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Why Can't You See This My Way? - Part 2

This post is a continuation of Wednesday's post, in which I asked what Janice should do next. She triggered an emotional outburst from her wife, Katy, with the question, "How much interest are we making on our savings account this year?"

The Votes are In

Here's what you thought Janice's best next move would be :


  • 1 reader chose Defend her question as an innocent one with no intent to challenge Katy

  • No readers chose Assert her right to know what interest an account with her name on it and her money in it is earning

  • 3 readers chose Assure Katy she wants her to handle the finances unsupervised and appreciates the effort involved

  • No readers chose Dismiss her request and check with the bank to be sure Katy is not mishandling their money

  • 6 readers chose Give Katy information she might not have about a new bank in town with interest rates that might be higher

  • 2 readers added Acknowledge Katy's distress and ask questions to understand what's behind it before doing anything else

  • 1 reader added (by email) Reassure Katy that she (Janice) would not recall the interest rate off the top of her head either and the query was poorly worded. Then the two of them could look up the current rate and together match it against other banks. This query could be a start point for a discussion of how money is such a core issue that it is best that time be apportioned monthly to this and both parties be involved in money matters.

Not everyone who commented could choose just one, so there is some double-counting in this list.

Is the Most Popular Choice the Best Choice?

Giving Katy information about the interest rate at the new bank was quite popular here, just as it is in real life. Let's talk about that, because I believe it will backfire.

Janice is dealing with information--and probably a request she has not yet revealed. Katy is dealing with emotions. Emotions are the result of beliefs about whatever happened to trigger them. In this case, that would be emotions about being asked by her wife for an interest rate. We'll get back to those beliefs in a moment.

Emotions!

First, let's talk about emotions, because what we sense in our bodies as an emotion is the result of the release of chemicals into our brains and bloodstream, a different mix for each emotion. And the purpose of those chemicals is to save our lives. They give us a burst of energy for running away or fighting or staying alert (fear does this and so does anger) or they make us lethargic so we'll be less adventurous while we mend or figure out a new strategy (sadness does this).

At the same time, the chemicals focus our thoughts. If we're angry, it will focus them on boundaries and rights. If we're frightened, it will focus them on threats. If we're shamed or embarrassed, it will focus them on our standing in a relationship or group. If we're sad, it will focus them on losses.

In a marriage, angry almost always comes mixed with frightened. We're frightened of losing our spouse or frightened of losing our independence within the marriage.

So Katy will be focused on boundaries, rights, and threats. Her mind will not be focused on managing the finances. It will be bouncing around like a pinball from dish washing to dog walking to income earning and recalling every word Janice has ever said that sounds like she wants out, wants to run the show, or does not care. She'll be thinking about how awful it felt to be dumped in her first relationship as a teenager or how small she felt when another partner called her stupid.

Throwing Information at Emotions

What will a brain like this do with the information that there's a new bank touting its interest rate? What will it do with the information that Janice is thinking about money while Katy's being overwhelmed by unwelcome thoughts? We are all extraordinarily good at making up scary stories about any information that arrives at a moment like this.

What we believe about the information accentuates the emotion or starts another. Angry (I believe it's wrong for you to treat me like this) can quickly turn to despairing (I believe I have lost your love or respect). Katy needs time to cool down or a sign that she and her rights are valued by Janice before she can treat information as just information.

Janice's defense of her question won't do it. Neither will Janice's assertion of her own rights. And if Janice just drops the comment and changes the subject, it's not likely Katy will stop the current line of thoughts.

Defusing Emotions

So, the suggestion from two readers to acknowledge the upset and seek to understand it could definitely help. But this is about a perceived difference of opinion, and there is another approach that works very well. It is to find a Third Alternative. And to start this process, we jump the net. Instead of acknowledging Katy's distress, Janice would acknowledge what she says she wants: "Assure Katy she wants her to handle the finances unsupervised and appreciates the effort involved."

Go for a Third Alternative When You Disagree

One reader feared Janice would not get what she wants is she does this, but jumping the net and looking for a Third Alternative is quite often the only way, short of being a bully, to get what she wants. Remember, a Third Alternative is quite different from a compromise. In a compromise, you accept some pain or loss in return for the promise that your beloved will experience just as much pain or loss. With a Third Alternative, you throw out your first two competing ideas for how to get what each of you wants and seek out a way to get what both of you want.

What is it that Janice wants? One reader was sure an ulterior motive lies behind her request. However, it could be as simple as wanting to improve her reputation at the place where she volunteers by coming up with a bank with a better interest rate for their money. She might want to feel more secure by getting more information from Katy even as she leaves everything in her hands. And she might want to know more about the financial decisions now because a close relative just lost a spouse and discovered she was going to lose the house and car, too, and the fear is eating into her ability to trust and love Katy.

The Third Alternative might involve a monthly time for discussing money matters, as the one reader suggested. However, proposing a solution--before (1) jumping the net (agreeing to give Katy what she's after, just not the way it's currently happening) and (2) creating the list of specs for a solution that pleases both of them--can easily create a second disagreement instead of a Third Alternative.

So that is my pick: jump the net and start a search for a Third Alternative, one that leaves Katy feeling trusted and appreciated as she tackles a large chore but also meets whatever Janice's need might be. And the first step in this is:

Assure Katy she wants her to handle the finances unsupervised and appreciates the effort involved

In Part 3, I want to get into what you do when you fear an ulterior motive in your spouse's request or outburst.

But first I want to hear from you. Have you reconsidered your choice? Do you want to defend one of the others? I would love to hear from you.

Comments

Hi Patty:
When you say jumping the net I experience that as one spouse stepping back and finding a way to reassure their spouse and stepping out of the conflict. Once Katy is reassured it will be possible to find common ground and support. Ultimately how much interest the account makes does not matter, how much love does. I am an idealist though.
Like you said and likely know, these seemingly simple questions can trigger deep feelings and beliefs from our past and present.

Jumping the net DOES get you out of the conflict, Tanya. Jumping the net instead of walking off the court requires a serious act of faith. You must trust your ingenuity, your shared brain power, and your network of supporters and advisors. Then you can get what you want and still give your spouse the moon and the stars.

Oh man, did you ever nail the first 10+ years of our marriage in the paragraph "Throwing Information at Emotions"! My husband's solution to my every negative emotion was information; he was utterly convinced that the "right" information would produce the "right" feelings.

Back then, I knew nothing about Asperger Syndrome. Now that we both realize that he'd rather be Vulcan, life is much easier. We actually discussed the impossibility of a "3rd alternative" very rationally when doing a post-mortem on a situation.

Actually, in a sense, the discussion itself WAS the "3rd alternative." We both concluded that "my way" of handling the situation (which I had opted NOT to do because of 24 years of experience telling me it would blow up in my face!) would have blown up in my face. But Daniel expressed regret and compassion for the forced alternative of "his way" or "my way." And since "my way" boils down to feeling understood, and I felt understood, we did indeed, end up on the same side of the net.

I can see this is a first step toward finding a Third Alternative, so I'm willing to change my position on this and see what happens next!

Patty, agree with #3, however, the original question is void of any implication/reassurance that Janice does indeed trust Katy to make unilateral decisions AND/OR that Katy's efforts (big or small) are appreciated. Again, the original question is crummy. I'd LOVE to know where/why Janice actually came up with such a question... whether it was a casual thought from reading about something random, or was there ulterior motive involved based in mistrust.

Cheri, that is the very definition of a Third Alternative. You got what you wanted (to feel understood). And to get it, you had to let go of what you were previously sure was (1) the only way to get it and (2) in conflict with what he wanted. I salute you!

There are lots of blog posts in the Third Alternative category for anyone who wants to learn more about this incredibly powerful technique.

Janice and Katy are a fictional couple based on many similar conversations between real couples. Often the question that sets things off is an innocent one actually unrelated to any issues in the outburst that follows.

Janice might have asked it to answer a text from her mother about whether anyone was offering better interest than the new bank. She might have asked it to sound knowledgeable at a discussion about her fund-raising groups plans for storing receipts until the date of their big event, sure that Katy was on top of these things. Or she might have asked it to passive-aggressively nudge Katy to do more about their money. Or even to show her up because Katy's recent raise made her feel "less than."

Whatever Janice's purpose, her question triggered an emotional outburst. The window for being helpful by sharing information or asking for help by requesting information closed. So did the window for making herself feel better by being just a little bit cruel or snarky. Katy sees a conflict between them now, and it's one that matters a lot to her. The fastest, happiest, most marriage-building route to ending a conflict is to find a Third Alternative. And someone has to abandon their side of the net to start that process. Why not Janice?

Patty, you wrote "So, the suggestion from two readers to acknowledge the upset and seek to understand it could definitely help. But this is about a perceived difference of opinion, and there is another approach that works very well."

As one of the ones who suggested addressing the feelings first, I see that it is much more than a difference of opinions, perceived or otherwise. If that were the case, then Katy's reaction wouldn't have been so charged. I believe that in her current state, Katy is too unconscious in her feelings to be open to a "solution" just yet and that she will need to feel heard & understood in her feelings before being open to a third alternative.

Thanks, Arnie. I love discussing such matters with you. I learn from you, and I learn from trying to clarify where we differ. I called it a perceived difference of opinions because Katy's reaction suggests she has a very strong opinion, as you noted, but I'm not sure Janice entered with a different one. Her question quite possibly had nothing to do with the job Katy's been doing.

Feeling heard and understood is vitally important. I know you've seen the power of this, as I did in my PREP training. Taking turns with the floor tile or other tokens to encourage us to actively listen, reflect, and confirm is so important when we've caused each other pain.

But there is one situation where I don't think it's our best choice. That is when we disagree about something where we cannot act on our opinions without affecting our mate.

The pain in this situation comes from fear of having to choose between getting what we want and keeping our spouse close. Seldom is the fear a valid one, but if we start sharing our feelings, we can get locked into a debate over two options when so many more are available to us. And we're human, so we'll say something convincing and heartfelt to defend an option, even one we don't agree with that's assigned to us by a debate coach.

After getting comfortable with the technique of finding Third Alternatives, I feel brave enough to skip the usual listening. I don't want to hear and understand why my husband wants what he wants. I want to assure him before I even hear it that I want him to have what he's looking for. If I do not agree yet, it is only with the means of getting it.

Once I have jumped the net like this, I cannot yet propose a solution. The only way to give what I have offered is to understand what he's looking for, because it is almost never what I would guess from the way he has in mind to get it.

So I listen, but not to his feelings, not to his reasons for his approach to getting what he wants, not to his fear that he won't get what he wants. I already want what he wants. He had me at "I disagree." But I want it in addition to what I want, not at the expense of what I want. And to have any hope of this, I need to listen very closely to what he wants, what matters to him, what it would give him if we did things the way he first wanted, and then to share the same things about what I want.

In this scenario, it's entirely possible Katy will discover Janice never wanted anything different from what Katy wants. But it's clear Katy strongly disagrees with what she believes Janice is asking for. And that's an ideal time for Janice to jump the net and start the process of finding a Third Alternative.

Can I talk you into giving it a try, Arnie? Or invite you to explain what would be gained by making Katy feel heard and understood before telling her she can have what she wants?

Thank you for your thoughtful response, Patty - I always learn from you, whether its reading your blog or your responses.

I think our difference is a relatively minor one, perhaps based on the difference in how we are each hearing Katy's response. It is your scenario, so perhaps you had a sense of Katy's level of re-activeness. I hear the the question "Are you supervising me now?" in this context as an indication that there might be something completely different than the finances going on for Katy. If that is the case, then I doubt Katy will be open to hearing any assurances Janice may offer.

If Katy's response is relatively low intensity (indicating that whatever else "it" might be is not closing her off in that moment), then I agree that starting with the assurance is perhaps the best way to proceed. However, if whatever "it" is dominates Katy's emotions in the moment, then Janice will likely not get far in her assurance. Since Janice doesn't know (yet) what is triggering Katy's response, I think if the emotions are judged to be sufficiently high, it would behoove Janice to find out what is going on with Katy first.

If the frame of "different perspective" is accurate, then I would definitely go with your suggestion; if, on the other hand, there is something else, then I would still first find out what that is (since only Katy knows).

I also think that it is possible to do both at once!

I also think that it is possible to do both at once!

An excellent point. Thank you, Arnie!

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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