December 2015: Managing Self in a Tense Relationship

If a hermit can’t avoid relationship tensions, can you?

Noah Rondeau’s strategy for dodging people conflicts was to avoid relationships altogether. The famous Adirondack Mountain hermit wrote that he was “not well satisfied with the world and its trends,” and moved to a remote area of the Cold River Wilderness at age 46, calling himself “The Mayor of Cold River City (Population 1).”

Even in the wilderness, Rondeau couldn’t escape relationship challenges. He developed an enduring animosity towards members of the State Conservation Department, who badgered him for killing wild animals out of season.

The example of Rondeau makes an important point: It’s sensible to learn how to manage – rather than avoid – relationship tensions.

But how do we do that?

The short answer: Focus on yourself, not on the other. That means avoiding unproductive behaviors and developing more functional responses.

Here are behavioral guidelines that support a healthy focus on self in times of tension:

What to avoid

1. Avoid assuming that you know the person you are tense with, or their motives.

It’s hard to accept that we know very little about ourselves, much less anyone else. Lack of awareness prompts us to get snared by the fantasy that we know exactly why the other is saying or doing what they’re saying or doing.

Look for your own voice in this clairvoyant-like language:

“I know what you’re doing! You’re trying to corner me!”

“He’s like that because his father was like that.”

“Chantrelle wants us to believe that being quiet makes her smarter.”

2. Avoid telling people what’s wrong with them, or what they should change.

“Your problem is that you’re too quiet; you need to speak up more.”

“If you weren’t so insecure, you would focus on issues other than money.”

”You sent that email because you’re afraid you’ll lose your status.”

3. Avoid blaming others for your own reactions.

“You get me really upset when you talk that way about Mom.”

“Sure I get defensive; it’s because you criticize me.”

“You started the bickering, not me.”

What to do more of

1. Consider the context of the other, and a wider view of “the problem.”

“Her family history might be influencing her reactions to the changes taking place.”

“Employee turnover is not the problem, it’s a symptom of a bigger issue.”

“There are a lot of contributing factors, not a single cause.”

2. Take responsibility for your part in the problem, and for your response to the problem.

“My lack of clarity makes it easier for others to take advantage of me.”

“I did not develop a strong connection with her; that likely contributed to her leaving.”

“I’ve decided that my sensitivity to his criticism is a bigger problem than his criticism.”

3. Becoming curious about differences instead of judging

“What is it like for you to be the newcomer on a closely-knit team?”

“Is it tough for you to find vegetarian options when you eat out?”

“I cannot relate to your experience of being denigrated because of skin color.”

Managing self in a tense relationship does not mean being self-centered.

It means bringing more attention to how you will thoughtfully respond, instead of focusing on what the other is doing or not doing.

Reducing your own reactivity and blame frees up the attention you can give to considering your own part in any drama or tension. In addition, no matter what kind of problem you face, or how immature another acts, you always have the choice to focus on making your response as functional and least disruptive as possible.

That’s why, in any tense relationship, managing your response to a problem generally produces better outcomes than focusing on “the problem.”

3 Responses to “December 2015: Managing Self in a Tense Relationship”

  1. November 25, 2015 at 8:55 pm, Rick D said:

These are good, poignant methods for approaching stressful relationships. No doubt the holidays will provide some of those for me. I’m glad for the reminders in these perspectives. Focus on what the relationship is doing to me, and why, and taking responsibility for my reactions are key to getting a conversation headed in a positive direction.

  1. November 26, 2015 at 3:38 pm, John Cammack said:

What a useful essay to consider before extended family arrive for Thanksgiving in a few hours!

  1. November 30, 2015 at 2:49 am, Scott Gibbs said:

John’s strategy of “taking a wider view of the problem” has been instrumental in helping me improve my personal and professional relationships. John’s advice regarding taking “responsibility for your part in the problem” has also proven to be invaluable. Thank you for your insights John.

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