One of the pleasures of reading John Gottman’s book What Makes Love Last was how it gave articulation and voice to an idea I had been holding onto for a while about trust, and that idea was when it comes to getting into an argument with your significant other or really anyone else is that the amount that the facts of the situation matter is entirely dependent on how much trust there is between the two of you and the severity of the situation.
Of course this idea has functional limits. If your wife walks in on you ankle deep in another woman all the trust in the world isn’t going to undo the facts of what she saw. But trust has a lot to do with other less extreme situations, like not being where you said you were going to be. However, I find that the extreme situations are where it’s easiest to illustrate this whole trust as reality idea. Suppose you’re just sitting there minding your own business in your bedroom with your spouse. Some wrong number text comes your way telling you what an awesome time someone had sleeping with you last night. Now suppose your wife was quick enough to read the push notification. Has your behavior with other women in the past been virtuous enough that she’ll believe it was a wrong number? And further more has she had enough trust in you to begin with to establish that pattern of behavior?
That last idea is kind of critical and I want to expand on that one a bit more because part of the exercise of being in a relationship is that you have to trust the other person in it enough that they’re in a position to hurt you and let them prove themselves or fail you, either way. Let’s say your wife in the example above never even lets you be around other women as a rule. Well how in that situation are you even supposed to build the trust in the first place that you can use it to soothe her into the reality that it really was a wrong number? Well you can’t because she hasn’t let you, and so in this example the reality doesn’t even matter. Low trust begets low trust because it turns innocent pieces of reality into guilty verdicts. It’s a negative spiral that you can subject yourself to accidentally by allowing your low initial trust to prevent the behaviors that are necessary to build it up in the first place.
The digital era can really highlight this phenomenon in some really nasty ways that I think a lot of us have experienced. If you’ve ever had someone take something in your text history out of context to beat you over the head with it in a way that makes no sense you’ve been there. If you’ve tried to prove your innocence with exculpatory evidence from the same and have found it lacking the efficacy it ought to have had you’ve experienced this too. You may have even done this to someone in the past and not realized what you had done until it was too late.
I can’t really tell you how to avoid having this done to you by someone else, you can’t control other people so much. The only thing I can really tell you about what to do with other people is to exhibit behavior that builds trust and to demand the freedom required to establish those behaviors. When it comes to doing this to other people though I think I have a little bit more useful advice. Don’t get attached to what you think the facts are when you feel you’re owed an apology or recompense. Fundamentally it’s not the facts you are interested in anyway, it’s the recompense, you’re just using what you believe are the facts to extract that because you think the situation is a bit more rational than it actually is. The problem is when you tie these two things together and someone gives you evidence that you’ve been mistaken then you would also have to admit that you aren’t owed the apology, but you feel that you are! So what you’ll do is perform these fantastic denials of reality and really distrustful and manipulative things to maintain this narrative in order to get this apology or change in behavior you want. You’ll move goal posts and gish gallop and all sorts of abusive behaviors to keep this false narrative going because you’ve linked it so tightly with your need for your feelings to be acknowledged.
Now I’m not talking about ignoring things like I talked about in the beginning. Don’t allow someone balls deep in another woman to gaslight their way out of it, that’s dumb. But for other things what you should do is ask yourself if you trust this person, and if you think they care about you, and if that answer is yes all you have to do is let them explain their actions and deal with the reality of them, and it’s okay to still want an apology even if they’ve done something reasonable. Sometimes reasonable things hurt, like when people put their own well being before yours. Don’t get it all mixed up in some accusatory fantasy you created to extract a guilty plea. No one has to be guilty of a moral wrong to hurt your feelings. Furthermore making someone apologize for something they didn’t feel they did is abusive and if they’re willing to be insincere because of your badgering you’ve damaged the relationship to begin with. On the other side of that coin if you really care for somebody and their feelings were hurt by a reasonable thing you did acknowledge their feelings and you’ll find you can both move on a lot more quickly. Don’t let someone extract an apology out of you for something you didn’t do either, for the reasons mentioned above, that’s abuse, and if you find that you’ve done that to someone and you care about them you’ve got a lot of repair work to do.
Anyway, I hope that’s given you some insight in why you shouldn’t get too caught up in the ‘truth’ of a situation when dealing with it in an argument, whether your the accuser or the accused.
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