By GERALD SMITH, a licensed psychologist who has specialized in couple therapy and written two books about relationships, "Couple Therapy" and "Hidden Meanings." He has led workshops for couples at Esalen Institute for many decades.
Love thrives best when conflicts are resolved without scar tissue. Love also thrives if both partners accept that occasional conflict is built into any vital relationship. Conflict is a given because most partners are different in numerous ways—therefore, collisions are inevitable. Two examples might be 1) how you differ in need for order; and 2) importance of promptness. Doing your best to abide by the following Four C's will help you to resolve conflict in a healthy way. Your love for each other can more freely thrive if you:
Don't Attempt to Control
Don't Attempt to Change...your Partner
Avoiding these four C's does not mean you have to silence yourself (and grind your teeth flat!). Not at all. Instead, make yourself vulnerable enough to express your feelings with "I" messages, and mindful enough to not use "you" messages.
"I" messages invite openness, and eventual resolution. "You" messages incite defensiveness, and impede the chance of working out a scar-free resolution.
If you avoid the four C's when you talk with the person you love, you are respecting an imaginary "Fence" between the two of you. Your "I" messages keep you on your side of the fence, because you are only expressing what you feel, not telling your partner what to do. (Be aware of a "you" message in disguise. An example: "I feel you really make me angry." That is a "you" message with "I feel" tacked onto the front of the sentence. It doesn't qualify as a real "I" message because it doesn't directly disclose a feeling. Instead it is a message of blame fronted with "I feel".)
When the two of you respect the fence, you can become closer, because there is more space to be freely vulnerable and spontaneous.
The Four C's and the Fence are useful for maintaining an equal balance, but in a love relationship, the intensity of feelings can overpower any set of rules. If angry feelings are really boiling up, you probably won't be able to abstain from using one of more of the Four C's. Instead, "you" messages will squirt out and the Fence will be trampled. The best you can do then is to be aware of what you have done. Talk it over with your partner with the hope there will not be resentment from how you have trampled the all important Fence.
Many models of love can work well. For some, a "one up/one down" arrangement meets the needs of each person. One person has a need to manage the relationship. The other has a need to placate. As long as these needs don't change, this can be a relationship that works. But if the "one up" partner becomes bored, or if the "one down" partner seeks equality, then the "one up/one down" balance is disturbed and major problems can occur.
A more complicated relationship is an "equal partnership." This is the kind of relationship that offers the best arrangement for being both close, yet also free ,to grow as a separate person. The Four C's and the Fence are most useful in this more complicated relationship. The opportunity for personal growth is most available in a loving equal partnership. Abide by the Four C's and honor a Fence and you have a recipe to keep your love thriving without curtailing your own growth as a person.
What an opportunity to have it both ways with increasing vulnerability and the support of your lover to affirm yourself. What an opportunity for you to thrive!
P.S. The recipe of the Four C's and the Fence works well in a friendship, and many people do it intuitively. Doesn't it make sense to do the same in a deeply loving relationship where the stakes are higher and the rewards more enduring?