Here’s the single skill that will end the most difficult of power dynamics: S.E.W.
In my post called “Power Dynamics: We know ’em when when we see ’em,” I described how lapsing into instinctive power differences is what behind every relationship conflict.
While the magical experience of falling in love is what draws most couples together, the honeymoon ends when one person tries to control the other.
Since no one–literally no one, beginning with infants who are old enough to have a burgeoning sense of self–is willing to be controlled, initial placation inevitably turns into resistance and resentment. Couples often try to find their way out of the resulting stuckness through “compromise,” a poor replacement for the flow of in-loveness. They might go into a seesaw of meting out “power up” like dealing out a deck of cards–you get to be on top around finances, me around sex, you around social invitations, me around work, etc. But finding that initial thrall of deep connection drifts further and further from their grasp, as this strategy means either giving up either vulnerability or one’s sense of agency.
That all sounds so complicated, doesn’t it? What in the world might solve such difficult and commonplace entanglements?
Telling the unarguable truth through S.E.W.
I’ve talked about the unarguable truth many times in my blogs (you can find them all at my website, http://www.juliacolwell.com) and in my podcasts. Over the years, my respect for this very simple (not easy!) practice has deepened. I thought it was just a better way to use “I statements,” the old stand-by from the ’70s that we all cheated with. (“I feel like you aren’t listening to me! And you don’t get to argue with how I feel!”) As I learn more about how we construct emotions,” the unarguable truth is the fastest path I’ve found to shifting out of projection and blame to the real issue (and then to moving the emotion out of the body).
So here’s a review of what’s unarguable:
Sensations: Called “interoception” by neuroscientists, noticing your sensations brings your attention to where it belongs: Away from the outside and back to your own inner experience. Truly, there’s no “out there out there.” Everything that you’re trying to make meaning of in terms of the outside world is streaming through whatever concepts you’ve learned, and so are now using to try to understand and predict it. Really. EVERYTHING. So your sensations are your best ways to track down what you’re carrying around as beliefs (which are, of course, all arguable.)
Emotions: If you follow your sensations, they’ll lead you to what emotions you’re feeling. Tension up around you jaw, neck, shoulders tells you you’re angry because you’re not getting what you want (or getting what you don’t want). Contraction in your throat or heaviness in you chest is an indication that you’re sad because you’ve experienced loss. And flutters or twisting in your stomach or chest tells you you’re scared, that you’re perceiving a threat or a danger. Does that mean there truly is an obstacle, intrusion, loss, or threat? Nope. You pretty much made all of that up, through how you see the world.
Want: If you feel your sensations fully, and let your emotions move through completely (like watching a weather-front pass by), you’ll get to the third element of unarguability: What you really want. You can thank your body for telling you everything you need to know to get there. It’s completely reliable in its communication. It just needs time.
When partners are committed to using S.E.W., it immediately puts them back on an even playing field. All conflicts can be worked through from here.
The one who might have tried to exert control (Power Up) can speak to the fear and sadness that is typically under this maneuver, moving out of their domineering position and back to vulnerability. The one who may have done some collapsing into submission (Power Down) can find the self that might have gone into hiding, speaking up about hidden anger and wants. Instantly, the seesaw stabilizes, as each person connects deeply to themselves and then rediscovers the loop of intimacy to the other.
Here’s what this sounds like:
(Entanglement and power struggle):
Chris: “You burned dinner again. What were you thinking??” [Controlling through criticism]
Pat: “Why are you always so mean to me?!” [Resisting through collapse]
Chris: “Oh my God. Get a spine!” [Controlling through contempt]
Pat: “Don’t you see how I’m suffering?? You know I’m depressed…” (Runs out of the room, falling on the bed sobbing) [Resisting through distancing and inner attack]
Now, let’s help this poor couple with S.E.W.:
Chris: “I notice my stomach is in a knot. I guess I’m scared. Oh, right–I came home later than I said I would and I was afraid you’d be mad.” (Pausing to breathe.)
Chris: “Actually, I’ve been scared since this morning when I was talking to my boss. And I was sad, too, sad to leave you this morning.”
Pat: “Yeah, I missed you too.” Pausing. “Hmmm. But I notice that my jaw is tight. I realize that I’ve been afraid to bring this up.”
Pat: “Uh-huh. Now I see that I’m mad.”
Pat: “Yep, I stopped myself from saying anything.” (Moving around with lots of body and jaw movements.) “I’d like to have a better agreement about what time we eat dinner.”
Chris: “Yeah, I appreciate how you cook for us.”
Pat: “What would you think about texting me right when you’re leaving for home?”
Chris: “Great idea. That’s easy. Sure!”
I see this over and over and over with couples. Conflicts happen when power dynamics take over. Speaking the unarguable truth–S.E.W.–brings power back into balance. Connection and flow are restored, making way for the in-loveness and aliveness that have been available all along.
Want to know more? Consider taking one of the classes I’m teaching:
“Where’d the Flow Go?”
8 week live video class based on my book, The Relationship Skills Workbook, begins September 11. Register here.
Couples’ Bootcamp (intensive immersion limited to 3 couples, by application to firstname.lastname@example.org):
Mixed, September 15-17
LGBT, October 20-22