“Why Do We Keep Fighting?!”

Can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t change: 4 guesses about the source of any conflict

Pick a fight, any fight – any protracted hassle you’re having with anyone about whatever wherever. Stepping back from the details, you’ll find that you’re torn between three interpretations of what’s causing it:

  1. They can’t do what you ask of them: It’s just not in them. They don’t have the wherewithal. Maybe they can’t understand what you’re saying. Maybe they can understand but can’t change to accommodate you. One way or another, you’re flogging a dead horse. They should change and would if they could, but they just aren’t capable.
  2. They won’t do what you ask of them:They could change and should, but are unwilling. It’s just not worth it to them. They’re indulging your patience. They’ll just keep doing it their way even though should stop because it’s causing you all sorts of harm.
  3. They shouldn’t do what you ask of them:They could and would change but there’s no reason that they should. They’re not incapable or immoral, they just have different standards than yours.

These three interpretations of a conflict motivate three opposing response. They go by many names, but basically boil down to accommodate, resist, or leave:

  1. If they should and would but can’t change, accommodate them within the relationship.
  2. If they can and should but won’t change, push them to change within the relationship.
  3. If they can and would, but shouldn’t change, make space between you. Live and let live elsewhere.

The serenity prayer captures any two of these three options, depending on how you slice it:

  1. About their standards:The serenity to accommodate them vs. the courage to change them.
  2. About your standards: The serenity to accept your standards as unchangeable and therefore to try to change them, vs. the courage to change your standards to accept them.
  3. About the relationship overall: The serenity to accept the relationship as unacceptably unchangeable and therefore leave it, vs. the courage to try to improve the relationships so you don’t have to leave it.

Rewriting the serenity prayer to reflect all three options, we might say:

Grant me the serenity to accept that they can change, the courage to change them if they won’t change, the willingness to leave if they shouldn’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

We quest for the wisdom because the options for how to respond are opposites. You can’t employ them all at once. Think about it: Within a relationship, if you decide to accommodate someone who can’t change, you have to overlook what bothers you about them, but if you’re going to try to change them, you have to attend to what bothers you about them. You can’t simultaneously attend to and ignore something. Likewise, if you’re going to try to make it work within the relationship either by attending to or ignoring what doesn’t work, you have to stay motivated to make the relationship work, but if instead, you’re going to leave, you have to demotivate yourself, letting go of your efforts to make the relationship work.

No wonder we get so agitated in conflicts. Conflicts motivate us in opposite directions: attend vs. ignore within the relationship, invest in vs. divest from the relationship.

The three options go by various names. In politics, they’re called Exit, voice and loyalty. If you have trouble with your government, you can exit the country, you can voice your opposition or you can accommodate it, loyally accepting what you can’t change – my country right or wrong.

In biology, they’re three of the Four F’s: Fight, flight and fear (the fourth one is jokingly referred to as sex rather than the more vulgar F).

Fight is assert yourself, flight is leave, and fear is accommodate, for example. a dog bowing its head to show fearful deference to the dominant dog.

If all of this sounds a bit abstract, let’s try a few examples, demonstrating the range of applications.

Your partner has a habit that drives you crazy. You think, maybe you’re over-reacting. You should just accept it. But then sometimes you think no, this is really not working for you and you’ve got to do more to try to get your partner to change the habit. And sometimes you think no, this is ridiculous. Your partner isn’t going to change and you’re never going to be able to accept it either – time to break up chalking it up to irreconcilable differences.

Your kid keeps doing the wrong thing. Sometimes you think, “relax, they’ll grow out of it, and you’re only making things worse by hassling them about it.” Sometimes, you think, “this will not stand. It’s my responsibility to set them straight. As for exiting – not really an acceptable option, but sometimes you buy it when your kid says, “Look, I’m just marching to a different drummer. It’s the generation gap. Let me live my life the way I want to.”

Your business partner, employee or employer does stuff that bothers you. You try to figure out whether to let it slide, call it out or end the collaboration.

And the same goes for large-scale provocations – your government or opposition party is moving in directions that concern you. You try to figure out whether to confront, accept or leave them. Likewise, between governments, as with very large-scale provocations like what’s been happening in Syria or the China sea. Should the US respond and if so, how?

There’s plenty of advice available suggesting (incorrectly) that there’s one always-right solution:

  1. Accept:You can’t change anyone. All you can do is change your attitude. Don’t be attached. Go with the flow. Live by the golden rule and accommodate everyone. If you give an inch, others will always reciprocate and we can live in harmony.
  2. Resist:Always, stand your ground. Don’t let anyone control you. Fight for what you think is right. If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile. Never give in. No compromise!
  3. Leave:Don’t put up with people who give you a hard time. Vote with your feet. Don’t fight with a pig, you’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it. Live and let live and if someone is making it hard to live with them, live elsewhere. Emancipate yourself. March to your own drummer and don’t let yourself become dependent on anyone.

Remember the old joke: There are three kinds of economists, those who can count, and those who can’t.

You might have noticed that I said there are four options and I’ve only mentioned three.

In addition to can’t, won’t and shouldn’t, there’s didn’t.  If you do leave, you no longer have to feel torn between the three interpretations, all pointing to opposite responses. You can say “Whether they couldn’t, wouldn’t, or shouldn’t have changed is now moot. All I know is that they didn’t. We tried as hard as we could, to resolve the conflicts and for all our effort it just didn’t happen.” And hence, the fourth of the four F’s:

“F- it. I’ve moved on.”

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