What could possibly go wrong in a couple who makes you want to puke? Everything's perfect, right?

This is a post for those of you who are in relationships with other humans: friendship, familial, domestic, marital, even occupational.  You now, one human interacting with another human.  It is also for those of you who are NOT in a relationship of any kind with another human.  Maybe especially for you.

In my work, I see a lot of dysfunctional occupational relationships.  In my non-work, I see people who care deeply for one another damage their relationships, sometimes past the point of repair.  In my marriage, I experience two highly sensitive, self-centered adults loving each other madly yet occasionally acting like they’re playing “Whack-a-Mole.”  Have you ever played it?  I first encountered it at Chuck E. Cheese’s, a place a lot like I imagine Hell to be: full of screaming children, soggy pizza, overwrought parents, and flashing lights.  In Whack-a-Mole, the gamer uses an actual mallet to beat the heads of pop-up “moles,” which sends the poor moles scurrying back into underground hiding.

I’m going to focus on the Whack-a-Mole game in our house and relationship, mainly because Eric is a willing fall guy for my writing.  But I want to stress that these points apply across every type of relationship, not just to couples who make you want to puke, like us.

Every day and every interaction is a fresh chance for us to see the world differently.  Luckily, for Eric and me, most of the time we are simpatico.  Sometimes, though, one of us gets our sensitive little feelings hurt.  And then, the most shocking turn of events occurs:  we immediately process and recall the exact same events in a slightly different manner.  This is when Whack-a-Mole starts.  Consider this (unfortunately) real life example.

Me (riding a bicycle, in front of Eric):  I feel fat.

Eric:  Honey, think of how far you’ve come and be proud of yourself.  You look great.  You don’t even have those fat little places behind your knees anymore.  I can see your handlebars on either side of your butt.

Everyone of you can hear the screech of the needle across the record at his words, can’t you?  At this moment, I had a choice.  I could look at what he said from his perspective, giving him the benefit of the doubt and remembering he loves me and is a nice person, or I could take his poorly considered and horrifically worded statement and club him over the head with it.

Outcome A:

Me:  What do you mean by that?  Because it sounds like you are saying I was really fat and I’m less fat now, and that hurts my feelings.

Eric:  No, I meant look at how far you have come in our triathlon training.  You’re not fat.  You’re beautiful, and you’re strong.  And you know how when anyone gets out of shape, that place behind their knees gets flabby?  Well, yours isn’t.  It’s tight.  Your hips are tight, too.  How can you possibly think you’re fat when you’re in such good shape?

Me:  (sniffling)  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m pms’ing.  It’s just that when I lean over on a bike I can feel my stomach roll over.  I can’t help feeling this way.

Eric:  Well, it’s all in your head.  You look great to me, all the time, not just now.

We have had a million conversations that went just like that.  I know that is truly how he feels.  However, on this day, it did not go well.  Instead, I took another path.

Outcome B:

Me:  What fat little places behind my knees?  How long have you been forced to endure the hell of having a wife who had fat little places behind her knees?  And an ass that was so big it blocked out the sun?  {WHACK}

Eric:  That wasn’t what I meant.

Me:  You know what?  I don’t want to talk to you.  Leave me alone.  {WHACK}

Eric:  I’m sorry, honey, I think you’re beautiful, and you’re not fat.

Me:  I said leave me alone.  {WHACK}

Eric (after a long pause):  Whatever.  You’re being completely irrational.  {WHACK}

I didn’t speak to him for three hours, until we pulled up to the car, and then I spewed out three hours of anger-self-justifying thought-poison all over him.  He informed me that I had lost my mind and he had done nothing wrong, and, by the way, that wasn’t even what he said.  We had an epic verbal throw down on the side Farm to Market Road 1488 outside Waller, Texas.   We whacked those poor little moles so far down into their holes they came out on the other side in China.

Years later, even hours later, the mediator in me could step back and see the interchange for what it was.  Ah, physician, heal thyself. Had Eric said something dumb?  Undoubtedly.  Was Eric an asshole who thought I was fat, wanted to hut me, and who was lying about me misquoting him?  No.  Was I completely out of left field to have my feelings hurt, and was I a liar for restating his words in a way he did not agree was factually accurate?  No.  We were two humans who saw the same event from his and her own perspective, and the further away in time and emotion we got from it without closure, the more we polarized to our corners, justifying our feelings with distorted memories and discarding the one great truth in favor of our versions.

What was the one great truth?

That we were both good people who cared about each other, with a long history of positivity and caring.

Had I but filtered Eric’s ham-handed statement through the assumption that whatever he meant, he meant from a place of love, and consistent with what I knew to be his true feelings and beliefs, I could never have concluded that he intended to cause me pain or even that he thought I was a hippopotamus on two (dangerously laden, totally squished) wheels.  Had he filtered my reaction through the assumption that I was sincerely hurt by his words, that I honestly misunderstood what he meant, he could never have concluded that I was a nutjob who was deliberately twisting his words.

And we would not have wasted precious energy and hours angry with each other, ripping at the fabric of our relationship, adding a bad memory to our wonderful story, driving our inner moles underground and into hiding from each other and our relationship.  We laugh now about the fat little knees and ass that blocks out the sun moment.  But it took us a long time to get over the hangover from our fight, like a bad tequila binge.  Those little moles were scared to come out.  Little moles on bad tequila, an ugly combination.  And not a great intimacy or relationship builder.

Think for a moment about someone who is in (or used to be in) your life, someone with whom you have had issues.  Have you ever found yourself getting further apart instead of closer as you tried to resolve them?  Have you ever reached the point where, despite knowing mountains of good evidence about the person and your relationship, you decided that he or she was ________ [fill in the blank: a liar? a bad person? a jerk?]?

Could you have substituted a greater truth instead?

Maybe the other person was no greater a _________ [fill in the blank: liar, bad person, jerk] than you, maybe instead s/he was simply a human naturally polarizing into memories and feelings that supported a position, JUST LIKE YOU?

So what is true?  You have one truth, your compatriot has another.  You both have invested mightily in your truth being the one truth; you believe your truth.  By now, though — SUCK IT UP AND HEAR ME WELL, PEOPLE — those two truths are neither true.  There was a truth, there is a truth, but it is just often not what either combatant espouses.  And there is a greater truth — the body of truth at the core of the relationship.  That deep well of memories to draw from, the fresh water to dump on the smoldering heap of dog poo that you’ve pushed back and forth at each other.

So, my friends, today I challenge you.  Is there a smoldering heap of dog poo in your life?  A game of Whack-a-mole?  Get the cool well water, drop the mallet.  Dump the self justifications.  Find the truth.  Mend.  Heal.  See the best.  Whatever you believe you will see, well, there it will be.  Choose to see the best, and you will find it is the truth.

You will live happier for it.  You might even win the lottery.  {OK, you won’t win the lottery}

Negativity kills.

And I know that much is true. For reals.

Have a good one,

Pamelot

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