Friday, May 13, 2011

Hot Button

It’s a Saturday morning and Jude is in his room singing a new song for the thirteenth time.

Ronan (nine years old): JUDE! STOP SINGING THAT SONG!

Jude (five years old): I can sing if I want to. You’re not the boss of me!


Jude continues, ignoring Ronan


When words fail to yield compliance, Ronan goes into Jude’s room and shakes him by the shoulders, causing Jude to cry and hit Ronan. Ronan retreats but not before calling him more demeaning names and is now tattling. No one is actually hurt but pride and feelings are damaged. What ensues is a loud summary of who said what, and who did what first, told in the most flattering version by the person doing the telling. Since I heard the whole battle the first time, I don’t need to hear slanted reports of innocence and victimhood now as I talk to them both.

I ask them how they each could have handled things differently for a more peaceful outcome. They decide that Jude could have shut his door, sung more softly, or stopped singing for awhile. Ronan could have shut his door, went somewhere else, or asked more nicely. They both agree that yelling, hitting, and name calling were not good choices for resolving this conflict. They know, conceptually at least, what the better choices are and if those failed, that they could come to a parent for help. Ronan acknowledges all this but is incredulous that I am not giving Jude a consequence for hitting him and for “being annoying”. He accuses me of generally doling out more consequences to him than to Jude and assumes it is because he is older and he should “know better”. From this argument and conversation, we each learn our “hot buttons”, meaning what it is that elicits a strong emotional reaction in each of us.

After thinking about it, I realize that I am very sensitive to unkindness. Kindness is a very important value to me and I easily am moved to tears by many simple acts of kindness. I feel angry when I see someone purposely hurt someone with words or actions and feel justified in handing out consequences for that kind of offense if it comes from my children. Considering other scenarios, we conclude that Ronan’s hot button is not having someone respect him, his feelings or his wishes. This is what sets him off predictably in any kind of conflict. In further discussion, we agree that Jude’s current hot button is being bossed around or treated like a baby. We share these later with Dad when he comes home but characteristically he cannot be pegged down on a single hot button issue, claiming he has hundreds of them. Later, though, he decides that his hot button is more of circumstance: it is not getting exercise. When he has the time and energy to invest in exercising, he is happy and patient. It takes a lot to upset him. When he doesn’t, virtually everything is a hot button for him. Thankfully, he exercises almost every day.

Knowing what it is that will predictably cause strong emotions (and likely unpleasant behavior) in those we are close to is of tremendous value. It helps us avoid pushing those buttons and gives us a short cut in talking about them. When tensions are flaring I calmly remind everyone about our hot buttons and it seems to diffuse the situation. When it’s too late for that and there are claims of unfairness and unjust consequences being meted out, I mention the hot buttons that were trespassed and it stops the whining and objections quickly. I wish I could say this has stopped all quarreling in my house. It hasn’t, or course, but it does give me perspective and equanimity much faster when I realize that our reactions are tripped up by our own sensitivities. That equanimity can be contagious!

I did a poll of my friends on this topic. Their hot buttons varied and included lying, passive aggressive manipulation, cruelty, emotional blackmail, rudeness, arrogance, and judgmental attitudes. To me they all seemed like variations of unkindness, as could be said of Ronan’s and Jude’s sensitivities as well. What causes a strong negative reaction in you?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Meeting in the Middle

My husband and I are different from each other. When we first started dating one of his friends had trouble understanding my allure because I didn't play volleyball and this friend thought that was an indispensable attribute for any partner. Luckily John was willing to overlook this character flaw in me. John is sporty. I am bookish. John tends to solidly occupy the lower three Chakras. He is grounded, secure, physical, confident, and practical. The closer his connection with the earth, the better he feels. So he runs, climbs, hikes, and camps among other very physical outdoor experiences. He even works in construction, though he hasn't done the physical work in many years. His bond with our sons is very physical - he wrestles with them and plays catch.

I tend to live in the upper three Chakras. I am concerned more with feelings, kindness, learning, introspection, and spirituality. I am happiest connecting with others through words, both written and spoken. I am far more likely to be drawn to reading, writing, meditating, or talking than I am to moving. My specialty in parenting involves communication: setting expectations, discussing feelings, talking with teachers, reading stories, and that kind of thing.

You could say that we complement each other in our differences. In the 17 years that we have been together these differences have sometimes been challenging, but for the most part it has encouraged both of us to dwell comfortably in areas that wouldn't initially seem attractive to either of us. For example, I am inspired to keep physically fit because I live with a multi-sport athlete who is in fabulous shape. I love how I look and feel because of that. Before meeting John, I had never been camping and now I love it and initiate multiple camping trips every summer. Our family time in nature is where we are all happiest. John grounds me and provides a base of stability and security.

To his own surprise, John has become spiritual, without any of the gagging that he thought might accompany such beliefs. We now enjoy talking about spiritual and philosophical topics, though the transition to this level of comfort was not easy. A couple of years ago we had a long road trip alone together as marital medicine because we felt disconnected. On the way to Pagosa Springs and back, we listened to Ken Wilber, an author who writes about the meeting point of developmental psychology, philosophy, ecology, sex, and spirituality. It gave us a meeting point. It was through Ken Wilber's words that we found common ground and language, putting us back on track. In John's car right now is a CD of the Irish poet, philosopher and former priest John O'Donohue, talking about wisdom, spirituality, and connection. He enjoys listening to it on his drive and then sharing the highlights of it with me when he gets home. It's been wonderful to share my interests with him and I appreciate seeing that side of him.

John's glass of wine is half empty and mine is half full. We are Yin and Yang. We give balance to each other and to our family when we are balanced ourselves. After so much time together, we are each better balanced and better at meeting each other halfway in mind, body, and spirit. Of course there is the physical meeting of masculine and feminine, fitting together right at that half way point that blissfully strengthens our connection as well! There is much to be said about meeting in the middle!