Communication

Changing the Other vs Leaving Them Alone

Things would work, if only s/he would change

Changing the Other vs Leaving Them Alone by Rachel Alexander{7:36 minutes to read} Many relationships seem to have to do with how the other person needs to change in order for the relationship to work. One spouse would be happy if only the other would return to work. The other spouse would be happy if only the other would be more sensitive and expressive. If only

Good morning! It’s time to wake up!

People seem to get jammed up in relationships when they insist that the other person should be someone other than who they are.

What’s wrong with encouraging the other person to change by pointing out his/her flaws?

Several things. First, it sends a message to the other that she is inadequate, not wanted as she is, and in order to gain your (conditional) love and approval, she should improve herself based on your criticisms. It puts the other in an unfriendly territory of needing to agree that he is not okay, in order to align with how you feel about him, that is, deride himself or dis-align with you. Arguing with who a person isn’t—instead of responding and being with who our partner actually is—is a dead end.

A relationship doesn’t need both you and your version of who the other person ought to be. Just who you are and who the other person is, is fully sufficient.

Close relationships, which contain a spaciousness—where both people appreciate one another as essentially whole universes unto themselves—tend to last. This may be a lonelier view of intimacy, but it’s also more awesome and magnificent. Most everyone has been through enough to already be the best version of themselves that they can throw together.

As a divorce mediator, I meet with a lot of good people who are getting divorced because their partner isn’t what they are supposed to be. Couples don’t arrive at my door a month or two after discovering that the wife never wants to return to work, or the husband isn’t demonstrative—they come 14 years later.

Here’s what I think. When you discover that who you’re married to is, well, who they repeatedly show themselves to be—a spender, a penny-pincher, a short-tempered ass, whatever—take note. That actually is who they are, and yeppers, they are your spouse. The choices open to you are these:

  1. Acknowledge who he or she is and decide there are other aspects of them and the relationship that are more deserving of your attention. You can live with the aspects you don’t enjoy, and maybe even work together to find some ways to manage conflict around these areas.
  2. Determine if it’s a deal breaker. Address it with your spouse and a counselor, and if it can’t be resolved to your satisfaction, leave the relationship.

I believe these are the two choices, however, choice 3 is the one most people make.

  1. Upon discovering the intolerable quality or behavior of your spouse, set about on a multi-decade campaign of verbal assault and passive-aggressive behavior to forcibly reshape your spouse into who you would have them be.
  • Argue over every Neiman Marcus credit card bill when it arrives. Don’t miss even one month.
  • Snort and sigh when you leave for the office and your spouse is still in bed.
  • Roll your eyes in disgust when your spouse helps himself/herself to a second piece of cake.
  • React with grand theatrics and amazement when the accountant reports that, for the 9th consecutive year, your spouse under-withheld and you owe the government money.
  • Stoke the discontent and irritation the way a desperate boy scout would a dwindling fire on a frigid night.
  • And stay together! In this way you have the best of both worlds—you highlight everything that you can’t stand, weaving it through the fibers of each day, so your discontent is duly noted, and while voicing your objections, continue on with a marriage you’re beating into disrepair.

Option 3—or, the “no-option/both options”—has people straddling two choices while making none. Option 3 inflames the discontent while suffocating the cinders of goodwill. Option 3 feeds discontent while starving love.

I’d like to make an official motion to remove #3 from the list of options.

While I loathe the expression “it is what it is”—primarily because it provides neither information, wisdom, nor relief of any kind—when it comes to your spouse, it may be useful.

  • Your spouse is who he is. He isn’t going to be the first person to reverse hereditary baldness nor will you discover him early next Sunday morning planting a vineyard in your backyard.
  • Your wife is unlikely to discover after three children and menopause that she wants to be more sexually experimental and daring.

You can expend a great deal of energy on trying to argue someone into being a better version of himself, but all that tends to do is alienate your partner and drive you in circles, which wastes gas and can produce dizziness.

In my experience, relationships break down when validation isn’t practiced and respect erodes. Respect doesn’t mean liking everything that your partner is or does, but it means acknowledging that it is, well, what it is, and your pointing to it and stamping your feet is not going to achieve anything except sore feet and a weary pointing finger.

One last thing:

  • Your wife probably knows her issues and doesn’t require you reminding her to attend to them.
  • Your husband is very likely already engaged in being the best version of himself possible under the circumstances.

While you are together, let it be a friendly togetherness. Next time you’re tempted to remind your spouse of how they royally f%#$@ed up, breathe deep and nod to the person who they are in the other moments; the one who is with you, shortcomings and strengths. Nod inwardly to the one who has chosen to keep company with you as you sometimes sail, sometimes battle through the years together.©

Rachel Alexander

Rachel Alexander
Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830
(908) 832-2305

Ode to Validation: The Actual Contents of the Milk of Human Kindness

The Path to Validation Is Through Our Ears

{6:48 minutes to read} Validation is the yeast of a marriage. Without it, whatever you are cooking falls flat. Without it, you may find yourself wandering in the [proverbial] desert for 40 years with nothing good to eat—on a God-imposed, low-carbohydrate diet.

Ode to Validation: The Actual Contents of the Milk of Human Kindness by Rachel AlexanderValidation holds hands with respect, discussed in the last article, Validation—How We Speak Is How We Love. Validation requires a recognition, an attunement, and an interest in what the other needs. While it sounds rudimentary, it’s so integral to our attachments and how we feel about one another that it’s worthy of our attention. Continue reading Ode to Validation: The Actual Contents of the Milk of Human Kindness

Validation—How We Speak Is How We Love

Validation—How We Speak Is How We Love by Rachel Alexander{4:24 minutes to read} There is a saying that goes, “In heaven, there’s no talking, because men invented heaven.” OK, just kidding. The parable actually is that in heaven, everything is perfect, so speech is unnecessary. Everyone is content, fulfilled, and attuned, so no one need ask for anything.

On Earth, we speak because something’s agitating us, and we need to express it in order to address it, communicate our need to another, be understood, or be acknowledged. We also speak to process things that affect us, to sift through and unravel our experiences and their impact, and to gain understanding.

Often, we need to express that something is wrong.

Often, we speak to connect to another. Continue reading Validation—How We Speak Is How We Love

Why People Divorce: The Breakdown That Precedes the Breakup

Why People Divorce: The Breakdown That Precedes the Breakup by Rachel Alexander{4:12 minutes to read} As a divorce mediator, I’m often asked: Why do people get divorced? What went wrong? Money issues? Infidelity? Grew apart?

Financial stress and diverging values around money certainly strain a marriage. It’s also safe to say infidelity neither strengthens trust nor solidifies relationships. But my working hypothesis is that, usually, there are certain other things that deteriorate first.

Query: What makes a marriage fail? What makes a relationship thrive? Continue reading Why People Divorce: The Breakdown That Precedes the Breakup

Creating a Healthy Divorce Narrative for your Kids

Creating a Healthy Divorce Narrative for your Kids by Rachel AlexanderThere are a lot of recommendations about how to tell your children you are getting divorced. This article concentrates on what to convey to your kids after and about the divorce, and the reasons for your divorce in an ongoing way. In mediation, I counsel divorcing and post-divorce clients on this topic. We discuss and develop an agreed-upon narrative to be shared with the children.

Her Version

The wife feels that the reason the marriage broke up is that the husband is a cheating, lying scoundrel. If it weren’t for the 23-year-old that he got involved with when he was supposed to be billing more hours at work, they would still be married.

His Version

The husband feels that the reasons the marriage broke up were: (1) Once his wife had her mom move in, she spent all of her weekends concentrating on her mom’s needs instead of paying attention to the marriage. (2) They hadn’t slept together in the last 2 years. (3) She was unkind and criticized him all the time. If they had any kind of relationship, he would never have even thought about developing a friendship, much less anything extra marital. He felt like his wife was so out of the relationship, that the affair just happened.

What’s True?

So now we have two different points of view of what is a reasonable and understandable story. Neither version, nor a combination thereof, however, is anything that a 6 and 10-year-old should be privy to. Not because it isn’t true, or because either point of view isn’t absolutely valid, but because it is harmful to your children.

Children are not equipped to deal with adult issues and should not have to. Just as you wouldn’t serve an infant child steak and baked potatoes because it would choke them and overwhelm their digestive system, certain information is not appropriate for them to consume. Babies eat pureed baby food, so they can be nourished, not harmed. Their well being and developmental stage dictates what you give them. A narrative that is filled with vitriol about how you were victimized, or abandoned in the relationship, or subjected to frigidity or infidelity, isn’t information that your kids can digest or use for nourishment.

Children have to be protected from unnecessary details and information, particularly as it pertains to their parents. The weightiness of anything related to their parents goes right to their most basic and primal survival instincts and needs. If they are given too much information that casts either parent in a poor light, their relationship with both parents can be damaged. The child not only has to process inappropriate information about one parent, he has to manage the poor boundaries demonstrated by the parent who said too much.

However much you feel a need to express your story, or inform your kids why the marriage ended, don’t tell them. Just because it’s “true”, doesn’t mean it’s helpful or appropriate. In fact, regardless of the accuracy of the information, it can be poisonous not just to the spouse whom you blame but to your children and yourself.

Kids need parents whom they can admire and trust. They also need to model adults who can emotionally regulate themselves and self-soothe. Be these adults for your kids. Children who don’t learn to calm themselves down are vulnerable to a variety of dangers including addiction, unhealthy relationships, and difficulties with authority.

Divorce from a difficult spouse can be an opportunity to teach emotional regulation, good coping skills, and managing stress with calm, grace, and dignity.

So what do you tell your kids?

Creating a Healthy Divorce Narrative for your Kids by Rachel AlexanderWhat is an appropriate shared narrative? This is something we work on in mediation: creating a narrative that each parent can get behind without compromising their integrity or needing to grit their teeth when relaying it to their kids.

It might feel disingenuous to say it was a mutual decision if it wasn’t, so that wouldn’t be language we would choose. Each party may be committed to their rendering of the facts. I help parents step back to observe a more macro version of the facts, and make use of the theme. I envision the parents backing physically away from the actual events so they can view them from a greater distance, which often makes room for their spouse’s interpretation as well as their own wiser self. From that new vantage point parties come up with broad statements that capture the essence of the message they can impart without burdening their kids. Some examples are:

  • Mom and Dad were no longer able to have the kind of relationship that we both believe is needed in a marriage.
  • We care about one another; but our marriage was not healthy and we decided to support one another’s need to be fulfilled, even if it meant separating.
  • Sometimes, for many complicated reasons, people are no longer able to be their best selves together or provide the best environment for their children, and sometimes the best thing is to make a change, even though it’s sad and hard.

The idea is to work out what’s true for both of you, and then refine and distill a version that is both authentic and child-friendly. It need not be detailed or exact. By maintaining your privacy, you provide your child with a sense of safety. While children may express curiosity and ask for details, their real need is to have boundaries held and to confirm that you are in charge. What they ask for is not necessarily what they need or even want. It’s okay to allow them to manage their unsatisfied curiosity.

So, just like we have movies rated as age- and subject-appropriate, we create a narrative that’s going to be true but also child-suitable. However much you want to blame or “out” your spouse for being bad or wrong, it serves no purpose in terms of the health of your kids. Nor does it hasten their adjustment to the divorce.

Most parent’s ultimate goal is to protect their kids and help them to grow through the potentially difficult and unwanted experience of divorce. A cohesive, shared narrative supports this goal.

Rachel AlexanderRachel Alexander
Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830
(908) 832-2305

The Progression Of The Species

“Before you speak ask yourself:
Is it kind,
Is it necessary,
Is it true,
Does it improve upon the silence?

– Shirdi Sai Baba

Sigmund Freud said, “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.”Progression-of-the-species-DPLIC-225x300

In our evolution as civilized beings, we now are actually able to not only hold back a stone, but hold back the insult as well, and consider, massage and then “hurl” thoughtful communication.

Before we throw something out to another person, we want to be more mindful of:

  • The effect it’s going to have
  • What we really want to say
  • What’s going on with us
  • Whether this is the right time
  • Whether this is the correct person to address

Identifying our needs (often unconsciously) and attending to them is our right as members of the animal kingdom. Collaborating with one another, while acknowledging that we all share this right, honors the capacity of our humanness.

The old adage about sticks and stones has long been proven untrue, and we now appreciate the depth of word-made wounds.

Whether one is hurling a stone or a word, the intent is still to harm. Perhaps our evolution has to do with relating to one another while managing our aggression – to understanding that we can address our own needs without making the other into an opponent. We can resource into one another without the energy of emnety. This is possible. This is the premise of mediation as I understand it. And mediation, in my estimation, evidences the evolution of the legal system and problem solving as a whole.

Finding subtle, “civilized” ways to harm one another is not so much our evolution, but merely our sophistication. Our ability to practice kindness while pursuing our desires will mark our progression as a species.

In your observation, are we evolving or devolving as a species? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

A Communication Template For Divorced Parents

Woman makng a shopping list in her kitchenCommunicating is riddled with potholes. This is particularly so for divorced couples whose relationship may be strained with distrust, unresolved resentments, hurt and anger. One of the tasks of mediation is to develop a workable method of communication for parents who will need to be in regular contact, often about sensitive and dynamic issues.

Simplicity and clarity rule. Avoid subtext and innuendos. Say exactly what you mean. Write as though you are posting a sign on the middle school bulletin board (e.g. “Cookie sale Tuesday at noon in the cafeteria.”)

Facts also rule. Stick to them and exchange necessary information. Check your motives. If you discover that your real goal is to criticize, vent, relieve anger, or convince the recipient to change, stop. STOP! This may feel “right,” but it is counter to what you are actually after in this instance. We are working on pain-free communication and problem-solving rather than emotional release. (Note: Emotional relief and acknowledgment is important, but must be dealt with separately. When we try to combine multiple objectives into one action, we often accomplish nothing apart from making a mess.)

Here is a sample memo template I have devised for use in difficult situations:Screen-Shot-2014-04-30-at-10.23.43-PM

Senders:

I have reviewed email communications between divorcing and divorced couples decorated with tentifiers and softeners, the linguistic equivalents to fabric softeners and pH neutralizers. Example:

“Please don’t be offended – I am not saying you are a bad mom/dad, or that you are mishandling your affairs. I just need to ask…”

All of this extra verbiage – a preemptive effort to protect against anticipated recipient backlash – can turn crafting communications into a dreaded ordeal. Additionally, the efforts may have the opposite result. For the recipient, all of the careful managing may imply that s/he is so injured, defensive and beyond reason that literally nothing can be said without it being interpreted as a personal attack.

The alternative: a more collegial approach, regarding the recipient as a collaborator in common concerns. This implies respect and acknowledgment of the other’s capacity to be both reasonable and valuable.  Senders: Using an agreed-to format like the sample memo above can eliminate ineffective over-speaking.

Recipients:

Regardless of whether you are correct or not in your interpretation that there really is an implicit insult (and believe me, I understand that you are not paranoid if it’s true), it is still not useful to employ this perspective. When this interpretation is driving, there is no good destination. Avoid deep analysis of every word and supply a sense (even if it’s through suspended disbelief) that the sender has no hidden agenda or intent to insult. This is not letting anyone off the hook; it’s choosing to be effective.

As mediator, I often encourage clients to copy me on their emails to support their development of transparent and thoughtful communications. Having a professional “witnessing” conversations can help focus purpose and reset tone.

Communication can be dangerous.

Proceed with caution.

Supervision advisable as necessary.

Good luck and Godspeed!

What difficult communications have you faced and how have you managed them? Please share your experiences using the “Leave a Reply” box below.  We look forward to hearing from you.

The Power Of “I Don’t Know”

Bridge over the clouds“Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing, for the known way is an impasse.” Heraclitus

There is nothing like divorce to overwhelm otherwise cheerful people with negativity. Negativity, overwhelm and fear are three henchmen well known to ride together, but recently I’ve noticed a fourth figure riding powerfully along with them. This henchman is omnipotence.

For some reason the more negativity, the more certainty. It’s as if doom and gravity have the same mother. I can paraphrase the present, and predict the future, all with the false clarity provided by the thick black fog of negativity. At least in my experience, there is nothing like negativity to provide the erroneous confidence of being right. How counterintuitive! Negative states would be less intractable if we could only introduce the possibility that we could be wrong; that there might be some things we can’t see from our post on Mt. Olympus.

When I am anchored in a negative space, it is totally useless to try to reframe things in the positive. That’s like trying to get from New York to London without acknowledging the need for air or sea travel. This is where a small shift can be profound. What is more available than a complete overhaul is simply introducing this concept: I don’t know everything. Perhaps this works because it is the same language as the negative monologue, with the message only slightly but significantly amended.

Negativity goes with totality. Add anxiety and we are operating from our more regressed selves – governed by all-or-nothing, black and white thinking, a heightened, primitive sense that we must depend entirely on ourselves and what we know. Through this micro-focused lense, danger is everywhere, possibility is missing.

Positive states mingle loosely with the unknown. They often include wonder. There is a freeing humility that comes with, “I don’t know.” This humility allows connection and perspective, a more appropriate sense of our place in the universe.

When caught in a negative frame of mind, I have found one dependable way out – reminding myself repeatedly that I don’t know everything. In the unknown – in what resides somewhere out of my fixed line of sight – is change, hope, and things I have neither contemplated nor discovered.

Here we are reminded of the ancient western wisdom of Heraclitus, who taught: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”

The Four Styles Of Communication

In recent blogs, we’ve been exploring communication. In this blog we will Girl listening with her hand on an earsimply identify the four basic styles of communication. Take a look and see which you identify with and which you’d like to practice more.

Passive

The passive communicator is avoidant and indirect, possibly wishing to avoid conflict at any cost. He negates himself and abandons his role as self-spokesman. This communication style is often paired with other “doormat” behavior. Essentially, the passive communicator has moved out of the frame to make room for the other party (often the aggressor) to run the show. Typically this is learned survival behavior by those who have recognized that speaking for themselves can result in uncomfortable to abusive situations.

Aggressive

The aggressive communicator is argumentative, belligerent, attacking and volatile. He may be described as “a loose cannon.” Physically, he may enter into the other’s personal space and have a bullying or threatening demeanor. He may be unrelenting and unilateral. The aggressive communicator may yell and use abusive language, diminishing the other party in order to demand his way. He leaves the other feeling disrespected, possibly violated, and overpowered. In this style of communication the aggressor has not made room for two people in the discourse; the aggressor’s voice (and behavior) strangle the other’s expression.

Passive Aggressive

The passive aggressive communicator is the most frustrating and perhaps fascinating. Perhaps having developed this style from an environment where it is unsafe to express anger and unmet needs, this communicator will express hostility in covert ways. He may use sarcasm, side comments and snide remarks. Verbal techniques may include interrupting, talking over, and changing the subject. There are non-verbal demonstrations of disapproval such as eye rolling, grunting, and ignoring. Guilting and manipulating are common. Other passive strategies include demonstrating disinterest or failing to listen to the other party, or the classic passive aggressive behavior, the silent treatment. By refusing to speak, the passive communicator shifts the burden to the recipient – forcing the other to do all of the active work – to inquire, “what’s wrong?” or to acquiesce and co-inhabit the tense, inauthentic environment.

Assertive

An assertive communicator is the least common and the most effective. It is what we are striving for. Communicating assertively incorporates reasoning and an awareness of boundaries. It is direct, clear, honest, and concise. The assertive communicator is confident but not confrontational, displaying self control, and encouraging the opportunity for collaboration. It’s both respectful of one’s own needs, and the needs of the others, with the focus on getting the needs of both parties met. In this kind of communication, “I” statements are utilized. There is also no accusatory speech such as “You did this!” or blaming. Again, the focus is on the problem, not the individual. It isn’t making the other person wrong .It’s saying, “Here is what is going on that isn’t working for me. How do we address this together?”

It is likely that we each use these different communication styles at different times, with varying degrees of success. The more we practice assertive communication, the more respect and space we can encourage in our interactions.

Are there ever times when the assertive approach would be ineffective? Are there certain times when passivity or aggression are called for?

The Case For Clear Communication – Part 4b

Using Communication Responsibly and Effectively

After inquiring and centering within, you are prepared to venture without.Young woman having a conversation on a cell phone in a home garden.

Without

Once you have completed the initial dialogue with yourself, it is time to begin communicating with another. Here are some steps to help you achieve responsible and effective results.

1. Formulate consciously before speaking

Say more by saying less.Choose your words to reflect your intention and stay within that clear objective (resist multitasking and trying to get a few more things accomplished in one exchange).

It is critical that we take more time in our communication, or make more space. A voice teacher of mine used to say, “make good lace,” and good lace has lots of space. It is not tight webbing that makes it fine, but lots of air. That is the kind of communication we want. In that space, we can allow for silences and reflection. We can rest and listen without automatically reacting. We make room for the other person and for our self. As with music, much of what happens takes place in the rests and silences between the notes. So it is with quality communication. By slowing down and saying less we allow for more time to mindfully receive, experience and reflect upon what we hear, and process it. Only then do we choose our response.

While this may seem like much ado about nothing and too time consuming to be practical, consider the mess we can make by communicating sloppily. Unraveling and repairing poor, impulsive, even harmful communications are far more time consuming; rebuilding a relationship damaged by hasty communication is far more work than minding the relationship in the moment.

2. Listen

Say more by listening more. Say less, listen more. By listening consciously and being present for the other person, you give them a gift as well as model the behavior you wish to receive in return. How we listen seems to impact our relationships more than the quantity of information we deliver. Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the meditation master and spiritual head of the Siddha Yoga path, has written, “Your greatest gift to another is your own inner self.” By being fully present we give those around us the gift of our self, as it exists in the present moment. In so doing, we honor the other and the self simultaneously (acknowledging that we identify a shared divinity, a greater, shared Self or consciousness, if you will).

3. Acknowledge: Establish connection without making yourself responsible for the other; you need neither submit to their understanding nor defend your own – there is room for all G-d’s creatures!

You can build bridges by acknowledging what you hear and what you understand the other person to be feeling. You can acknowledge what you hear and still maintain a different point of view. You are not required to take what you’ve heard as a call to action. The healing comes through the listening and acknowledging – – Agreeing and/or taking actions accordingly is not the only way to relate. You can disagree and still create a respectful, validating connection.

Listening and acknowledging can be reparative of the relationship and establish a solid foundation for communication going forward.

What happens in communications when you feel validated? Have you ever felt validated by someone with whom you still disagreed? How was that accomplished? What communication techniques have you found most effective in fostering relationships?