Love me, love my broccoli

It’s always amazing to see what triggers someone off. Every once in a while a seemingly innocuous event or statement can really get to us, resulting in a strong emotional reaction (anger, depression, anxiety, etc.). In most cases, this emotion is stirred not so much by the event as it is by the assumptions it triggers. In my metro column of October 12, I tell a little story of a client who was depressed after his wife asked him to cut the broccoli stems longer than he did.

The actual incident is not so important. Rarely do the exact same events trigger arguments. What is important is the common denominator in the arguments. There are often only a small number of assumptions on which most arguments, or in fact most strong emotional reactions, are based. In this particular example, the person in question lacked confidence in himself. He was afraid his wife didn’t love him (or would soon fall out of love with him). The relatively innocuous comment on her part triggered his anxiety about his relationship. This is what was at stake, not the broccoli.

The idea of stepping back from an emotional reaction and examining the assumptions behind it applies to the treatment of many upsetting emotions. In treating depression, anxiety or conflict, one of the important things to do is to examine the bigger questions behind the reactions. Are you really worthless, stupid or unloveable (in the case of depression)? Can being trapped in an elevator really kill you or is turning red in public really that tragic (in the case of anxiety)? Are people really accusing you of incompetence when they make a suggestion on how to do things differently (in the case of conflict)?

When we get upset, a process of escalation occurs. Each assumption creates stronger emotions which lead to more upsetting assumptions. In working with people in conflict, for example, one of the things to do is to help people recognize how their assumptions lead to an emotional escalation. In most cases, the argument escalates to a personal attack. Anyone who feels attacked will counter-attack. Worse yet, some people will then want to give up on the relationship. This only cause more conflict and anxiety. The original trigger is forgotten and all hell has broken loose.

I don’t like my broccoli this way

(Source: Brocoli de discorde. Journal Métro, October 12, 2010)

John was cutting up some broccoli for a quiche when his wife came home and said he should leave more of the stem on the flowers. He felt criticized and got upset. She then accused him of being overly sensitive and uncommunicative. The end result was two tension-filled days during which John was depressed and imagined himself in an apartment and only seeing his kids every other week. How the heck did a disagreement over the length of broccoli stems lead to that?

The belief behind the reaction

While arguments over minor things such as broccoli or who left the cap off the toothpaste are inevitable when two independent-minded adults live together, they are rarely very intense or long lasting. In John’s case, however, things got quite serious. The reason for this is because the argument touched off questions of a more fundamental nature – questions such as: Am I a good father, husband, and person?

When a person’s core beliefs are touched on, reactions can become quite intense. Any minor event that represents critical questions in the mind of one or both members of the couple will trigger an argument. This argument will typically escalate to a direct assault on the other person. The subject of broccoli stems is replaced with things like, “you never listen to me,” or, “You’re impossible to please.”

If someone leaves the cap off the toothpaste, it is an irritating habit. If they leave the cap off the toothpaste because they don’t respect you, it is a completely different matter! Therein lies the problem in most arguments. When disagreements represent the bigger questions, they heat up and are nearly impossible to resolve.

Three levels of problem

The broccoli argument could represent a problem at three levels. First, it could mean a simple disagreement over how best to serve broccoli. Second, it could mean that John is too sensitive to minor criticisms or that his wife is too picky and hard to please. Third, it could be a sign of a poor and failing marriage.

As you can well imagine, the level of argument makes all the difference in a couple’s ability to resolve it. The first level is easy to fix through discussion and compromise. The other two levels are far more challenging. This is why John and the rest of us in all types of relationships need to step back from time to time and question why we get so upset over small matters. There is usually a bigger assumption behind a strong reaction – an assumption that may not be founded. Sometimes a broccoli argument is only about broccoli and nothing more.

Tagged as , , , .

Posted in Anger and conflict, Depression, Relationships.

Posted on 03 Nov 2010

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