It was in grade school math that I learned about reducing fractions to their lowest common denominator. I hated math. Still do. “Reducing to the lowest common denominator,” however, is a great way of describing how we so often “sink” to the level of those with whom we are engaging. If you’ve ever argued with a child, you know what I mean. Before you realize it, you’re exchanging “did” and “did not” as if your life depended on winning. When this happens in your relationship, the results are never pretty. Example:
Matt was responsible for preparing a complicated bid for his engineering firm. An ill secretary and a finicky Internet were the tip of the what-went-wrong iceberg. With minutes to spare, Matt hit “send” on the email that submitted the bid. He left exhausted and cranky. Lila, who had a day of meetings, had that morning asked Matt to pick up dinner. He did. As he walked from the garage to the back door, the food bag broke. The potato salad container burst on contact. The roasted chicken popped out of its box and rolled under a hedge. Lila heard Matt’s expletive, rushed to the door, and asked, “What happened?”
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Matt snapped.“What happened?” he yelled. “I dropped dinner. The perfect end to a totally miserable day.”
“Why are you yelling at me? It’s not my fault,” Lila knee-jerk responded.
“If you hadn’t insisted I get dinner, this wouldn’t have happened,” he knee-jerk (albeit irrationally) responded back.
“So it IS my fault,” she shouted and stormed into the house, leaving Matt to clean up the mess. They didn’t speak for the rest of the evening.
In these kinds of situations, here’s what you need to remember: bad behavior is often the manifestation of an underlying emotion. If you respond to the emotion and not the behavior, you’ll have a far better outcome. You help your sweetheart return to the world of sanity and reasonableness, and, avoid damaging arguments. Jack wasn’t really blaming Lila for his bad day, he was expressing his frustration. Sure, he could have handled it differently. But, then, the same could be said for Lila. Had she responded to the frustration and not the angry words, their evening would have turned out differently.
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Remember this the next time your sweetie is in a funk.
Things go wrong—usually at the worst possible time. The oven malfunctions, the appetizer burns, and your in-laws will arrive any minute to a smoke-filled house. The TV with the gi-normous screen you’ve been bragging about goes on the fritz moments before kickoff, and 22 of your buddies will miss the game of the century. As you’re leaving for your sister’s wedding the baby throws up on the perfect silk dress you shopped for months to find. The flight is cancelled and you’re late getting home from the business trip you didn’t want to take, causing you to miss your own birthday party.
Few of us handle these moments with the poise and equanimity of a mature adult. A meltdown can look pretty silly to observers, but telling your sweetheart to calm down or, “You’re being silly,” will get your head handed back to you and often result in a stupid argument.