The Art of Building Bridges
Welcome back to building bridges series. In this second part, we will look into the art of building bridges with a focus on how to carry out this artistic endeavor.
*This post builds on my first post. If you haven't read that one, please find it here.
**This series is dedicated to my rock, Arda.
How do we build bridges?
Now, let's look into some strategies that will be helpful to start building your bridge.
Let go of Blame & Shame game and acknowledge needs
If you would like to build something new, you need a new perspective. What keeps people stuck in unproductive patterns, is usually the blame and shame game. Dr. Sue Johnson calls this the blame-shame-distance loop in her groundbreaking book Hold Me Tight.
The loop goes like this: Someone does something that annoys the other one.
The other party gets annoyed and criticize this behavior and the other person defends and blame back (saying things like "I did this because you did this", or "I haven't done anything, you are being sensitive/paranoid/emotional..."
The more you blame, more they defend and pull back (aka stonewall). The more they escape, the more you feel like attacking to get a response. Any response.
The blame, shame and distance cycle goes on and on. It is unproductive and someone needs to stop this.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman has shown with decades of research that this cycle and defensiveness + criticism are toxic for romantic relationships and marriage.
It applies to all relationships. Criticism, blame and shaming does not take you far.
First thing would be to be AWARE of this cycle happening. Then you need to be very mindful of times when you go into this cycle or protest polka, as Dr. Sue Johnson calls it.
I understand when someone does something that annoys you the best and hurts you the worst, you come down heavy. I do too. But, we now know that this is not a productive behavior - it is more like a hammer on your bridge. That precious connection that you want to build.
So, let's see what we can do instead of hammering our precious bridge.
The magical question: What do you need?
People tend to get upset and blame because they is an underlying need that is not being met.
For example, when you criticize your partner for not taking the trash by saying "You forget to take the trash EVERY TIME, what is wrong with you?", they might defend and say, "That is not true! I took it out last week!"
When a conversation starts out this way, there is some chance that it might spiral out. Instead we can try using I language combined with a need.
I know we need to understand needs first and human needs are a whole body of discussion by themselves and here is a good read on what are the fundamental human needs.
We can short list fundamental needs here as:
Physical: such as food, shelter, comfort
Psychological: such as security, attachment, affiliation, intimacy
Social: connections with others, status, identity
Existential/Spiritual: needs that related to being such as happiness, spiritual meaning
If you think about it, you can see that we are in different types of relationships to fulfill our different needs. If our needs are not being met in a relationship, there is high chance that there is conflict in that relationship.
We need to be aware of our needs (and the needs of others as well) and hopefully understand them (not necessarily fulfill them)
"I see the trash is not taken out. (Factual info or describing what you see, more on this below) I need you to take trash out because it smells bad and I am unhappy with that smell in the kitchen (need combined with a feeling)"
Perhaps the reasonable response to expect to this would be "OK. Sure." I can guarantee that you will get a better response than the previous scenario.
If this is a recurring theme, like they do forget the trash EVERY TIME you ask and it really bothers you, then you can try to add something like,
"I do need to count on you for taking the trash. When you say you will do and you don't, I feel dismissed and lied to and I do not like that feeling."
Adding some responsibility and accountability to the mix.
Perhaps the response could be something like this:
"You are right, I did forget to take the trash out this week a lot. I was really tired coming back from work... What if I take it out in the morning?"
"Honestly, I hate taking the trash out. I know you asked me, but it smells disgusting and I can't be near it when I am closing it, so it is true that I "forget" it. How about we put an air freshener close to the bin, so that it smells better?"
Great ways of taking responsibility and initiative.
Same story, but this time no blame-shame-distancing. Plus, we put a solid piece to our bridge by using a softer language and acknowledging each other's needs.
Understanding vs Fulfilling
While we are at it, I think we need to discuss how UNDERSTANDING A NEED does not mean FULFILLING IT.
For example you might understand your partner/family member's need for security/intimacy and that they want to call/text you every day, perhaps want to talk several times during the week. They want to be close to you. This is their need.
Yet, you might not feel that this is the interval that you want to talk to them, and this one is your need for space & independence.
You might find the conversations emotionally taxing or too demanding. Or you must just have other commitments in life (work, child etc) and simply don't have the time.
How you would communicate this to them could make a lot of difference? How do we balance these two needs and reduce the conflict?
When they tell you: "You never call me during the week. You are a bad son/daughter who doesn't love/miss her/his mother"
We know that they are expressing a need (need to be close and intimate) here but they chose to do it in a hurtful way. I wish this person could have said it gentler. (Perhaps then it would have been much easier to build a bridge with them....)
You could respond by saying either:
1- That is not true! I am a good son/daughter. I called you x amount time last week. I wanted to call you but I was busy. You never understand me. Plus, you missed my .... last month, how about that?
How do you think things will go? You expressed your need for space in a harsh way cause you were reacting to them. I bet after this, it might lead to further resentment and even more problems.
2- I hear you mom. You want to talk to me more. I wish I could do that. I am going through a very busy time and I do my best to talk to you as much as I can. I hope we can enjoy these talks no matter how few or frequent they are.
The second one is more like a response and you maintain your emotional control.
Two different stories, two different responses led by YOU, who is leading this bridge. You have a choice to be defensive or to understand this person.
You might understand where someone is coming from, yet you can still disagree with what they are asking from you or their behavior.
You can express your feelings and put a boundary to protect your needs and the relationship, which brings us to our next step...
Boundaries are your friend
Imagine your "self" as a country.
What protects a country or what defines them? Their border, right? I love picturing boundaries in the context of a country.
Boundaries act like borders that define your self; your limits, what you are comfortable with and what you are not.
It is also like your constitution.
You have this imaginary list in your mind of what you are willing to do and not in a relationship. You become aware of this as you think more about your self, your old bridges, what went wrong there and how you envision your new ones.
This exercise requires tremendous self-awareness yet, it becomes second nature as you continue building your bridge. (There are some good exercise on discovering your boundaries in the resources part)
For example, if we come back to our last example;
Your mom/friend complains that you don't call her as much as she/he wants.
If we look at this demand in terms of a boundary lens, this might mean like, you are not calling them as much as they want because you are actually not okay with her need to call her every day. Perhaps you want to call less. Also you might not be feeling okay with the content of the conversation, too.
The right questions to ask yourself to define your boundaries could be:
How frequent you would like to talk to this person?
Could it be possible that this conversation does not interest or bother you for some reason? What is it?
Does it go like an interrogation or a monologue? Are you ok with that?
What do you want to talk about?
What do you NOT want to talk about?
Your answers to these questions define your boundaries in this situation.
You can come up with a boundary which could look like: Calling every weekend or biweekly, talking about x,y,z topics mainly and avoiding a,b,c.
Boundaries are like fences that protect relationship houses.
They require you to be aware of your needs and limits, then articulating them kindly but firmly. People might be uncomfortable when you first express them, (and you might be uncomfortable saying no) as this would be a change in the relationship dynamic, yet if you stick to them, it is your prerequisite for a healthy bridge.
After all, if you know your boundaries and what you are comfortable at giving, then you can give generously in that area. You won't feel resentful or taken advantage of.
You don't need to be nice and say yes to everything, which is not boundary-friendly behavior. You can sometimes say no, enforce your boundaries (and value other person's boundaries as well) and stay kind.
It is very important to acknowledge that the nature of boundaries : how tight or lose they would be will depend on the relationship.
Some relationships can look like working in a nuclear reactor.
They generate powerful energy. Yet, it is extremely dangerous to work within them due to potential hazards such as radioactivity... You need to take A LOT of precautions.
If you are blessed with that type of a relationship, where there are high risks involved, I would suggest you would think about limiting your exposure "inside the reactor" and create strategies to contain "spills" (see below how to avoid your triggers part)
It can be hard to define your boundaries at the beginning, avoid the "spills" and stay in the safe zones. I totally understand. You try, you learn. So, let's see how you can create some common ground within the comfort of your boundaries.
Find a common ground and stick to it
When people are in a rift they tend to focus on their differences, misunderstandings and heart breaks rightfully. They keep telling the same story in their minds, which might not be productive for your new bridge.
Today, I invite you to think differently.
What do you have in common with this person, whether this your mom/dad/partner or friend?
What do you both enjoy?
What can we talk with this person, safely and peacefully for 10 minutes?
This person is clearly important to you in some shape or form so you are thinking of putting an effort to repair your connection and build a bridge. Therefore, take some time to think about the commonalities. No matter how small they seem.
If you can not come up with anything, then try listing the topics that you enjoy talking about
than try to look at their interests, I bet there would be an overlap somewhere or some workable, neutral areas.
And in worst case, you can always try to be curious. You can start asking about their job for example and say things like "How does your typical day go?" "Why did you chose this profession?"
Think about open-ended questions like an interviewer.
Let's say they are very interested in cooking. They cook a lot, know a lot recipes and love sharing them. You might not be a good cook or even feel intimidated by cooking.
Perhaps you can still stay curious to their love for cooking and listen to the recipes, and learn something from them. This doesn't mean you will start cooking all these recipes (boundary!) But you can still appreciate their love and that would be it.
I guarantee you, if you stay curious and open, they might also get genuinely interested in something that you love doing; no matter how hard it is for them to understand that.
Accepting the other party as they are and staying curious has a refreshing effect on the relationship.
I bet you would want to try this in your new bridge and you might even get surprised to get to know this person in a different light and start letting your self seen more (aka vulnerability)
Once you find your common and safe grounds, stick to them. Slowly you can try experimenting out to other topics as you get a stronger bridge.
Factual information is your friend
If you can't find a safe topic and everything seems to be like a minefield, for starters, I would suggest stick to the factual information.
If you look at the world from the lens of factual information, it is a less scary space. The weather, the numbers, the statistics, the news...
I am a researcher and I like reading and learning new information. When I feel like I am cornered or in a sticky place with a loved one (and on a young, shaky bridge) I draw out my factual information card.
For example if you mother keeps asking you what your child is eating, and how she is suppose to eat certain foods, their weight, height... then suggesting certain foods, recipes...
You might be feeling annoyed and overwhelmed. (I used to do...) This can get out of control pretty quickly and be a hammer for your new bridge.
This is a perfect example for another boundary issue and usefulness of factual information.
In parenting, you need to set things straight from the beginning, as everyone will have an opinion about how you raise your kid. So, if they keep asking you these borderline invasive questions, and you feel like this undermining or questioning your abilities as a mother...
Before diving into that rabbit hole and start saying "how dare you question my mothering..." you can take a deep breath and try setting a boundary by saying,
"I don't want to talk about this topic, mom. I understand you want best for your grandchild and she is growing perfectly well. She has her doctor and her parents who think what it is best for her. Thanks for understanding this and helping me to be the best mother to x"
You can also choose to have a BRIEF conversation on factual information such as how doctors recommend certain foods for certain age groups, how healthy your child is with undeniably meeting developmental milestones etc.
Therefore, combining boundaries with factual information can really save you from a lot of sticky places.
After a while, it becomes way easier to navigate difficult terrain and you get better at finding a way to lead the conversation to safer areas skillfully.
Perhaps once you are feeling safer, you can even hear out some of the suggestions or wisdom that they are so desperately want to pass to you... Slowly with time, as your bridge gets stronger.
Learn your triggers and how to avoid them skillfully
Sorry to break the news, but no matter how much you try to avoid the sticky areas, there will be conflicts, old stories and difficult emotions emerging once in a while.
Perhaps, unfortunate radioactive spills...
There will be conversations that will make your blood slowly boil and you will keep asking yourself "What did I just heard? How dare she/he says this after all...?" and "Why I am doing this...."
This doesn't mean you are doing it wrong. This means you are progressing. The important part is not to focus on eliminating conflict, it is to skillfully navigating it and perhaps defusing it before it gets nuclear.
Again, it comes down to knowing your boundaries and triggers that push them. If you know that you are not OK with certain conversations then you can deflect them artistically.
For example, you are not comfortable discussing your body weight, appearance, your income with your family as they trigger unpleasant memories for you and you don't believe it is appropriate to discuss this with them.
You can try to put up your boundary once and for all. When these topics come up, you can firmly say "I am not comfortable talking about any of this. Let's not discuss each other's weight" It might sound harsh but if you don't protect your boundaries firmly and let your self get triggered, thing might get out of control and that would be worse.
For those topics, that are less triggering for you, you can perhaps use humor to lighten up the mood and make things easier on both sides.
If you find yourself talking about a weird topic that you are not comfortable with, you can even try sarcasm. I usually do this as a last resort, to indicate the silliness of that topic and to quickly move on.
After all efforts, if you are triggered and feeling angry, resentful, disappointed after an interaction;
That is okay. I understand. It happens...
Building a bridge is a tough thing.
I hope you have at least one person who understands your journey and will be with you to share this process and feelings.
I had my husband and my therapist alongside me when I started this process of "bridges" and I can tell you, having someone with you who understands, supports and believes in you is vital. It keeps you going forward during tough times.
If you are triggered and feeling upset, I would strongly suggest that you to talk to someone you love, to your therapist or write it out.
Writing can help so much to put things into perspective and when you can not spell out things calmly. Try writing your feelings on a piece of paper or like a letter and sleep on it. You don't need to send it to someone necessarily.
The purpose of the letter is not really getting a response from the other person. It is more for your to learn how to express your needs clearly, acknowledge your feelings (when you feel dismissed) and express yourself in a comfortable, safe place.
Have a realistic vision of what your bridge would look like
It is hard to envision a change and create something new, if you haven't done something quite like this before. What can help is that, having a vision of what you would like to achieve.
When you are trying to create your vision, try considering questions below:
How this relationship will ideally look like? Civil, formal or close
How do you want to feel in this relationship ultimately? Calm, peaceful, safe etc
What would be the frequency to interact with this person? Every day, week or month
How would the conversations go, for how long?
What are your expectations from this relationship?
What are you capable of giving?
What are they capable of giving?
Approaching the situation and the bridge REALISTICALLY is the key here.
You might want someone to be an open-minded and creative person yet this person might thrive on stability and security. Therefore, I agree with Annie Wright here, "looking for milk in the hardware store" might not take you so far.
There are different personality traits, experiences and personal values that contribute to each other's behavior. Some people are not capable of certain things and that is okay.
Remember the key building block, acceptance?
Perhaps you can asses what this person is realistically capable of. If you are expecting them to support you through a tough time, yet if they have never been emotionally available to you or anyone in their life before, maybe you should revisit your expectations.
The fantasies usually keep us getting hooked and disappointed.
Maybe this person is not able to support you emotionally as you would have liked, but they are capable of providing you practical advice on other topics and organizing stuff.
If you keep things realistic, accept this person as they are, then you can have a more peaceful relationship. Eventually they might also accept you as you are with your boundaries and what you are genuinely offering to them.
In the end, we can not change other people. We should either accept them as they are, with the good, bad and the ugly or let them go.
It is not fair to keep living in a fantasy and get disappointed repeatedly where we can choose to see the good and appreciate that. Speaking of which...
The good in everything
I know it sounds cliché but it is true.
There is good in everything. In every person. Sometimes it really takes a lot of effort to see it, after years of hurtful interactions, resentment and disappointment...
We all mess up in our relationships. We don't get each other fully at all times and broke each others hearts sometimes.
What if we tried to focus on the good and appreciate them for a while...
If they do a little good thing appreciate it, and acknowledge the progress,
If they misstep and fall into old patterns, guide them as gently as possible...
If they keep doing the same thing that hurts you, you ABSOLUTELY need to speak up for yourself and your needs. And we learned that there are kind and gently ways to do so: using I language, speaking of your needs, not blaming but explaining how you feel.
If you keep believing in the relationship, investing in it,
keeping things realistic and accepting people as they, I think things might work out.
I have seen this with my own eyes. Sometimes people can surprise you by doing things that you could not imagine ever before...
It is a matter of consistency and staying in the uncertainty of the change that you are leading.
And in case they can not...or you can not make this happen ultimately - which happens, too...
It is time to forgive.
Forgive yourself (and others if you can...)
After all said and done, if you are trying to build a bridge if you are leading this kind of courageous act to save a relationship,
You are trying to create something new.
You have a vision.
You are a leader.
The first rule of doing something new is that you will make mistakes, because you are learning.
When you do make a mistake and the bridge shakes to the core and sometimes falls completely...
Or no matter how much you try, some relationships can not be reformed, some rifts can not be mended and some bridges won't be build again...
As disappointing as it is, it happens. and I am sorry to say that some bridges are not meant to be reconstructed. (It is heart-breaking and true)
I understand how hard it is to acknowledge this truth ( I really do...) and I feel your grief.
While you are processing your grief, I want you to also think of the process in a different perspective when the time comes.
You tried. You gave your best shot.
You learned so much.
You have grown so much.
You are a different person now.
You have taken risks and been to the places in your soul, where you haven't been before.
You learned to express your needs and emotions. Clearly and kindly.
You learned what you are okay with and not (boundaries)
You learned how to artistically defuse a nuclear bomb...
Maybe you were not able to revive this relationship and build that bridge, but you gave your best shot.
You imagined a different tomorrow and let yourself HOPE another version of this relationship.
You took an emotional risk and you might have failed.
You have nothing to regret.
What I would say last is that, I agree with Brene Brown,
You were vulnerable and you were "in the arena"*
Even if you failed,
You have failed DARING GREATLY.
And my friend,
that is what matters at the end of the day.
Things to keep in mind while you are embarking on this journey...
I wish I could tell you do all this and it will be all.
This is an highly artistic endeavor as well as the paramount science (attachment theory and all other relationship research listed below) behind it.
These are the questions I had in my when I tried mending my relationships and exact questions I keep thinking about the relationships that I am yet to decide on saving or leaving.
Only short answers from me because the whole idea here is that, you find your own way from here on...
How do I take responsibility of taking a bridge and why do I need to take this responsibility?
- This is part of your own healing. If you are able to do this, I bet there is nothing you can't.
How you envision building something that you didn't have before? How can you create something "healthy" and "different" that I have never done before?
- Amazing question! You are a visionary and that requires tremendous responsibility. You will figure this out.
How much effort is needed and how long this process will take?
- A lot. Life-long.
and even if I am able to envision something new, how you convince someone to come over a bridge that they have never visited before?
- Well, that's a great question. I would suggest that you need to think about your own ambivalence about mending this relationship and face your demons. You will start conceptualizing the bridge yet remember you will be building this bridge, as you go. You need to be responding to other partly, not just reacting. You will be creating a change, realizing a vision. So they might be cautious at the beginning and that's okay. If you believe in yourself and your abilities and if you can make it clear that you want this to happen because you are on the same team, then I believe you might have a real shot to convince them.
Welcome to the arena, my friend!
It will be a journey. and I wish you all the best.
*The man in the arena - Theodore Roosevelt
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Some helpful resources highlighting decades of relationship and attachment research:
Drs.John Gottman and Julie Gottman's work on understanding healthy relationships
Dr. Sue Johnson's ground breaking book: Hold me Tight
Chapter 3 of Hold me Tight Book
What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?
What is attachment theory?
Attachment Theory and why is it important in parenting
TED Talk video - The power of vulnerability by Brene Brown
Article - Brene Brown: How vulnerability can make our lives better
Book - The gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
Book - Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
SSLD model by Dr. A. Kat Tat Tsang - Strategies, Skills Learning and Development (SSLD) is an intervention system for bringing about change in human life, including our thinking, action, motivation, emotion, body, as well as our environment.
Article - Boundaries in Relationships and Stress
Article - How to set healthy boundaries?