“Only connect,” wrote E. M. Forster in Howards End,“and human love will be seen at its height.” Love depends on a couple’s ability to forge and then maintain the precious bond between them. We want to look more closely at ways of creating connection, preserving it through challenging times, and healing breaks when they occur.
One way to think about marriage or relationships that are important, whether in the work place or at home, is to think of them like relations between two foreign countries with different cultures, desires, states of mind, wants, and needs. If the countries are to get along, they must use proper protocol, proper greetings, good manners, cordiality, and consideration. From this standpoint, we can think of ourselves as goodwill ambassadors. Being diplomatic especially when we are expressing a complaint helps us to accept the bitter pill. When we are expressing emotionally charged feelings about what we want and don’t want, like or don’t like, we are much more likely to be heard and understood if we say it in a way that is respectful and kind.
Considering important relationships in terms of relating to a neighboring county and each one wants to live in peace is a good way to think about what it means to create a loving environment. We have freedom in relationships, but not license to do whatever we want without repercussion or consequence. If we believe that love and respect are earned through our behavior, then we will be much more likely to think about what we say and do. Being civil, diplomatic, and thoughtful goes a long way toward being understood and accepted.
As we know, relationships do not always run smoothly. There are many factors that influence our thinking, feelings, and attitudes in ways that may conflict with our partner’s—among them gender, race, religious background, temperament, sexual desire, stress, career pressures, education level, personal sensitivities, and values. If we take these differences into account in our communication style, we can tailor how we say what we think and feel to our partner. For example, if we know that our partner is biased or has particularly tender feelings about a particular subject, we can take that into consideration in the way we speak to him or her and learn how to steer around their internal land mine.
Other elements that influence our communication style are the demands associated with things like the cost of living, work, family, friends, personal interests, and health issues. We cannot help but bring these pressures to bear in our relationships. Couples who fashion their communicative style in a way that reflects this complexity create a healthier partnership and ultimately a more loving relationship. This is the goal of healthy couple interaction—to respond to our partner with tenderness and tolerance, amidst feelings of fairness, concern, and a willingness to listen with an open mind and share ideas that include finding common ground.
There are two levels of emotional content in conflicts with our partner,manifest and latent—both what appears to us when we observe our own and our partner’s behavior and what lies below the surface that may be influencing our behavior. Understanding and addressing the latent concerns is often the best way to resolve our differences and difficulties together. For example, if a couple are in conflict because one of them wants to get married and the other doesn’t, the manifest content might be a sense of reluctance on the part of one person, but the latent content could very well be fear of failure. If they frame their discussion differently What kind of marriage do we want to have and what are we most afraid of? they can include in that conversation both manifest and latent content. Bringing the latent content into our communications helps draw us closer because it allows us access to the entire personality and thus makes it possible to end the conflict. When couples do not address or resolve the latent content their conflict will not be resoled and is most commonly the reason for conflict cycles to continue culminating in stalemate or hopelessness. Understanding latent content helps us stay in a position of support to nurture both ourselves and our partner.
Good conflict resolution skills require focus and time.
With all the pressure we encounter in our daily lives, time for this kind of reflection and discussion can be elusive, so we need to deliberately create opportunities to talk about the dimensions of our concerns. The first step is to understand what our basic concerns are, and the second step is to present them diplomatically. The third step is to find some solutions that might work well for both people. For the couple who were arguing about whether to marry, it might work best to set a time and date for a decision then make an agreement to talk about what kind of marriage they want and work through their fears. Love is a complicated act and requires not only understanding of the other but knowledge of one’s self. If we understand what we are bringing to the table in any conflict we are half way toward resolution. When relationships fail it is because one or both people are not willing to look at what they might be contributing to the problem. The critical element then is generosity in a conflict. If we are generous we will take a look and what we are being told and try to connect it to ourselves. At the very least and most importantly we can acknowledge our partner even if we don’t agree. Being heard and understood is in the end is the way we connect. If our relationship is primary and connection is key, then we always know where we are going and what it takes to create love.