Mindfulness and Adaptation in Interpersonal Relationships: Why things can go wrong between people

Mindfulness and Adaptation in Interpersonal Relationships: Why things can go wrong between people

People who have experienced stress often report that their relationships suffer. Perhaps you have had this experience. It might involve something simple like an argument with our partner that comes from nowhere or not getting the response we would normally expect from someone we know at work. Extreme stress might result in a complete breakdown of a relationship and is well known in families where there has been the death of a child, life threatening illness, a traumatic event such as an accident, or financial difficulties, for example.

It would be no surprise for you to hear that we are all different. Such an obvious observation is important and often not recognised for its importance by most people. Because we are different, we have to adapt to others if we want to form any sort of meaningful relationship whether with a life partner or with colleagues at work. Our personalities dictate much of our behaviour. Some people, for example, like to be organised, the crockery ducks lined up, lists dutifully ticked off, and a certain predictability. Others like as life that is less organised, would rather poke themselves in the eye with a stick than create a spreadsheet, dislike a finely detailed holiday and don’t mind chaos. Both types see the world quite differently and behave accordingly.

When these two forces meet, one might expect conflict. And that might well be the case in some circumstances, especially when extremes meet. The human tendency, however, is to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of others when we value relationships for other reasons. We are, despite the force of personality, quite capable of modifying our own behaviour and expecting others to behave differently and making allowances-even if we do get a bit confused at times. Remember too, that there are five main personality types, so we can differ in all sorts of ways. It is interesting that opposites do attract and there are some interesting theories of why this is the case that I might cover in a future post.

However, it is a well-known psychological phenomenon that under stress we tend to revert more to our natural self. In other words, we adapt less. For example, the organised person tends to become more so and the less organised more chaotic. We become less tolerant of what we saw as quaint idiosyncrasies of others as they morph into annoyances. Stress also makes us more inward looking. This all makes sense from a survival perspective but is not useful for day-to-day transactions.

It is at this point that I find myself being asked to intervene to help the relationship, sort out the other person who is not ‘playing ball’, or resolve a conflict. It all depends on perspective, of course. And mine is mostly going to be right!! Which is the crux of the problem, of course.

So, what to do. Firstly, a bit of mindfulness is needed. This means being aware that when we are under stress, that we will become less adaptive, that we need to control our feelings and not automatically react. This is another skill to be learned perhaps. Contact me, if you’d like to know more (stewart.hase@diorablue.com.au).

Second, we need to talk to the other person, particularly if he/she is a loved one. Talk about your relationship first and then the situation second. This means focusing on how you are going to get through this stressful time and how you will treat each other. A useful technique is to use the ‘T’ (for time out) when we feel that things are out of control. The other person then should respond by calming down (using my controlling feelings technique), walk away and come back later to discuss when calmer.

The same applies to a colleague at work or a team under stress, although the conversation is of a different quality. The principle is the same, talk about the stress and how you are responding to it as a team or as colleagues and how you are going to manage this time. Then, and only then, talk about the problem.

In most circumstances, we put the cart before the horse and talk about the problem rather than the relationship. This is a critical life error.

Thirdly, look after self. Stress management just involves learning a set of skills, like improving your tennis forehand or putting in golf. Learning a relaxation technique is a good start but it means putting in the time. And sometimes, you might benefit from a coach to guide you.