4 Ways to De-bug a Relationship

Welcome to summer in Atlanta, a bug lover’s paradise. Filled with the joy of catching lightning bugs, the annoyance of mosquitoes, and the avoidance of ticks.

I don’t love bugs, but they are strangely attracted to me. In the early evening, I can stand with a half dozen unbitten friends as I swat, swipe, and scratch virtually non-stop.

As pesky and prevalent as these little creatures are, I find the bugs in Atlanta a bit better than the ones I met as a child in south Florida. I still remember the first time I encountered a 3-inch-long Palmetto bug (a.k.a. prehistoric flying roach).

I also learned about the birds and the bees from the annual spectacle called Love-bug Mating Season. No matter how many of them met their maker after an encounter with our windshield, they always managed to return with a vengeance the following year.

Occasionally I still have nightmares about the evening I was terrorized as a child by a giant dragonfly that became trapped in our house… until mom returned hours later to defeat the dragon as he slept, with her magic wand (a.k.a. vacuum cleaner).

Pest Control

Needless to say, I’m all about finding and removing the bugs from my environment. Whatever it takes. Roach motels. Raid. Fly swatters. A handy shoe. A brave and slightly exasperated husband. Debugging my house is important.

As a former engineer, code writer, and chip designer I also know the value of removing all the bugs from software and hardware. It’s important to look closely at a design from every angle so that it will work as expected under all conditions.

It’s acceptable to debug a house and a design, but how do you get the bugs out of a relationship? Should the personal connection you have with your friends and relatives get the same kind of attention as a new app before it hits the market? Is nit-picking the answer?

Nit-picking

Nits are the eggs that parasitic lice plant on their host. Nit-picking originally referred to the careful examination and removal of these tiny eggs from someone’s hair and clothing, but worldwidewords.org explains that the phrase now means petty criticism and fault-finding.

Nit-pickers quarrel over differences without making an effort to solve or improve the situation.

Nit-picking may be effective in eradicating lice, or providing a tasty treat for a young primate, but in a relationship it is rarely helpful. Proverbs 27:15 makes me think that nit-pickers are as bad as a dripping faucet or a nagging wife.

So how do you handle the differences in your relationships? How do you connect with people who don’t see the world the way you see it?

These dissimilarities are not parasites, but they may be eating away at your family and creating a negative environment in your home or workplace.

What keeps you from building deeper friendships? What limits your connection with maturing children or in-laws? What, if anything, can you do to make it better?

Here are a few bad habits I have been trying to outgrow. We tend to fall into these patterns when others do not agree with our values and priorities. Hopefully this will help you get the LICE out of your relationships.

L.I.C.E. – Bugs that are bad for Relationships

L – Labeling – When we label others based on their politics, age, race, religion, denomination, nationality, education, … the natural next step is to dismiss or devalue them. They simply become an “enemy.” Labels shut down relationships with those who are different, leaving a smaller, homogenous cluster of people with whom you can converse.  Avoid assigning labels. They close, rather than open, doors for communication.

I – Ignoring – A passive tactic for handling differences is walking on eggshells, or being extremely careful to avoid the issues that separate Us from Them. The result is a shallow relationship and a growing list of “What not to talk about.” This approach makes for awkward dinners and less frequent visits.

C – Convincing – Taking an aggressive approach to differences means believing that you can teach or convince others to change their opinion. These folks use every opportunity to direct the conversation into perilous waters, raising awkward subjects rather than avoiding them. The result is higher stress, frequent arguments, and broken relationships with those who refuse to see things your way.

E – Excessive emotions – When differences trigger a big emotional response, ask yourself if your reaction is appropriate. Should you be deeply hurt or angered because someone disagrees with your politics or religion? Sometimes our emotions get hooked when they shouldn’t. Check your perspective. In the long run, which is more important: the relationship or the current hot topic?

To be fair, sometimes these emotions are fueled by the constant drip of adrenaline that comes from 24-hour news and other divisive sources. After too many years, I have grown tired of this emotional roller coaster and skeptical of the people at the controls. The truth is that you have the power to choose where your emotions are planted.

Making N.I.C.E.

We are not nit-picking, which we defined earlier as finding fault without pursuing improvement. We are de-lousing. To keep relationships and families from breaking we need to get rid of these destructive parasites. Here are some NICE new habits you can use to replace the LICE.

N – Need – Admit that you need relationships. We need each other. We need to be known. People matter more than the issues that divide us. Shallow, surface connections can’t meet the deeper needs of the heart. In the DNA of Relationships, Dr. Gary Smalley wrote:

Life is relationships; the rest is just details…Choose life. And be prepared to take personal responsibility to make the decisions that can keep joy, peace, and satisfaction flowing into your relationships.

I – Inquire – When there are differences, you have more options than just ignoring or arguing. A stellar choice is to ask your friend about their thoughts and feelings. What makes this issue important to them? How did they reach the position they now hold? Get the back story. This adds value and depth to your relationship rather than stress.

C – Communicate – Keep talking. Don’t shut people out of your life because of a difference of opinion. It’s not as hard as you think to say:

You are more important to me than this issue. I don’t want to damage or lose our relationship.

E – Empathize – You may not feel the way they feel, or believe what they believe, but everyone is entitled to have feelings and opinions. Practice putting yourself in their shoes, with their history and life experience. Empathy is compassion, not agreement.

The funny thing about looking for bugs is that you tend to find them. I hope you take the time to look for and replace your LICE with something NICE.

____

About the Author: Jeannie Murphy is an emotional intelligence and relationship coach equipping adults with the people skills they need for personal and professional success. Happily married for 28 years, mother of three adventurous young adults, she is refilling her empty nest with four-legged friends.

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