The little things can create big problems
This story is actually more about knives and whether or not they belong in the dishwasher. It was an ongoing “little thing” in my relationship with my husband that was causing some big problems. I believe they exist in most relationships – those little conflicts that are really challenging to work out, build up resentment, break down trust and cause way more problems than they seem to merit. Here, I reveal a personal example AND how NVC-based conflict resolution can work. Nonviolent Communication skills help me navigate through all my conflicts, big and small. (I teach them each Spring at TACA in Amsterdam to couples in a course called, “Connecting Even When We Fight.” You can join a free workshop on 20 April to learn more . . . see below for more information.)
Our win-lose situation
For a long time, it seemed like it had to either go his way or mine, no room for compromise, a win-lose situation. My conviction (based on advice from the experts) was that there is ONE best way to care for knives (see right thought bubble)
. . . and he had a different thought about it (see left thought bubble).
The story I created and the resentment that built
It was an ongoing conflict – one that started rather small, but it grew larger over time. We have a standing agreement that one cooks and the other cleans up after dinner. As I do most of the evening cooking, he does most of the kitchen clean-up work. Most mornings, I would open the dishwasher and find the knives there. In the speed of light, I would create a story and the frustration would fill me up. I would think and believe something like this . . .
Quite a painful rejection story to live with. I knew it wasn’t really true, but in those moments I seemed to believe it thoroughly. I felt resentful and this would affect our connection immediately. I would either say something about it (he would perceive as nagging) or say nothing and seethe. I was so sure that my way was the right way and was willing to fight over it until he changed his ways.
The breakthrough that NVC brought
I learned from NVC that all conflict happens at the strategy level – the things we do or say (behavior) to meet our needs, or longings. It took me quite a while to let that sink in, but now I’m a firm believer. So I took this as a que to dig deeper . . . what is underneath my favorite strategy of hand washing and drying knives? What is so important for me, really? Likewise, what is going on for my partner? What is driving, or motivating his actions?
This took some time for me, but I was able to boil it down to the enjoyment I get from cooking. A big part of that has to do with un-nicked, clean, sharp knives that bring me ease and flow while cutting ingredients.
For him, it’s about simplicity (low pressure) and also ease and flow in the cleaning-up part, which is his contribution to our evening meals.
So we have practically the SAME NEEDS, just very different strategies. One is not right or wrong. This brought us one step closer to mutual understanding and compassion. Now we were more capable of moving away from our win-lose situation and toward new creative strategies that could help us both meet our needs.
With our full set of needs in view, we came up with new creative strategies that have been working for us. They’re mostly about various intentions, which is important, because it lowers expectations and carries more compassion for when things don’t go one certain way. Here are our new set of strategies:
- Before sitting down for dinner, I wash and dry the knives I used. (This “taking care of my own needs” is really ideal, but I don’t always remember . . .)
- When my partner is cleaning up after dinner, he either leaves the knives out for me to wash later . . . or
- He lays the knives down on the top rack of the dishwasher in a way that they do not bang up against anything else
- He is open to me asking him any time to sharpen the knives. (“I like sharp knives, too!” he says.)
I’m so relieved it was possible! Our conflict is a thing of the past. I no longer dread opening up the dishwasher. And when I do and see a knife in it, I don’t fill up with frustration or anger. I don’t say anything about it. I see that all the new, creative strategies we discussed are being used at different times. We both see that we care about each other’s needs and have met each other in a new place where we attempt to fulfill them all.
You can join Cara's “Connecting Even When We Fight” course at TACA to learn NVC skills that can help with all the conflicts in your relationship and experience more ongoing connection. You are welcome to the FREE introductory workshop (20 April) and the course (5 Friday evenings, 25 May - 13 July.) See Cara's related articles: The Beauty of our Interdependence A Relationship Request Reduce Conflict during Family Vacation Staying Connected with my Partner