LILY Letter 100: Helping Things Go Right in Relationships

March 7, 2023

Welcome to the 100th edition of our weekly LILY Letter! Thank-you for allowing us to lift your spirits each week. We love you!

Do you remember how, early in a relationship, you and your partner had such positive feelings and so much hope? Whatever the other person asked you immediately said, "I'm glad to help!" But, after you have settled into a relationship and feel secure in your partner's love, it's easy to relax and behave in a more self-centered way. So the positive emotions and affirming kindnesses become fewer and further between. You may find yourself scheming, pushing, punishing, and manipulating to get your partner to give the things they used to give freely.

What do you do with the snotty teenager who is mouthing off and resisting your rules? The instinctive response of most parents is to punish things they don't like. If that doesn't work they punish it harder. You can get to the edge of abuse and find the behavior has not modified very much and, in fact, your child has become more dug in and recalcitrant than ever. Most of the emphasis in the relationship is placed on correcting misbehavior. I think most parents believe their primary function as parents is to "discipline" their children and correct their misbehavior.

In The Arbinger Institute's bestselling book, the Anatomy of Peace, they introduce a thing called The Influence Pyramid. The themes of this pyramid from tip to base are:

Correct

Teach and communicate

Listen and Learn

Build the relationship

Build relationships with others who have influence

Improve your way of being by developing a heart at peace

The apex of this pyramid is to "correct." But that is less than 10% of the entire pyramid. Correcting is for the moments when things go wrong. The remainder of the pyramid from bottom to top is to help things go right.

If we are to succeed either as parents or in dating, it is important to begin with ourselves and our own way of being. If I am a "woman-hating" man or a "man-hating" woman, I am inwardly objectifying my prospective dating partners and poisoning my own thoughts toward them. When I do this, my heart is at war. The beginning of forming healthy relationships is not looking for red flags. It is having a heart at peace. When our hearts are at peace, we can see the world more clearly. We can react to our partners in a more healthy way. The beginning of a heart at peace is to see other people as children of God, with hopes and dreams and doubts and fears just as real as our own.

The next step up on the pyramid is to build relationships with those who have influence with your partner (or your child). This is especially true with teenagers. You will get further with your teenager by building relationships with his or her friends than you will by building relationships with your child. Focusing directly on the relationship can overload it--especially with teenagers who are asserting their independence and more actively seeking the company of peers.

We suggest applying the same principle in dating. As you start to become more serious with your partner, it is natural to begin introducing each other to your inner circles of family and friends. You're kidding yourself if you believe you can truly choose your partner while rejecting his or her friends and family--especially his or her children. The truth is, you are not dating a solitary individual. You are dating his or her entire circle of friends and loved ones. Build relationships with those people and you will also be building the relationship with your partner in a powerful way.

The next step is to build the relationship directly. This is done by spending time together, having positive interactions, and seeking to build positive memories.

It should be relatively obvious why "listen and learn" is more basic than "teach and communicate." I learned as a missionary that people are not prepared to listen to you until they feel understood. They don't trust your intentions until they feel cared about. That is no different with your dating partners or your children. Take time to really listen and engage in a way that helps them know that you have heard and understood what they are saying.  Stephen R. Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People "seek first to understand--then to be understood." He was fond of sharing an analogy where you are talking to a friend about how you are having a hard time seeing. Your friend removes his glasses and hands them to you and says, "put these on. They will help you." Of course, when you try the glasses on, your vision is even more blurry. You complain to the friend, "I can't see!" The friend responds, "these glasses have really helped me. Try harder!" Of course this would be a frustrating encounter because someone is prescribing a solution without understanding the problem. It is hard to know what to teach someone if you haven't done the work to understand the problem. That involves listening with your heart and without making reflexive judgments.

We tend to make a lot of reflexive judgments when dating. We want to hurry the process of getting to know someone, so we look for red flags and ways to eliminate people quickly. So how should we go about dating? Exactly the opposite! Do the work required to get to know another human being. Listen to him or her. Learn about his or her life experience, passions, other relationships that are important to him or her such as with children, extended family, and friends. A marriage license is not a shortcut to deeply understanding another precious human being.

Why is correction at the apex of the pyramid, and the smallest area? Why is it the tip of the iceberg? Because it is healthiest to spend most of our time helping things go right rather than having to fix something that has already gone wrong. Helping things go right benefits from momentum and inertia. If it is already going right, it is easy to keep it headed in that direction. If, on the other hand, the Titanic is headed for an iceberg, it can take a lot of extra force to turn that ship before it meets with a disaster.

We are big proponents of taking "time outs" in relationships. This simply means that either person in the relationship may call timeout on any discussion that is occurring where either person appears to be emotionally flooded. Both partners go away and self soothe until they are no longer feeling disrupted. When they are both feeling at peace, they come back together and discuss the subject more calmly. This is an incredibly powerful tool and will prevent a lot of damage that you can do to a relationship by continuing to communicate when you are in "fight or flight" mode. When two people in a relationship both have a lot of trauma from past relationships, having a timeout procedure is vital. It can literally save you from destroying your relationship.

The time out procedure should be less than 10 percent of the relationship. If you are needing to call timeout everyday, focus more on the base of the pyramid and the other areas that emphasize helping things go right. As vital as it may be to correct problems in a healthy way, our focus should not constantly be on fixing problems. Our focus should be on reinforcing and affirming things that go right.

Father (Catholic Priest) Chad Ripperger teaches that much of our negative thinking comes from our futile efforts to perfect those around us. We think we can perfect our children by riding them hard and staying on top of them all the time. A first step to escaping this unhealthy assumption is to recognize that none of us can even perfect ourselves. If I cannot perfect myself, I cannot perfect my partner and I cannot perfect my children. Continual efforts to fix what's wrong will only create a constant awareness of our partner's flaws and promote resentment. We should ask ourselves, "do I like people correcting me constantly?" and then apply the golden rule.

If you feel like you are getting nowhere in your efforts to date and build relationships, stop focusing on red flags and fear and shift your focus to helping things go right.

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