A New Map for Relationships: Chapters 7, 8 & 9

The first of these three chapters describes a recent incident that easily could have blown up into an argument, but that was kept under control by Dorothie and me following “our new map for relationships.” Tearing up our old relationship map and piecing together a new one took years, but resulted in a marriage where we haven’t had a single fight or argument in well over 10 years.  That’s something I didn’t think was possible, and I have to give Dorothie full credit for that vision. The second chapter is aptly titled, “Our Quest,” and the third explains how the seemingly impossible can become a reality by thinking in terms of a process, rather than a discontinuous jump.

My March 1 post explains why we’re writing this book and has links to all chapters posted (updated as new ones appear) listed under “Excerpts from our book.”

If you like what you read, please post a link to this page using the Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter icons at the bottom of this post. Or send it to friends via email.

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Thanks very much.

Martin Hellman

Navigating With Our New Map

An incident that occurred recently is a good example of how the new relationship map works for us now. It also illustrates what we mean when we say we haven’t had an argument in more than a decade. As you’ll see, we came dangerously close, but were rescued by the new pathways we committed to follow. As we continue on our journey, we hope that even near misses like this will become a relic of the past.

****

MARTY: We were driving to Oakland to visit friends. Rush hour was approaching and traffic was building up, so we were anxious to get moving. I should have seen the need to behave differently as soon as I felt anxious. In my old map, anxiety seemed unavoidable in time-sensitive situations like this. But, now, it is a sign that I need to slow down since anxiety often leads to mistakes, which reduce my effectiveness and add unnecessary stress to my relationships. And, often, getting anxious because there doesn’t seem to be enough time, ends up taking longer, rather than saving time.

DOROTHIE: To make things worse, the GPS navigation in the car got into a strange state and wasn’t working. Marty tried turning the car off, and then on again, so it would reboot. It still didn’t work. So he tried it a third time. Still no luck. Finally, on the fourth try, it worked.

During the two failed attempts to reboot the system, I started to press a button in response to a prompt on the touch screen, but each time Marty put his hand up, between me and the screen, to stop me from doing that.

MARTY: This behavior on my part may sound familiar. Remember my grabbing the map out of Dorothie’s hands in the first section, where she ended up tearing the map to pieces?

DOROTHIE: Marty’s stopping me from helping made me feel like a small child whose hand had been slapped for no good reason. While that’s a sign of unresolved childhood traumas I need to work on, in the moment that’s not how I saw it. Our relationship is supposed to be one of equals, not parent and child, so I curtly told him to cut it out.

MARTY: I recognized that Dorothie had a valid complaint, but was hurt by what I felt was her snapping at me. Years ago, my response would have focused on how she had mistreated me, which would have made her feel unheard and resulted in an ever escalating argument. But now I responded differently. First, I told her I was sorry for not treating her more respectfully. Only after she had acknowledged my apology, did I ask if it had been necessary to snap at me.

DOROTHIE: This threw me into turmoil. I immediately recognized that Marty was right and I had not treated him respectfully, but I was still in the throes of feeling hurt. His asking if it had been necessary to snap at him didn’t help.

MARTY: You’re right. Sorry about that. I should have put it less judgmentally.

DOROTHIE: My being in turmoil over mistreating Marty added to the problem. That made me upset with myself for not being able to just leave the whole thing behind us.

MARTY: When Dorothie told me of her turmoil, I replied that, rather than being upset with her for still being hurt, I was proud of both of us for how we had handled a difficult situation.

DOROTHIE: Marty’s saying that gave me the time I needed to move from being hurt to appreciating him for how he had handled the resolution of this conflict. Knowing that he wasn’t mad at me for my behavior really helped. Within a couple of minutes, Marty’s inappropriate behavior was no longer an issue for me. Instead of feeling hurt, I appreciated him for helping me grow even more.

MARTY: And that feeling was mutual.

DOROTHIE: I also realized that this was an opportunity to renew my dedication to being compassionate in all circumstances, even when I’ve felt mistreated. If I’d remembered that when the incident started, there wouldn’t have been any problem at all.

This conflict was particularly ironic because, before it erupted, I had planned on using our time in the car to tell Marty how much I appreciated him for really seeing me. My whole life I’ve been somewhat of an odd duck, seeing things differently from most other people, and I often got flack for that.

MARTY: While, early in our relationship, I often failed to see the immense value of Dorothie’s different perspective, now it’s one of the aspects of her personality that I treasure the most. It’s what got us to where we are today.

DOROTHIE: I had almost despaired of anyone ever seeing me that way. In fact, I think you see me more clearly in that sense than I do myself.

MARTY: This incident also makes an important point. While we haven’t had an argument in years, that doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes disagree or get our feelings hurt. But now we have a different approach for dealing with disagreements and hurt feelings.

DOROTHIE: That “different approach” is what we’ve called “the new map.” As we follow the new map further, I believe that we can get to a place where even hurt feelings become a thing of the past. We’re already at a point where my feelings rarely get hurt, whereas I used to feel raw much of the time.

MARTY: Each of us is learning. Soon after this flaky GPS incident, we were working on a section of this book and I needed the laptop Dorothie was using. Since I had to type something on it, I reached over to take it from her, caught myself, and asked, “Is it OK for me to use the computer?” Dorothie beamed and said, “Of course.”

Our Quest

DOROTHIE: We yearn for a perfect love that we seldom, if ever, experience. How could a quest for something we almost never encounter be burned so indelibly into our souls? We must have known it somewhere prior to our current existence.

This longing for oneness is a powerful vehicle for climbing the steep hills we encounter on the road that leads to loving relationships. If we can tap into the deep desire for connection with one another and all of creation, and know that is our true purpose, then we can overcome primitive urges and feelings that otherwise would create impassable roadblocks.

Once, during a week of practicing silence, I was out walking on the San Francisco Baylands. White pelicans were floating on the water and herons were padding their feet on the bottom of the slough to kick up some delicious morsel. The weather was perfect for a walk, with a sweet breeze whispering across the water.

I had been contemplating what my purpose was on this planet. Somehow, all of a sudden, I knew that expressing love was my destiny here. That made perfect sense at one level, but was surprising at another. At that moment I knew that learning how to love was my life’s mission. As with all great quests, it was mine to either fail or succeed at in my time on Earth. Since somewhere, somehow, I had been programmed to love, I was determined to succeed.

This was one of the most intense emotional experiences of my life, my “Aha!” moment. I had spent years trying to discern my path, and there it was, so simple, so obvious, and so right. How had I missed it until now? But I had.

For the first time in my life, I knew with a certainty that surprised me that this was my path. It was the spiritual awakening for which I had been searching. Now I no longer had to search. With that realization, I made a decision to devote my life to learning to love. While making that decision was a one-time affair, now I had to learn how to do that. And, man, did that turn out to be a life-long quest.

MARTY: Almost everyone has a passionate desire to be loved. If fulfilled, it is one of the greatest gifts we can receive. If it is not fulfilled, that same passion tends to create frustration, which makes us behave in ways that make it unlikely we will receive the love we crave. It can become a downward spiral. That’s certainly how it worked in the early years of our marriage. The trick, as Dorothie realized in her Baylands epiphany, is to see love in a whole new way. An immature, egotistical drive to be loved has to be transformed into a mature, holistic quest for a loving relationship.

DOROTHIE: I also realized that my quest was much larger than learning how to love Marty. I felt an intense desire to be at one with all of creation. In a sense, to love everything – of course, and especially, including Marty. With all the horrible things going on in the world, trying to love everything is an ideal I may never fully realize. But, because it is so difficult to achieve, maybe even unattainable, it gives me a life-long goal.

Many times when Marty and I seemed stuck in an argument, I would come back to my Baylands realization. We are all interconnected. We cannot live in hate, anger or fear and stay loving – or expect true love – at the same time.

All of those are normal human emotions, and in trying to overcome them, it is counterproductive to hate them either in ourselves or others. That would be a form of hate, anger, and fear – the very emotions we are working to move beyond. It’s easy to love our socially acceptable sides. They’re happy, sunny, and optimistic. It’s really hard to learn to love our hateful, angry, fearful sides. But, somewhat paradoxically, doing that can transform them into love, acceptance, and courage.

MARTY: Psychology calls those socially unacceptable parts of our psyches our shadow side or dark side. Each of us naturally has a tendency to deny and suppress our shadow, but that pushes it deep into our unconscious, where it can wreak havoc. Until I recognized my shadow, seeing those same faults in others tended to send me into a rage, almost as if hating them would prove that I was immune from those human failings. Psychology calls that projection of our dark side on an enemy, a phenomenon we’ll explore in more depth later.

There’s tremendous power in our shadows that needs to be harnessed for good, instead of letting it run us around and create chaos. We do that by not only recognizing our shadows, but making friends with them – embracing them.

DOROTHIE: Nations also have shadow sides and project them onto enemies. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union continually chastised our nation for its racial injustice, while overlooking its own human rights abuses. We reciprocated in kind, focusing on their abuses instead of our own. Just as anger and fear caused huge problems in our marriage, a foreign policy based on those emotions is doomed to failure.

MARTY: I used to think that those emotions were immutable parts of human nature. But to succeed in my quest to express love, I had to break free of the shackles they imposed on me. Not being jerked around by unwelcome emotions is one of the most exciting points of interest on the new map, both personally and internationally.

As you’ll see in this book, we keep discovering new aspects to our quest, even after more than thirty years on that journey.

 

Why It’s a Process

Viewing learning to resolve conflict as a process, both interpersonally and internationally, turns what otherwise would seem like an impossible leap into a reasonable sequence of steps — holistic thinking in time. We’d love it if we could tell you how we reclaimed true love in our marriage, you could implement that immediately in your own relationship and never fight again. But that’s not how it works.

We both made a one time decision to become the best people and the most loving partners we could be, but that goal is an ideal that can only be approached, not realized. Getting ever closer to the ideal is a learning process, in which we had to unlearn old habits and learn new ones. Learning always takes time.

****

MARTY: Remember the first story in this book, where I grabbed the map out of Dorothie’s hands, leading to her storming out of the car and then tearing up the map when she returned? That occurred eight years after we dedicated ourselves to behaving differently. While that behavior, by itself, makes it look as if we had learned nothing in those years, the positive outcome shows progress: the incident ended with both of us laughing at how ridiculously we’d behaved. That would not have happened eight years earlier.

DOROTHIE: It’s important to remember that you’re involved in a learning process or you will be too hard on your partner, when he or she fails to meet the ideal. Equally important, you’ll be too hard on yourself when you fail. An incident that occurred a few years after I tore up the map is a good example.

We were seeing a family therapist, Dr. Sheldon Starr, who was immensely helpful to us. In one of our sessions, Marty was complaining about my saying, “I want a divorce,” when I couldn’t handle an argument. He knew I didn’t mean it, but still it hurt him. I promised repeatedly that I wouldn’t say that again, but I couldn’t stop. Every time I failed, it devastated me.

During that session, Marty said something that struck a deep nerve. I felt white hot pain so intense that I had to run out of Sheldon’s office without saying a word. From Marty’s perspective, I had stormed out yet again. He felt abandoned one more time.

I sat down in the waiting room and tried to cool down, but had trouble doing that. After my pain over what Marty had said subsided, a new hurt set in. I felt horrible about running out of the room. Had I learned nothing in all these years? Was my commitment to resolving conflict just hot air?

When I finally found the courage to venture back in, Sheldon surprised me with what he said: “I see that we were going too fast for you.” What a relief! I hadn’t been the bad person – only the person who couldn’t handle that pace.

As we discussed the session, we realized that my habit of walking out on Marty or saying “I want a divorce” was just my way of ending an argument that was too painful for me. Marty has a higher tolerance for conflict than I do, so we needed to find a better way for me to say I needed a breather.

Once we understood this, we found a much better solution: We agreed that, if things were getting too hot for either of us, we had the right to leave the room without saying anything, but with the understanding that we would return when we had cooled down. Aside from solving my problem of needing a breather, this also reduced the frequency of nasty comments. Leaving before you lose it is much better than after.

Once we found this way to hit the pause button on arguments, I never again threatened divorce nor did Marty feel abandoned. I could leave, but he knew I’d be back when I’d cooled down and could deal with the conflict more creatively. My behavior hadn’t really been about wanting a divorce or abandoning Marty. Finally, I had the new tool I needed to stop hurting Marty when I needed to slow things down.

This story makes an important point about this process. Each “mistake” needs to be seen as a new learning opportunity. A friend of ours joked that we’re following NASA’s definition of success: longer and longer times between failures – clearly a process.

MARTY: Another reason our journey is a process is that every relationship has a “bank account” of goodwill that needs to be built up over time. As we learned to treat each other better, the balance went from negative to positive and small annoyances, which previously would have snowballed into huge arguments, could be dealt with in short order. Now, we feel so grateful for one another, and tell each other that in so many ways, that our “account balance” allows us to “buy” almost anything we want.

DOROTHIE: There are many ways we’ve added to that balance. Some are big, like learning to really listen to one another. But we also take advantage of the much more frequent opportunities, like giving each other a hug or kiss, or just a gentle touch, or a quick phone call to say “I love you.”

Whoops. I’m showing my age. Younger people will probably text.

MARTY: I also may be showing my age but I had difficulty at first telling you those frequent “sweet nothings.” In the culture I grew up in, men didn’t do things like that. We were supposed to be independent to the point of not needing anyone.

A friend once told me that, as a young man, his ideal had been the cowboy who rode into town, sauntered into a bar, sat at a table by himself, downed a bottle of whiskey, and was fine with that. Contrary to John Donne’s admonition that no man is an island unto himself, my friend’s ideal man had been exactly that.

It’s also important to check in and learn what makes your partner feel loved. Early on, I assumed I knew how to love Dorothie, but only after we started this process did I learn that some of the things I saw as loving didn’t come across that way to her. When I used to find her reading in the dark, I’d turn on a light and ask her if that was better. This drove her up the wall. She was quite happy reading in the dark and resented being interrupted.

DOROTHIE: We’ve overcome that old conflict in several ways. After I committed to this process, if Marty mistakenly thought it was helpful to play with the lights I could ask him to handle it differently without getting frustrated. Also, I’ve reframed what used to be an annoyance into his playing “silly light games.” Early in the process, I’d tell him “I’m not playing silly light games.” As we’ve gone deeper into this new territory I came to realize that, even though it wasn’t what I’d asked for, it was an attempt on Marty’s part to love me and take care of me. With that larger, holistic perspective, what used to annoy me, became a sweet reminder of how much I am loved.

MARTY: Technology also helped. A few years ago, Dorothie got a Kindle, so reading in the dark doesn’t strain her eyes.

DOROTHIE: We’ve described the main tool in our process of healing and reconciliation – both of us committing to giving up fighting for what we thought we wanted, putting all that energy into figuring out what’s right for the relationship, and then doing it. All of this culminates in compassion and holistic thinking of course.

But, in the early years of this process – meaning around the first ten for us – we often disagreed on “the right thing to do,” and could get into fights over that. How circular!

When we seemed hopelessly deadlocked over those different perspectives on what was right, we needed outside help to unravel the knot.

MARTY: In our case, that outside help initially came from a retired Stanford professor, Harry Rathbun, and his wife Emilia, now both deceased, who had founded Creative Initiative, the group that got us started on this process and later morphed into Beyond War. Both Harry and Emilia had spent many years helping other couples and brought a great deal of wisdom to the table when we vehemently disagreed on “the right thing to do.”

But Harry and Emilia and Creative Initiative could only take us so far. At that point, Sheldon Starr became an invaluable resource for our going further. Needing a sequence of “relationship wizards” is another example of why this is a process.

DOROTHIE: It’s important to remember that the goal of this process is not just to learn to “fight fair.” Rather, the ultimate goal is to honor and love each other so deeply that fighting would be sacrilege.

MARTY: Solving global challenges, such as climate change and the nuclear threat, also involve processes. In one sense, skeptics are right when they say those problems can’t be solved: They cannot be solved in the current environment. We can’t jump to the required solutions, but we can get there in smaller steps that change the environment and create new possibilities that did not exist before.

All the major societal changes which have occurred involved processes. In the election of 1840, anti-slavery candidate James Birney received just 0.3% of the vote. Twenty years later, after enough people had challenged the conventional wisdom that slavery was an immutable part of human nature, the process had reached the point that Abraham Lincoln could be elected president.

In author Malcolm Gladwell’s parlance, society first has to reach a tipping point before an idea can be transformed into societal change. Prior to the tipping point, the idea seems too radical for most people to consider seriously. But, after the tipping point, it can become the societal norm. Ironically, once that happens, going back to the previously accepted conventional wisdom becomes outrageous. Anyone who proposed reinstituting slavery today would be more of a laughing stock than those who proposed ending it in 1840.

In fact that’s what happened to rancher Cliven Bundy in 2014. When he refused to pay grazing fees to the federal government, he became the darling of the far right – until he offered this opinion about African-Americans:

I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.

Fox News dropped him like a hot potato, with former supporter Sean Hannity, calling Bundy’s remarks “beyond repugnant.”

Women’s suffrage also involved a process, and we appear to be in the middle of another shift in societal thinking, this time about gay marriage.

It’s encouraging that the fraction of the population required to reach such a tipping point is much smaller than might first appear. When only a very small percentage of the population has adopted the new idea, few people give it serious consideration. But, after five or ten percent embrace the idea, it begins to gain serious consideration within the larger society. It’s reached a tipping point.

Most people won’t respond the first time they hear someone support the new idea – be it ending slavery in 1850, women voting in 1900, or applying holistic thinking to our foreign policy today. But, as with advertising, hearing that message a second or third time begins to have an impact. And that happens somewhere around five to ten percent adoption. Few people want to be the first to embrace what is initially seen as a “crazy” idea, but an equally small number want to be the last to get on board with the new societal norm.

Only by our taking responsibility for our own individual process will the required changes be realized societally. Global change depends on personal change.

****

Keeping in mind that personal and societal change occur as processes provides a more realistic, optimistic perspective at both the personal and global levels. Don’t get discouraged if you haven’t reached your goal yet. Just be patient and keep working the process.

Looking at existential global issues through that lens significantly changes how they look. The media makes it look as if war is as big a scourge as ever, yet statistics show that the number of people killed annually by war has fallen by roughly a factor of four over the last thirty years. In that same period, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen by a similar amount.

Far too many people are still dying in wars, and the current arsenal’s 16,000 nuclear weapons still can destroy civilization. But we are making progress. We would like to see the process accelerated, so that fewer people die horrible deaths and the risk of civilization being destroyed fades into history. But looking at the solutions to those interrelated problems as processes where we’ve already made significant progress paints a much more hopeful picture than the usual, doom and gloom perspective that ignores the gains we’ve made.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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