One of the biggest problems in many personal or business relationships is the assumption that there’s a conflict of interest – when in fact there isn’t. When personal relationships degenerate into unhappiness, you’ll almost always find the partners have adopted an adversarial mindset. When I work with couples, I find myself saying over and over again, “Remember, you’re not adversaries here. You’re on the same team. You have the same interests. Right?”
It gets even worse when people start accusing each other of “selfishness.” They might as well be saying, “Our whole problem is the fact that you care about yourself.” Well, so what? The fact that you’re telling me not to care about myself means that you want me to care about you. Doesn’t that suggest that you are caring about yourself? When in conflict, never accuse the other person of selfishness. It’s a road to nowhere.
So what are you supposed to do when you honestly feel that the other person is thinking only of his or her own needs? First of all, give the other person the benefit of the doubt. People with whom you’ve maintained a good relationship probably deserve that benefit. It’s in your own self-interest to assume the best before you conclude the worst. One technique for defusing such situations is to say, “We don’t yet have a solution that works for both of us. I know what you’re proposing works for you. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t work for me, and I’ll explain why. Let’s try to find something that works for both of us.”
This happens in business dealings all the time. Why do you think that professional arbitration is a multi-million-dollar business? The unspoken premise of any business relationship is: “Let us both benefit.” That’s called mutuality, and it applies just as well to personal relationships. When dealing with anyone who is not truly your enemy and probably shares your desired outcome, that makes total sense. If the person is your enemy, then there’s no point trying to negotiate. Instead, put your thought, time and mental energy into an exit strategy to get out of the relationship, whether it’s business, friendship or marriage.
It’s a fact that even good people cannot always reconcile their differences. They each want valid, reasonable things; but those things contradict one other. In these cases, there really is a conflict of interest. One side or the other will have to sacrifice his or her happiness in order for the relationship to work. This is not a solution for either party! Going one’s separate ways, however hard it might be, could be preferable to this. Make sure this is indeed the case before reaching that conclusion, but once you do, accept it. Some things just aren’t meant to be.
Contradictions don’t work in theory or in practice. If you insist on pursuing a personal or business relationship with someone who has goals or ideas fundamentally at odds with your own, then the only solution is to shake hands and walk away. Demanding that the person “stop being selfish and think of me” just adds fuel to the flames. After all, it’s contradictory to expect the other party to be motivated by something, i.e., selflessness, that would never motivate you. If selflessness does actually motivate you, then why not let the other person have everything he or she wants? Be consistent.
When your friend or lover seems to be an adversary, say the following: “I can see this isn’t working for you. I’m sad and disappointed about that. But let’s try to come up with something that works better for both of us.” Whether it’s as simple an issue as where to eat dinner or what movie to see, or as difficult a decision as whether to buy a house or have a child, mutuality is the only way any personal relationship can stand the test of time. Trust, fidelity, love respect: Without mutuality, none of those things can exist.
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