyfriend, like so many of us, was raised on media. Romantic films teach us the value of passionate fighting, grand gestures, and near-misses. Media whets our appetite for dramatic encounters and emboldens us to scream temporary emotions into potentially permanent relationships. “I hate you”; “you bore me”; “you’re the reason I’m unhappy”; “your mother is a whore”…
Once something like that is said, it is always remembered.
Drama erodes the solace of a relationship. It’s not like the movies, where tumult seems to make a love story stronger. It’s a tiny aural scar that declares, “I may not love you tomorrow.” It becomes that occasional tremor of insecurity that travels along the fault lines of your affair. Approach such declarations with caution.
I try to avoid traditional fights. They weary me and are one of only three things that stress me out (the others being ‘perceived failure’ and ‘inefficiency’). This has proved a challenge with my hot-blooded semi-Latino lover, but I’m happy to report not a single dish has been broken.
Please enjoy the following short list of romantic conflict strategies:
1. Use neutral language and avoid blame. (Ex. “I have the following expectations given the nature of our relationship, and I believe your expectations may be different. Can we discuss it?”)
2. Use specific examples rather than sweeping generalizations to communicate your point. (Instead of “You always prioritize your friends over me,” choose, “When you decided to go out with Friend 1 on this day and Friend 2 the following day instead of seeing me, I felt unimportant to you.”)
3. Be direct. (Know before initiating a discussion/fight what your ideal outcome is and communicate it [“I want to spend more time with you/more time by myself”]—fights are, at the most basic level, a form of interpersonal negotiation.)
4. Understand that most conflicts result from a miscommunication and readily forgive. (Sometimes we’re all accidental assholes.)
5. Be willing to accept some of the blame. (Sometimes we don’t voice our desires and sometimes we punish people unfairly.)
6. Don’t try to win. (If “winning” means destroying the relationship, is it really that important to be “right”?)
While it seems very romantic to ride the high of a break-up/make-up cycle, that kind of “movie passion” can transform your Google search history in very telling directions (“bulk ice cream suppliers” and “painless suicide methods” are some more-common-than-you-think examples).
Love shouldn’t be a constant trial. Love shouldn’t be used as a weapon. And love should really, really think before it speaks.