One of my husband’s most reliable responses to my often high level of emotionality is: “Can you just be neutral?” He is a psychiatrist, so he has a lot more practice at finding a neutral objective view. Yet, even before we each chose our respective professions, he would often find his way back to center with more ease than I. Over the years, as I have learned to lean towards this middle space of witnessing reality without the storm of emotions that literally cloud my view, I have witnessed how my relationship has grown up to not only withstand conflicts, but has given each of us the room to really listen to opposing points of view. Actively seeking a neutral perspective moves relating beyond the knee jerk reactions of right and wrong and adds real time to the challenging exchanges that make or break a relationship.
It is always nice when science backs you up, so it was gratifying to read about some recent relationship research, which confirms this conclusion that adding a little neutrality actually goes a very long way in maintaining the health and stability of relationships over years. The research began by testing whether a low cost no-counseling intervention could improve marriage outcomes by offering a tool to help couples fight better. The study included 120 couples who reported being in satisfactory marriages from between 1 and 50 years. They were asked to recall the worst conflict they had over the past four months. Half the group was also asked to write a short story about their recent arguments from the perspective of a neutral third party who would want the best for both spouses. This additional seven minute assignment of intentionally pulling one’s perspective towards a neutral, even-tempered view of one’s relationship and its inevitable conflicts had remarkably long lasting positive impact on the health of the marriage over years.
Learning how to not make things worse, how to experience conflict with a patient and open heart are true markers of maturity. Many people grow up never learning these fundamental building blocks of relating. Love is not a thing that you find and keep, it is an action verb composed of concrete practices like this simple story telling technique. Just seven minutes of witnessing and recording your arguments from the perspective of someone neutral who wants the best for you, your partner and your relationship is all the attention required to strengthen intimacy and connection for years afterward. Retelling your story from a neutral, compassionate perspective actually adds another voice in your head, a more mature voice that is seeking the best outcome for all.
The study also showed that this technique is less helpful for relationships that are already skewed angry and negative, so the earlier you make room for a neutral and kind observer to your more painful relationship moments, the better. In positivity terms, this practice is a beautiful and simple mechanism to open up your view of yourself and your relationship. Most of us are already gifted at kindness towards others, so this practice of objective story telling about the places we get stuck, helps us grow into the relationships we aspire to.
This storytelling device does not eradicate your initial emotional response, but through the practice of including a neutral voice, we are drawn closer to the middle, where we have more space and time to find the responses to conflict that promote growth and not destruction. So, in the name of discovering and cultivating the love that is already surrounding you, start by asking yourself or someone you love, my psychiatrist husband’s favorite question- “Can you just be neutral here?” Tell yourself and anyone else who will listen a kinder and more neutral story about a recent conflict. Better still write it down in a book titled: Skills for Loving. The whole thing will only take you seven minutes.