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Assuming Intention

One of the most insidious of creatures haunting the castle that is your relationships is that of Assuming Intention. This is a more specific example of what the great hypnotherapist Milton H. Erickson referred to as “mind reading”.

The gist is this, and don’t feel bad as you notice examples of your doing this, perhaps even today: Someone takes an action and you interpret an intent behind it. In criminal law, this is a an important distinction, and we suggest, it matters everywhere – whether or not someone intended what you believe they did.

A criminal example might be that a gunman shoots another person. It’s possible that the first person shooter planned the shooting for days, weeks, carefully selecting their weapon and method of attack. Until you know more, however, it’s also possible that the first person was cleaning their gun, and accidentally shot the second person. Another example the law recognizes is that the first person had the gun, ready to defend himself, and he and the other person wound up in an argument. In a rage, the first person draws and fires the weapon, killing the other person, though without premeditation. Further complicating this is that the two people may have had the argument, the second person noticed the gun in the other person’s belt, tried to take it away, and in the confusion, shot himself. In all these examples, the law concerns itself not only with what happened, but what each person intended. It can be the difference between a charge of manslaughter and first degree murder.

Isn’t your life as important as a criminal case you hear about on the news? We suggest that assuming intention is almost always dangerous business, especially when it’s happening to you.

A somewhat silly contrast illustrates the same point in the form of an old joke. Two psychologists pass in the hall and the first say, “Have a nice day!”. The other frowns and says to himself, “I wonder what he means by that…” It’s therefore possible to either over-analyze intention or to assume the worst, needlessly.

Consider a more likely example in your own life. Your coworker walks up to you and asks if you have completed your newest project, adding, “The boss is on a terror today…and looking for heads.”

Is your coworker taunting you, assuming that you are fearful or insecure in your position? Or does he have the highest regard for you and does not want you accidentally getting into the line of the boss’ fire? Are these the only two possibilities? Of course not! There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different intentions behind the warning. To assume an intention too innocuous may in fact lead us to not be on guard. However, as is more often the case in our own experience, to assume an intention too dire creates unnecessary, even debilitating stress and suspicion.

We often interpret such meanings, differentiating the likely intention, via context. Sometimes that’s the tone of voice, the facial expression and body language. Other times we just assume that we know what the other person means. It’s that area that concerns us today.

Intimate relationships are like fine thread. Some people associate them with chains, bonds of some sort, but we recommend that you not associate your relationship with anything you consider limiting or unpleasantly restraining. We like the metaphor of thread because as we sew two pieces of cloth together, each stitch creates more strength, more resilience. When we just begin, and have only completed a few stitches, the cloth is easily torn apart. But each subsequent stitch creates more durability, more ability to sustain the strains and challenges that life often introduces. Some couples pause their stitching at some point, decide that’s good enough, and leave it alone. The fabric of the relationship may be as strong as it ever will become for them. Relationships in which the participants don’t bother to respect their fabric, so to speak, may very well tear at the stitches, pulling them out over time. They may find, after five or seven years together, that their fabric is only tenuously held together, hanging, as it were, by a thread. Relationships in which participants truly care about nurturing the relationship will continue to sew together for a lifetime, and each year, despite challenges and adversity, and repeated, shall we say, learning experiences, the fabric of their relationship is hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times stronger than when they had first begun.

One way we can assume intention in a positive manner is to assume good things from our partner. Our experience tells us that in a rewarding relationship, our partner is not likely trying to scare us, create stress, or unnerve us at all. So this is a more realistic assumption, at least, than assuming the worst. We can assume positive intentions from him or her, such that even an interpretation of meaning sews our fabric more securely. More often, however, we work with couples who carelessly cut or rip those threads as they assume a negative intention. Consider the following list. In the first category

You are up late at night working on an important project. Your partner brings you a cup of coffee.

Assumed negative intention (ANI): He or she is irritated that you are still up, but figures it’s a lost cause, you’re going to stay away from them so they may as well surrender. You hate it when they just don’t seem to understand how important this is!

Assumed positive intention (API): He or she would likely prefer you come to bed, but understands how important this project is to you, and perhaps to the whole family. They just want to show their support and love for you. You love feeling so appreciated and respected!

Consider another example. On a pleasant Saturday morning, you look out the window into the back yard. The grass should have been mowed a week ago and is now going to be a tremendous chore. You don’t relish it and truthfully would prefer to do something else. As you stare at the task ahead, your partner brings you your yard gloves.

ANI: Your partner expects you to get off your lazy butt and get to work! Doesn’t he or she know how tired you are from the week? Would it kill them to just let you begin your weekend slowly? You hate it when he or she is so insensitive to your needs!

API: Your partner recognizes your body language, knowing the yard has to be mowed. They wish dearly that it was not going to be such a chore, but can see from your actions that you are already recognizing the need to do it. They want to be as supportive as they can, and bring you your gloves. You love feeling so understood and supported!

The most significant aspect to all this is that, just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the assumed intention sets a direction for your reaction. Your partner, or coworker, or anyone else for that matter, has just performed an action. You can assume the worst, the best, or any place in between, but the question isn’t even which is the most accurate. It’s which will be the most helpful. You now must react in some fashion. As you do so, what will your frame of mind be? That part is always up to you, by the way, and the trick is to choose a frame that will support whatever outcome you want. Will assuming that the other person hates you and just was looking for a great way to zing you help you or hurt you? Will it assist you in reaching your outcome or impede you? When it comes to intimate relationships, assuming a positive intention is nearly always useful. The alternative also holds true nearly all the time – to assume a negative intention is nearly always harmful.

Play with this a bit this week and consider the possible APIs versus ANIs you could find in your partner’s actions. Then consider what outcome is most likely as you select one over the other. Remember, you’re not trying to determine which intention is correct. You are only striving to determine the likely outcome of assuming an intention. “If I assume (s)he is trying to insult me and kick me into gear, how will I feel and how will I likely respond? Moreover, how will my partner likely respond to that reaction?” We caution you about that because too often when couples assume their partner’s intention, we get caught up in proving ourselves right, whatever that assumption was. That’s about the most unuseful thing you can do, and you want to focus instead on what will help you reach a desired outcome instead of a less desirable one.

We’ll explore this further in part II, shortly. Have fun, and let’s come back and explore how this can help make your relationship better, more fulfilling, and happier.

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I recently had a friend forward a very thought-provoking article; its stated aim was to increase the intimacy in a relationship. Naturally, I embrace such a goal, though having read it, I remain pretty skeptical as to whether its approach could accomplish anything of the sort. The notion was that a period of abstinence will allow a couple to get to know each other without the pressure of sexual intimacy. Now, many will think that is a good idea early on in a relationship but she was proposing this within the context of an established marriage. Now, our friend was actually more interested in what I thought of the idea of levels of intimacy, but this concept of withholding physical affection from a spouse, with a goal of increasing the emotional closeness in the relationship was really disturbing to me. Admittedly, the author of the other article didn’t drop it on the reader that abruptly, instead she put forth a rather interesting argument that seemed to be her own interpretation of the book The Seven Levels of Intimacy by Matthew Kelly.

The argument went something like this:

Science says that there are 5 levels of intimacy. Science also identifies hormones that foster attachment that are released during sex. God created these hormones to bond the family together. A relationship progresses through these levels of intimacy like a person on a ladder or stairway, moving from one level to the next. When you have sex outside of marriage you have gone against the divine plan that was put in place to help you and so you become stuck at whatever level of intimacy you were in when you had sex together the first time, and you will remain stuck there for the rest of your lives. This is the reason, so the argument claimed, that relationships have problems and people don’t continue to feel connected to their spouse. The only solution therefor is to stop having sex and progress through the levels of intimacy as God wanted you to.

Without any judgment of her, ours, or your spirituality, and what these may entail, there are some fundamental challenges with the above approach.

First, it would seem to be a perversion of the Matthew Kelly’s work. She doesn’t credit Kelly with the idea, and she reworks the levels to fit her definitions and structure (5 instead of 7, etc). This article had an agenda that was plainly stated at the outset, to prevent sex outside of Christian marriage. It is after all the author’s life work, and she has a right to pursue her beliefs. But this is a case of one person’s map being mistaken for the territory.

When a couple has sex is best left for the couple to decide based on their own needs, values, and beliefs. It is much more important that these things be compatible and that the couple is committed to meeting each other’s needs then the timing of their first sexual experience together. The old adage, “When it’s right, it’s right…” seems apt.

It should be noted that abstinence is a method the author herself has used to reconnect in her own marriage, and it’s good to hear she found something that worked for her! As she describes why she felt this was a good option for her, she identifies feeling put-off by sex and loss of desire for sexual contact with her husband because as she believes they had sex too soon. Interestingly, she also identified within herself issues that she had about men and sex. She took a period of time where she and her husband didn’t have sex and addressed her own inability to open up to her husband and heal from these past hurts.

She then did what many people do and mistook her personal map for the territory (that is, “If it is true for me then it is true for everyone”). She is dismissive about the “lower levels of intimacy” saying that she would avoid “true intimacy” by keeping conversations superficial, confined to things like bills and how the kids were doing in school. Further, on her intimacy scale, beliefs and values are mid-level intimacy and personal needs the deepest level of intimacy.

In NLP, we consider beliefs and values to be among the biggest, most powerful motivators for people. These are the things that are huge drivers that influence our entire lives, and these are things that take a great deal of effort to affect. This is identity level stuff, and there isn’t anything more intimate than that. Needs (particularly physical needs) are transitory, based mostly on circumstances that are happening in the moment. They change constantly and can be influenced by a myriad of things. Further, in one of the most important psychological breakthroughs in history (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) we are told that physical needs are the lowest most basic level of our development and that without that being addressed we cannot progress successfully.

Chris and I have talked about this extensively since I received the article and we agree that needs within a relationship are organized in a similar way. In this they should be addressed in conversation very early on in a relationship. The reason for this is that if the person that you are attempting to build a relationship with has conflicting needs, or conflicting values and beliefs, then it is best to discover that as soon as possible. Additionally, it is important to recognize that every intimate relationship cycles through all of the levels of communication on a regular basis. This is important and necessary for the relationship to function and for what we have termed the Relationship Map™ to be updated.

Deepening levels of intimacy have a direct correlation to deepening levels of commitment. It perhaps isn’t always going to be the popular answer, but it is simply true. The more certain you are that a person is with you no matter what, the more of your authentic self you will expose to them. When and how that happens is unique to the couple. And different parts of you become certain at different points in the relationship. Withholding physical intimacy from a partner rarely will have the effect that this article describes.

The exception is in a situation where one partner has a specific issue with sex (like past abuse) and is actively working on it with a professional. Then in love and with an eye to the long term well being of this person that they are committed to for life, the other partner may agree to abstain from sexual relations for a time while the first partner heals. But, in general to use abstinence as a tool to increase intimacy runs counter to everything we know about the way people function and what makes healthy, happy relationships.

We suggest that abstinence will not in fact make the heart grow fonder. It will freeze the organic and loving development of your relationship, robbing it of the hormonal tide that compels us to pull together, to love, to commit, and to face challenges with passion and resolve.

Without it, we are roommates and intimacy vanishes.

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At a workshop recently, as usually happens, we were asked a great question – “Is conflict always bad?” First off, no, conflict itself is not bad in and of itself. Disagreement between two parties can elicit potentially useful distinctions and strengths.

So if it’s not negative, why do relationship counselors so often struggle with, and against, conflict within an intimate relationship? Because most of us were never taught beyond a crash course how to effectively deal with our developing relationship, our assessments may be quite coarse. We may learn that “conflict” equals “fight”, equals “hurting one another”. But the truth is that it doesn’t have to mean these things. Still, our earliest, and often our only, relationship teachers, our parents, may have taught us that conflict is a bad thing, that if not avoided, can lead to disastrous results.

We noticed early on that we had different strengths we brought to our own relationship. Each of us had strategies and coping skills the other could only dream about. Moreover, each of us had opinions and experiences the other did not, resulting in different points of view. Potentially, this conflict could lead to an ugly and unsupportive turn of events.

However if you instead view it as having different skills sets, you can enrich each person’s world view and experiences with what the other has to teach us. Whereas I may have brought X skills and knowlege to the relationship, my partner brought Y and Z, each of which is powerful and useful, but when combined with my X skills, makes us a far more complete and capable team. The conflict that revealed our different contributions in this way was a positive thing. Further, when we used our varied contributions together, we were each more rich and capable.

Conflict can also show us where our strategy is lacking. I may have learned to deal with a particular situation from my father and in all prior examples, that learning was enough. But as I encounter a new challenge and try to apply the same strategy, I may become frustrated by the less than stellar results. As my partner (respectfully and lovingly!) points out the mismatch and offers some of her own experience, I may find a newly enriched strategy as a result of the discussion.

Further, conflict can expose new territory for the relationship. No matter how long you’ve been with your partner, and you may have “settled” your differences in all of the major areas (religion/spirituality, money, and politics, for instance), but who’s to say there isn’t something else, some topic about which you and your partner have never spoken? It doesn’t mean you have to agree of course on everything, but it enriches our relationships to know and understand our partner’s opinions, preferences, and convictions. So as you and your partner discuss a new topic and discover a disagreement, the focus can be on learning something new about one another. You don’t have to, and you will regret it if you try, convince the other you are right and that they should give up their opinion! The point is not homogeneity, but rather developing a more rich understanding of your partner and their mental process, values, and beliefs system.

We emphasized “respectfully and lovingly” in relation to noticing disagreement is that no one wants to be insulted or have their nose proverbially rubbed in the inadequacy of their strategy. As you learn to engage in loving and mutually respectful conflict, you can each grow a great deal, and will be able to remain open to the experience as you do not have to defend yourself. This takes skill, but if you embrace that love and respect for one another right now, you are ahead of the game.

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