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Last time we acknowledged how powerful we are in our human relationships.

Not only do we have the most complex known object in the observable universe as our brain, but we have the ability to communicate with each other, using all our senses, and with open ended language skills. As a result, our ability to interact with each other should always continue to develop, as should our capacity to strengthen and enrich our relationships.

Unfortunately, this does not tend to happen.

We interact with each other through variations of only three themes, or three biological behavioural patterns. As a result, we come to make the same mistake over and over, depending on our predilection to choose the same course of behaviour. Our choice of behaviour depends on our genetics, our upbringing and our past experience of relationships.

In this way we are not much different than any other animal. All animals behave in one of three ways to anything that alarms or threaten them. They either run towards the threat and attack; run away from threat to flee it; or get so overwhelmed that they freeze or collapse.

If we are not aware of our animalistic behaviour, and unaware that we live in a universe where everything breaks down, we soon find ourselves in relationships that ends up in one of only three ways. We become mutual destruction till nothing is left, or we gradually diverge until the two parties are so far apart that we cannot hear what each other is saying and nothing is left, or we endlessly circle each other in a sterile orbit “till death do us part” (and nothing is left). The saddest part is that we often meet somebody new and we excitedly believe that this time it will go better, when of course it won’t because we have not changed, just changed partners.

The trick in making our relationships work is to change the direction and the nature of our fight/flight/collapse behaviour. We need to aim towards better outcomes, not perfect outcomes, just better outcomes than what we were able to achieve before.

Let’s look at how we can change or modify these three behavioural patterns:

1) Instead of fighting, let’s attempt to anticipate our partner’s behaviour and constructively prevent the same-old-same-old fights, arguments and their predictable behaviour.

For instance: if we are irritated by our partner tossing their jacket down as they come through the front door when they come home after a day’s work, let us assume that they will do that. Let us not wait for it to happen and then go through the same song and dance routine we always do.  So, instead of focusing how to get them to change, focus on what we can do with our feelings about that jacket being thrown on the floor, or what we can do in interaction with them to make the outcome less predictable and annoying. Devise a plan, any plan, as long as it is a new plan and a new set of behaviours, other than what we have done unsuccessfully before.

Here is one (apparently daft) such plan. (You can make your own plan, no plan is superior to any other).

When the partner comes through the front door, imagine if we rush to them and plant a kiss on their forehead. You know your partner, so you can imagine their response. Mine would probably say: “And what is that about?” with a smile on her face. My answer would be: “I know you’re tired when you get home, and have no energy to do anything but to collapse on the couch. Today I wanted that path to start well. Can I make you some coffee?”  Remember, although we change our behaviour favourably for ourselves, not to change the other party’s behaviour, knowing humans the way I do, there is a distinct possibility that after that, she would hang her jacket up in the closet without any prompting. She might even remember to do it the day after that as well.

2) Instead of fleeing, let us explain that we need to step away, and tell our partner when we will be back.

So, next time when we get so mad in an argument that in the past we would have stalked off and slammed the door on the way out, let’s say this: “I need to spend some time by myself in order to calm down. I’m going to sit out on the deck for about five minutes, and then I would like to come back, and if you are also okay with that, let’s talk about this some more then”.

This simple change in fleeing behaviour does not ever cause an escalation of conflict, as it does not evoke in our partner an abandonment response, a fear response or a humiliation response. Again, we do this not to change their behaviour, but to make our experience of the process better. Yet, I have often found that by the time we come back to restart the conversation, they also have had time to reflect, cool down and see things from a slightly different perspective.

3) If constructively changing our behaviour, or taking time out and then coming back do not make things better, we tend to give up (collapse).

Instead of doing that, consider leaning into our partner’s annoying or idiosyncratic behaviour. (Remember, we are not talking about behaviour from our partner that is dangerous or abusive).

Consider accepting that this is what they do, and see if we can grow to love them because of that very thing that they do. It is possible, and the prize is great.

We learn to be flexible, to be tolerant and to continue to grow. Our partner experiences unconditional loving demonstrated.

Dr. Strauss l Wellness Lead
Follow me on Twitter @DrPieterStrauss