Here’s a common scenario that I see in couples all the time:
Joyce: “I’m really full – that lunch we had was enormous.”
Bill: “You must have eaten more than me because I’m still hungry.”
Joyce: “Are you calling me fat?!”
Bill: “What the hell are you talking about?”
Joyce: “Now you’re being a jerk!”
Woah! What just happened there? How did they start fighting? Here’s another example where Bill is setting up some furniture for Joyce and accidentally bangs it against a wall:
Joyce: “Careful! Watch out for the wall.”
Bill: “Do you think I’m incompetent?!”
Joyce: “Did I miss something?”
What happened in both of these scenarios is common not only in romantic relationships but in all kinds of interaction. There was a fundamental switch from treating the other person as an ally — someone who cares about you, who you trust and you feel has your best interest in mind — to an enemy. Did you catch when it happened?
In the first scenario, Bill’s comment is entirely innocent. He’s expressing the belief that Joyce must have eaten more food based on the simple observation that he himself is still hungry. Joyce, however, takes this comment and turns Bill into an enemy. She is no longer considering that Bill is simply expressing himself and cares about her and does not wish her ill will (or even that the comment was neutral). Instead, she hears the comment as an attack. To her, it sounds something like:
Joyce: “I’m really full – that lunch we had was enormous.”
Bill: “You ate more than me! That’s absolutely amazing because I’m a male and you’re a female and you shouldn’t be eating more than me!! Since you did, that means you are overeating!!! And if you are overeating, you are probably fat!!!!”
Yes, it’s all very Annie Hall. But what really matters is WHY this happens and how you can recognize it in your own relationships.
Understanding Enemy Mode
Many people will tell you this has something to do with gender differences, but it manifests itself in both genders. It’s an issue of misinterpreting signals.
Once Joyce (subconsciously) turns Bill into an enemy — that is, she is assuming the worst about the intentions of his comments — it triggers Bill to respond in turn. Since he had no negative intention in his mind to begin with, Joyce’s snappy retort of “are you calling me fat” sounds like an antagonistic comment out of left field. It triggers his internal Red Alert.
And just like that, the shields are up, weapons systems online and we have a good old fashioned fight. Change the nouns, and this describes a large percentage of verbal jousting in relationships.
Let’s look at the second example and see where the ally to enemy switch occurs for Bill. When he bumps into the wall, Joyce instinctively responds by saying “careful!” the way she might to herself. To her, it’s akin to “oops!” It’s merely an innocent reminder. Unfortunately, all Bill hears is:
Joyce: “Careful…because anyone can see that giant wall behind you! And since you have an expensive piece of furniture in your hand, only an idiot would drive it into the giant wall!! So you are either blind or an idiot, and just in general totally incompetent!!!”
In the words of Will Ferrell, “that escalated quickly!”
The brain is a dichotomous beast. It doesn’t like floating in ambiguous states between “yes” or “no,” because that creates indecision. (The indecision genes died out long ago.) That makes the switch into enemy mode really fast; We are all very quick to sound the Red Alert, because a false alarm is better than a slow response.
But that alert is just that: a false alarm. It’s evolutionary hardware running amuck, and it’s clouding your communication. This kind of miscommunication can be annoying and draining at the least and far more damaging at its worst.
How can you Learn to keep your Allies in “Ally Mode?”
Ideally, your ally mode consists of knowing and trusting yourself and your partner/friend, and enhancing his or her life as they enhance yours. (Obviously, if this is missing you have bigger problems than communicating clearly!) Communication makes such an ideal circumstance possible; If we were clueless to the intentions, thoughts and desires of others, it would be quite challenging to be such a useful ally.
Think of the times when you’ve recently switched a love one into enemy mode. Ask yourself, why do you think you were so quick to assume the worst about the other person? Did you suddenly stop caring about them in that moment? Do you think they suddenly stopped caring about you? Or did you simply forget they weren’t your enemy?
The cure for this mental misstep is not easy, but to start here are a few reminders to learn to keep your defense systems in check:
1. Control Your Own Ego
Someone recently described her arguments with her husband like this to me:
When we fight, he’s loud and direct and I’m quiet and scheming and working like that leads to horrible results where he doesn’t feel his feeling are acknowledged (because I’m too busy scheming) and I don’t feel like my side is being heard (because he’s too busy standing firm in his feelings.)
This is nothing but a battle of egos. Since you can’t control someone else’s ego, the first step is to identify and control yours. This woman can subjugate her own ego by not worrying so much about making her own point…because she’s not going to make it as long as the communication modes have shifted from ally to enemy. Sometimes, you have to give up on “making your point” for a while if you actually want your point to be heard.
2. Remind yourself the other person isn’t your Enemy
The first step is the hardest, but once you’re able to put your ego on simmer for a moment, ask yourself “What is the point of this discussion? Was this person really trying to hurt me with his or her words? Do they think I’m trying to hurt them?”
When you are able to see that they aren’t — and the odds are, regardless of what it feels like to you, they aren’t — tell yourself that you care about this person and they care about you. Work forward from a position of love and affection, not anger and frustration.
3. Remind the other person you aren’t an Enemy
If you aren’t sure that the other person was trying to hurt you, you can always ask them. Otherwise, tell them you aren’t there to hurt them. You are their ally, not their enemy! Calmly and affectionately, say something like:
“I feel like you are making me out to be your enemy all of a sudden. You may feel the same about me. All I want is to help you and make your life better because I care about you. Let’s figure this out together — don’t forget I’m on your side. Are you on mine?”
Remember these words. Learn them. Rehearse them. Fake arguments with people if you need to practice injecting them into the conversation. This is a very powerful tool for snapping the mind back into the reality of the situation — you are with someone who you care about, and who cares about you. Losing track of that will most certainly erode your communication.
The odds are a loved one isn’t suddenly out to get you. The odds are you’ve had a miscommunication. Your brain has gone and sounded the Red Alert, but it’s just a false alarm. Like any good military tactician, the other person has responded by sounding his or her own Red Alert. Only it’s just a false alarm.
The other person is not your enemy…