Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

How to live with someone – by Nick van der Leek

The bottom line when you share someone else’s personal space is to respect yourself and your companion.  Respect for yourself and your companion isn’t just a word.  It means to value yourself and your companion.  It means to have a high opinion of, even admiration of one another. If you find it difficult to find anything to admire, dig deeper.  Ask your companion about personal history.  Ask about their toughest day, and you’re sure to find something that resonates on a human level, something noteworthy. 


There’s something else that respect brings about that you might not expect: friendship.  If someone defers to you for your thoughts, if someone comes to you for your advice or assistance, if they want to share their successes and disappointments with you, this is part and parcel of respect, and of friendship. 

A second component that flows out of respect is this: trust.  If respect is there and friendship grows, so does trust.  Friendship can begin without trust, but it can’t continue without it, and it certainly won’t grow without being nourished by all the things that flow out of trust: hope, faith, confidence, reliance, loyalty and expectation.


The quickest way to create drama in your personal space, and drama is not healthy for relationships, is to disrespect either yourself or your companion.  Disrespect takes on a number of guises, so I’ll start with the obvious first.  Laziness.  Are you messy?  Do you expect someone to live with your mess, or worse, clean it up?  Laziness is a good example of disrespect not only for the person you’re living with, but of obvious disrespect to yourself.  And let’s face it, if you don’t respect yourself, why should anyone respect you?  But failure to hold someone accountable for their laziness is your fault.  If you’re washing their dishes or buying their beer, you’re an enabler.   Laziness manifests in other ways too: excessive viewing of television, or pornography, or sleeping, talking on the phone, excessive indulgence in leisure activities – watching DVD’s and chatter via sms or Facebook that amounts to nothing more than drama.  In fact laziness seems to be everything besides human interactions.  Relating to another person takes effort, commitment, engagement and involvement, none of which is easy to fake.  It’s an act of work, of love, and it’s these actions that build every relationships edifice.  If your spectrum of daily activities consists of a majority of distractions, you start to destroy the edifice of trust and friendship that has already been established.  Only real engagement can rebuild the mortars that bind us together. 


A key saboteur of relationships is dishonesty.  Dishonesty is a wrecking ball that instantly wipes out trust, which quickly erodes friendship, and all vestiges of respect.  Dishonesty means you cannot hold yourself either accountable to others or yourself.  Dishonesty manifests in frequently gossiping about someone close to you, creating drama around that person, and reinforcing your own ego by a mixture of placing blame [making yourself right and the other person wrong] and asking your friends and supporters to ‘take sides’.  All this achieves is an escalation of the drama, which simply escalates the stress levels of the relationship.  Escalated stress levels means you are steering your relationship to a point of no return.  Once a certain threshold is exceeded, no amount of reconciliation will restore that relationship.  These thresholds differ for different people, but one thing is certain, one person is always surprised when they find the other has reached their personal ground zero.  It’s a surprise from which there is no recovery.

Defcon System

For this reason it is useful for couples or companions who enter a phase of conflict to have a straightforward system which lets the other know at what level of tolerance circumstances and behaviours have pushed them to.  These Defcons can be a simple Green –Amber – Red, or a slightly more graduated 1-2-3-4-5 with 5 being a critical level of “I can’t take this any more.”  Failure to respect the references to this system at critical junctures of the relationship will then precipitate the failure of the relationship. Abuse of this system will bring about the same result.  On the contrary, citing one’s emotional stress in a sincere and emotionally robust manner can provide a fulcrum from which to build more positive interactions.  Emotional Defcons also provide an unambiguous mark from which to begin to refrain from yielding to negative responses.

Relationship Augmentation

Let’s discuss ways to enhance relationships that have been tarnished.
The number one way to do this is to listen to the other person.  Do not listen defensively or with your own self in mind.   Rather, seek to understand the spirit of the communication.
Try to interpret the spirit of a complaint or accusation.
For example problems surrounding chores not being done may not be about the chores themselves but about neglect.  The question is: “Do you care about me?  Do you value what I am doing?”  Instead of explaining the details of why a dish wasn’t washed or why a trail of grease made it onto a pillow, speak to the spirit of the communication.  “I care about you and I appreciate what you do for me.  I’m sorry I made a mess, I’ll clean it up.”


Acknowledge, appreciate, apologize and then take action.
The opposite of these is to deny, reject, accuse and begin self righteous [and often tight lipped] stonewalling.
In order to grow, expand or nourish a relationship, to heal any wounds, there has to be a reaching out, a giving, a concession.  Make sure either that you reach out, or if you don’t, that you recognize the other person’s gesture of reconciliation and respond to it.
Failure to respond to a gesture of reconciliation reinforces distrust and disrespect.


The most obvious way to begin to repair a relationship that is not quite what it should be, and the way to keep a relationship healthy, is to preserve a healthy level of communication.  This includes regular updates on what is bothering you so these don’t build up.  It also includes regular ‘ordinary talking’.  ‘How was your day,’ progress updates on specific ideas, projects, concerns.  Try to anticipate problems and find a balance of things to look forward to.  If you don’t have something planned for the future, something exciting, or fun, and the present is taken up with drudgery, chores and small complaints, how can you expect to be happy?


Implicit in all of this is having high personal standards.  Part of having higher standards is not allowing one’s emotions to overwhelm your relationship, and also, where possible, trying to diffuse the escalation of your companions emotional state.  In fact most relationships that are shipwrecked on the rocks of adversity go down not becomes of the rocks or the adversity themselves, but because the ships hull has been pounded to a pulp by endless hammer blows from wave after emotional wave. 

Try to weather your bad moods.  To do this, exercise.  Use medication or some other relaxant if you must.  Take a deep breath.  But above all, don’t be reactive.  To calm jaded nerves, listen.  Go with the flow. Accepting a reality is the first step to either changing yourself or changing the reality.  Most couples or unhappy housemates don’t come close to even accepting the reality of their common situation because they are both too preoccupied with getting the other person to see their point of view.  The result is that the only reality that is obvious to both is that conflict is at high, barely tolerable levels, and enjoyment of a living space and personal standards tend to suffer. The way away from this impasse is to raise personal standards, exercise, and work at controlling one’s own emotional state, particularly destructive reactivity.

In the end, keep it simple.  Respect yourself and your companion.  Listen.  Respond, and try to do so when called upon to do so.  Start a conversation, don’t have reactionary, accusation-based dialogue.  Be creative when it comes to thinking up things to do together that can be enjoyed.  Have some fun. Acknowledge that you value and respect your companion by admitting mistakes, and making suggestions when the mood is good, not only during arguments when it’s not.  Give each other space.  Exercise, do your own thing. And finally, live, and let live.

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