A look at how relationships go bad, and what to do instead.
It seemed so promising in the beginning. They were both passionate about politics. They both felt it was important to engage in activism, to join the public debate. They wanted to be of service to their country.
Granted, her education level was higher. He dropped out of college, she went to Law School. But they were both widely read and interested in what was happening, and an increasing number of women are now more educated than their men anyway. Lurking under the surface though was another imbalance, one that was about to have devastating effect – a mismatch in relational intelligence.
It started when Rush began feeling comfortable, expansive, like he was king of the hill and master of all he surveyed. He forgot caution, tact, manners, and indulged some of his negative motivations.
“Sandra, you want the government to subsidize your sex life? So my taxes have to pay for your sex? That makes you a prostitute, doesn’t it?”
He immediately knew he had made a big mistake. The telltale signs of severe emotional flooding were all over her face. Instead of backing up and calming things down though, his ego took control and pressed to the attack as the best defense.
“I mean, if I’m going to pay for your sex, at least I should have a film to watch.”
Unfortunately, they both worked in the same office. It wasn’t more than a few minutes before the entire place was buzzing. The news went out on Facebook and Twitter. Her father, Barack, called to console her. The other guys in the office let him know he was a lower form of life than vermin. He realized that it was a major SNAFU, and no one was on his side.
He tried a half-hearted attempt at repairing the damage, still thinking of his own dignity and ignoring her needs. “Hey, it was just a joke! Okay, so I went a little too far. C’mon, give me a break!” In other words, she should realize she was just too sensitive and was wrong for feeling insulted.
Sandra let him know just how insufficient this pseudo-apology was.
Next he tried the classic ploy of deflecting blame and attention. “Okay, I’m sorry! I was acting like those other jerks around the office who diss their women. I guess they influenced me.”
He gets fired. She moves on. End of relationship.
Okay, so Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke didn’t know each other, and weren’t in a romantic relationship. But the same thing happens when one of the partners not only lacks skills, but also the motivation to value the relationship over their own ego.
Let’s see what a more skilled scenario with positive motivations would be like...
Rush: “Sandra, you want the government to subsidize your sex life? So my taxes have to pay for your sex? That makes you a prostitute, doesn’t it?”
Sandra flushes red with anger.
Rush: “Uh, oh. I can see that really insulted you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
Sandra: “You sanctimonious, self-centered, rude, arrogant, $%$%#$^#$^!!!!”
Rush: “I can see you’re really upset and I don’t blame you. Can we just take a quick, five-minute break, and then I promise I’ll come back and listen to you?”
Sandra: (through her teeth) “Fine.”
(Rush runs off to dig up his copy of the Five Languages of Apology. Not quite remembering which one Sandra speaks, he hastily composes a thought that expresses each of the five.)
Rush: “Okay, honey. I’m really sorry I said that. I could see it really upset you. Tell me about it.”
Sandra: “I can’t believe you called me a prostitute.”
Rush: “So you thought I was calling you a prostitute?”
Sandra: “Yes! Weren’t you?”
Rush: (wisely sticking to his role as Listener) “Let’s come back to that after you finish telling me how you felt.”
Sandra. “Well, what did I do to deserve that?”
Rush: “Sounds like it came out of the blue for you.”
Sandra: “Yeah! I thought we were on the same page about this birth control issue.”
Rush: “So it sounds like you felt surprised and betrayed. Is that right?”
Sandra: “Yes, I did! I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”
Rush: “Is there anything else you want to tell me about it?”
Sandra: (with a very slight lift at the corners of her mouth) “You’re using that Active Listening stuff, aren’t you?”
Rush: (careful to match her energy and tone) “Yeah. And now I’m going to use that Apology Language stuff too. Tell me how I do.”
Rush speaks the five sentences he composed. Sandra doesn’t respond much to the first two, but he sees her shoulders drop and a more open expression come over her face when he uses the third language. At the fifth language a tear comes to her eye.
Now Rush is truly feeling compassion for how much his remark hurt Sandra. He draws near to embrace her and tells her once again that he is very sorry. After a five second hug, he makes a joke at his own expense. She laughs and the connection is restored, the breach repaired.
Two lessons to take from this very public example of how relationships go bad:
1. You can bounce back from most errors with communication skills
2. The motivation to stay connected and to value the relationship over your own ego is a necessary pre-condition for #1 to occur.