[In case you missed Part One, here’s recap: Emily comes late often and Jim is usually early. Delayed by train malfunction, he is behind schedule to dinner and she lambasts him. That’s the situation as we left it. I asked whoever was interested in doing so to write in and try to describe how the situation resolved. Thanks to all who contributed scenarios. The following is how it went forward for Jim and Emily.
Anatomy of a Their Re-Connection:
Jim had said, “Sorry I’m late,” when he arrived. Seeing how upset Emily was he went further, “I see you are really upset because of my being late. I’m sorry I upset you so much. Aside from my being late, how are you?” Jim communicated three important things here.
• He ‘gets’ how upsetting it was that he was late.
• He is neither judging her for being angry nor retaliating. He shows curiousity about how and why she is upset.
• He establishes that he is not cowed by her anger, not intimidated. He is not responding to her anger as if the only parts of her that he values or can accept are the non-angry parts of who she is.
Whether she is justified or not in being angry, he is not condemning her for simply having the feelings she does. Deep acceptance of a partner embraces not only the most delightful aspects of their personality but their darker side as well.
They proceeded from here to rescue their connection and their evening.
As she waited for Jim she began to doubt whether he was going to show up at all. By the time he came she was not angry at him so much for being late as for the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings she had experienced while waiting for him.
She was reluctant to talk to him about those feelings because she felt they would have made her appear to be dependent. She felt embarrassed at having these feelings. So in addition to the uncomfortable feeling that she might get stood up she was burdened with shame about having had that feeling.
On top of that she’d come straight from work where her supervisor had accused her of not having handed in a report which, in fact, she had submitted. In the end, the supervisor found the report and made a cursory apology. The incident was disconcerting to Emily.
Food for thought: Emily had been unjustly accused of being negligent of her responsibility towards her supervisor. She then turns around and accuses Jim of irresponsibility. Any connection there? Could be but maybe not. What do you think?
As we know from Part one, Jim felt Emily was treating him unfairly. He considered retaliating. He was in touch with anger. But there was also a part of him that was curious as to why Emily had responded to him the way she did.
Often embedded within the feeling of anger is confusion about how and why a conflict originated. Often, below the surface, anger masks feelings of curiosity, concern, disappointment, sadness. Sure, it would be natural for Jim to be angry at being called ‘irresponsible’ but it would be just as natural for him to feel other things as well. In other words, knee-jerk anger is not unnatural, not something to be ashamed of but something that can be worked through; there's usually more to the situation than a kneejerk response can address.
Emotion can be processed through a neural route that bypasses any opportunity for reflection. Or it can be routed through a neural network that makes it possible for us to compare, contrast or even blend what we feel with what we think. We all have varying emotional patterns.
We each have idiosyncratic neurological styles of processing emotions, perceptions, opinions, situations. These experiences are colored by mood, time, temperament but also by the ways in which these experiences are processed.
Since processing styles are learned, they are modifiable. Up until approximately 25 years ago neuroscientists widely believed that new brain cells could not develop (a process called neurogenesis). It is now firmly established that new learning causes production of new brain cells to grow continuously, all the time and throughout all of life! Not only can the pattern of neural processing be reconfigured over time, brain structure itself can change, as a result of new learning and/or deprivation is well-documented. (See The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, M.D.or Spark by John Ratey, M.D. for more info and additional references on this topic.)
Combining emotion and thought with our capacity to plan and consider options (this happens in the frontal cortex) allows us decision-making authority over how we respond to what we ourselves feel, as well as how we relate to our partner and the ways they feel. Awareness and appreciation of the range of our possible responses defines mindfulness – not to mention personal freedom.
Emily and Jim demonstrated willingness to listen with heart and mind, genuine engagement with each other's feelings and thoughts. This combination is the essence of resilience in bridging an impasse.
Again, for all who participated in describing how Emily and Jim’s conflict would resolve, many thanks. And congratulations to the contest winners!
Remember good feelings and love are plentiful but elusive. I will help you locate and develop them here in the Middle Ground.