The “fight/flight” response is a genetically programmed reaction to control our environment and any enemies that may threaten us. The goal is to dominate and control adversaries so as to neutralize them, or failing that, to escape from their domination.
It is easy to understand why we might be inclined to use the same methods to get others to do something we want them to do. We act that out in positive ways, for example, with sports such as football, competing to see who can dominate who as the primary goal. The winner is the team that has the dominant physical control, on balance, over the other, as measured by the points scored.
But in relationships other than sports, when there is no agreement to compete, attempting to control others turns into frustrating and hapless struggle, because we cannot control others, short of putting them into physical bondage.
The struggle to make things and others be what we want is familiar and understandable, but when it comes to achieving cooperative relationships, it is doomed to failure. The reason is that one person cannot control what another thinks or does.
The exception to this principle is parents’ responsibility to care for children, to assure that their behavior and environment is as positive and nurturing as possible and to protect them from hurt. But children also gradually let the parents know as they become emotionally and financially independent that the parents have less and less responsibility and eventually no responsibility to manage their lives. By growing up, the children work the parents out of the job of being caretakers.
More sophisticated methods of relating than fight/flight are required for satisfactory adult relationships, methods affirming the autonomy and freedom of each person, still allowing for initiative to pursue what each person wants. One way to think of ways of relating that succeed in relationships is to focus on cooperation.
Replace force with cooperation.
Since we cannot force ourselves, others, and nature to be what they are not, we do well to accept the reality of ourselves, others, and nature being the way each is, bringing ourselves into harmony with reality as it is. We can then choose how to relate to each person as he or she is, including the choice not to relate. With ourselves, we do well to give ourselves permission to think, feel, and act as we think, feel, and act, and then see if there is anything we would like to change about ourselves. We can spend our limited energy on productive change, if we wish to do so.
The same principle applies to others. First listen and observe to understand more about the other person, and then decide how you wish to relate or not relate to him or her. You can get better acquainted, and since no one is the way you ideally want him or her to be, you can decide whether there are enough positives to warrant being more involved.
The process of getting acquainted with another person more deeply allows you to honor what is important to that person in combination with honoring what is important to you. Then you can negotiate to arrive at some ways to accommodate that give you both enough of what you desire.
The negotiation process is not complicated, and is something you already know how to do. After listening and understanding the other person’s point of view, you simply state your own, using “I” statements to describe your response to whatever has happened.
This way of communicating your own point of view avoids any criticism of the other person.
Another self-created struggle results from the attempt to create a close relationship by taking responsibility for the happiness of the other person. This “co-dependent” arrangement is based on the belief that “If I sacrifice myself to please you and you sacrifice yourself to please me, we will both be happy.”
This setup backfires because it violates the reality that each person can only be responsible for his or her own happiness.
The resentment that results from carrying the burden of keeping others happy and from their failing to keep us happy in return kills the relationship instead of blessing it. The obligation to please others creates resentment and fear of closeness, as described in more detail in my book, Taking the Fear Out of Being Close.
The positive alternative is to cooperate with the biological reality that you are in charge of your own decision making, and also have the option to treat others in loving ways without being obligated to be their servant. You begin with taking care of yourself, being loving toward yourself, and then treat others in the same way you wish them to treat you, even if they do not.
Here are some ways to practice replacing force with cooperation.
1. Begin any joint activity with another person by understanding his or her point of view. Full understanding always includes
Data — Ask about the ideas and beliefs that guide the other person’s actions and feelings, whether or not you think they are true. Listening and acknowledging what another person thinks does not require agreement.
Logic — See how the other person weaves together ideas and beliefs in a way that makes sense to him or her. Seek to understand the rationale behind the thinking and actions.
Empathy — what might you feel if you were in the other person’s shoes? Use that information to connect with the other person’s emotional energy of anger, sadness, fear, and happiness that flow from his or her beliefs and actions.
These same elements are found in the Couple’s Dialogue as taught by Imago Relationship therapists, and in other models of active listening. The bottom line is to find out what is emotionally important to the other person, what the other person wants, so as to take it seriously, with respect, even when you disagree. You can read more about this in my book, Making Relationships Work, available as an ebook or hard copy.
2. If you find yourself angry about what someone has asked you to do, remind yourself that you have a choice about how to respond to what another person says or does, and that you can take time to think about your response.
Ask yourself if you must do what is requested. Good relationships do not require that one always do what pleases the other person. You are not required to do what violates your values or what your “inner wisdom” rejects.
Tell the other person what you have decided to say or do (rather than keep it to yourself), especially when what you have decided is a new way to talk or act, a change from your typical behavior.
3. If you find yourself angry about what someone has ordered you to do, think about whether you have agreed to do what was ordered, as in a military or job setting. Remember that even in such a setting you still have a choice about whether to honor your contract to follow orders.
Remind yourself that when you do not have an agreement to follow orders, as in a romantic relationship, you do not have an obligation to please the other person, even though you may wish for him or her to be pleased. Then let the other person know what you have decided to do.
4. Here is a model for requesting another person to change a behavior. I present it in a linear, logical fashion, though in practice you may not use the same words, and you may use a different order. This is a way to make requests in ways that respect the other person’s point of view.
When you . . . (describe the behavior you like or dislike).
I think . . .(describe the meaning you assign to the behavior).
I feel . . .(name your feeling response).
I want . . .(propose your solution)
Will you . . .(ask if the other person will do it, and get a response of some kind).
Negotiate as , if necessary, to find a mutually acceptable alternative solution.
Modify and use these exercises in your own customized ways, your own ways to create more happiness in your life.
About The Author
Benjamin Conley is dedicated to helping people create happiness by accepting life as it is, nurturing the positive, and limiting the negative. Get his free white paper on How to Create Happiness in Your Life at http://www.go-for-happiness.com