Symbolic Boxing And Gridlock

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We have an exercise you can do at home if you are currently in a romantic relationship. It will be fun and rewarding whether you are in a stable, happy relationship or if you are experiencing any problems. Most couples of any duration end up having areas of discussion that are returned to again and again but never really resolved. John Gottman calls this phenomenon ‘gridlock’.

Here’s what is going on from a psychodynamic point of view. The area that you want changed, which might be a behavior like taking out the garbage more or a personality trait like stinginess, is really just a symptom of a more deeply held value or belief. These  personality traits that make up the underlying characterological structure are much more difficult to influence because letting go and accepting change at this level feels like giving up the core of who you are.

One way to help yourself allow influence is to realize that your consciousness changes quite often based on the social situation yet you are okay with this fact. For example, you probably act and feel differently with your boss than you do with your colleagues, and you act and feel differently with your colleagues than you do with your close friends, and you act and feel differently with your close friends than you do with your romantic partner. You are adaptable in this way because your behavior in one sphere really wouldn’t fit the situation of another. You can take this concept and apply it to some of your unconsciously held values and beliefs. Make a conscious decision that you will be open to hearing many different points of view and that you will take the time to hear them seriously.

A fun exercise you can do if you have an area of gridlock in your relationship is to set up two chairs to face each other as if you are in a boxing ring. Make sure you clear out all the space between the chairs so that you can get up and face each other during your discussion. The paradox of this boxing ring is that the only way you can lose is by failing to open up a safe space where you really listen to what the other person is saying and where you feel heard. Try to do three rounds, and let each round last about five minutes.

In between each round, go back to your chair and try to write three things you can improve upon during the next round to help make the atmosphere non-toxic and productive. You can read ‘The Four Horsemen‘ to get insight into four common behaviors that Gottman has identified as predictive of separation or divorce. Try to mark down any time that you invoke any of the four horsemen. This can be difficult to remember if you are feeling emotionally out of control during a discussion. Try to stay conscious of what the other is saying and what emotions you are feeling in the moment. You don’t have to try to influence your emotions, just be aware of what they are. When you speak make sure it is what you really want to say.

At the end of three rounds you and your partner make a joint decision about whether the relationship won or lost this match. If you both decide upon win then you can congratulate each other and be pumped up. If either of you decides upon a loss then open up a space to let that person say why. You can both look forward to getting a win at the next match.

The way that people act around gridlocked issues says a lot about the health of their relationship. It comes down to respecting the other’s right to be a unique person. There are parts of every relationship that might involve conflict but when you approach it in a loving way you are communicating a great deal. Growth is only possible when conditions foster it, so try to make a peaceful environment where ideas are taken seriously and both people can feel heard. Try to make yourself more aware of your unconsciously held beliefs and values. The best way to make a decision in a relationship is by having all the psychological knowledge possible about yourself and your partner.