In my last post, I discussed the inevitability of temperament clashes in intimate relationships. I described how those especially hurtful conflicts result from an intolerance of differences and an implicit insistence that your partner be like you. (This particular demand is ironic, because you probably would not have been attracted to your partner if he/she were more like you.) I argued that temperament clashes are self-defeating because temperament cannot be changed, although behaviors derived from temperament are certainly negotiable.

Successful negotiation for behavior change requires sensitivity to temperamental differences. One of the worst mistakes you can make in a relationship is judging your partner by what you would do or how you would respond in a similar circumstance. In addition to having a different temperament, your partner has a different history and most likely a different vulnerability. These differences practically guarantee that your partner will interpret certain emotionally-charged behaviors and situations differently from you. Though we all occasionally make the mistake of judging others as if they were us, it is wise to recognize the narcissism in it. What we're really saying is, "The way I would respond is the standard for all decent people."

It's Not about Who's Right
I once saw a couple who had gotten into a huge fight because the husband put his binoculars on the stereo speaker in their living room. As his wife contemptuously described it:

"He walked by them 13 times without picking them up!"

In this banal yet emotionally charged dispute, who is right?

She has the right to have a living room free of binoculars on the stereo speakers, and he has an equal right to relax and put his binoculars wherever is convenient for him. Both are right!

To understand why we must negotiate temperament differences from the standpoint that the parties are equally right, consider the difference in how you negotiate for a refund with a company who mistakenly overcharged you, versus how you negotiate when the company was accurate in its billing, but you would like them to lower the charge anyway. In the former case you're likely to be demanding if you don't get immediate compliance and perhaps threaten legal consequences. In the latter case - where the company has the right to deny your request - you try to be respectful and persuasive.

Negotiation must never be about who your partner is or why he/she perceives the world differently from you. You are asking for behavior change, not personality transformation.

Make it clear that he or she is doing nothing wrong by disagreeing with you.

Focus on the specific behavior you would like (not on what you don't want) and consider your partner's perspective of your request. For example, "I don't like it when you're late," won't be as effective as, "I like when you appreciate how I worry about getting to an event after everyone else arrives. I'll definitely keep in mind all the things you have on your plate as you're getting ready to go out, and I'll help if I can."

But don't worry about what words you use in the negotiation. Focus instead on an attitude of respect, and whatever you say will come out more positively and effectively. (If you don't feel respectful, no amount of communication skill will help.) It's useful to keep in mind the benefits of your partner's temperament in general and the assets he/she brings to your relationship. Remember, too, that you're negotiating with someone you love, not someone you want to punish or control.

Be sure to admit your temperamental bias: "I would feel more comfortable if you did this or didn't do that." (This gives your partner a chance to cooperate without defensiveness.) And above all, acknowledge your partner's equal rights: "But you don't have to do it."

A respectful request for cooperation, rather than a demand for submission, will be successful most of the time, unless your relationship has entered the "contempt stage," where you believe your partner's personality is defective or that his/her character is "morally corrupt." In that case you will probably need boot camp-type reconditioning and self-regulation skills to unravel complex layers of resentment that have become entrenched and embittered.

Ultimately, to be free of temperament clashes, the ethos of your relationship must be:

"I don't want to change or control you, and I don't what you to change or control me. Together we can find what will work for both us, by showing value for each other and respect for our differences."


You are reading

Anger in the Age of Entitlement

Don’t Justify What You Want to Change

Free yourself from the chains of resentment.

Compassionate Parenting

Use anxiety as motivation to parent the best you can

Anger, Anxiety, Resentment, Stress, and Basic Humanity

To reduce anger, resentment, anxiety, and stress, increase basic humanity.