Relationships are like playing a sport with a teammate who is following a different playbook of rules. Furthermore, you are each constantly editing and changing your own playbook, and you don’t always act in accordance with your book. That leaves a lot of room for inconsistency and misunderstanding. You may be making a legal move according to your book, but according to his you now have a two-minute penalty. He may be making an illegal move by your book, but his book doesn’t even mention a rule for that class of behavior.

I will illustrate with an example. I once worked with a couple that struggled with such differences in perspective. Tom would sometimes get so caught up in what he was doing that he would end up being late a lot. Although he honestly intended to leave work at a certain time, but would get caught up in last minute projects. He was so caught up in what he was doing that he truly lost track of time, meaning that his mental attention was taken up by the task, and he had no conscious awareness of how long it was taking. For his wife, Donna, this felt like a deliberate act of disregard and inconsideration. She would never lose track of time. And she always would call in the unlikely event she’d be late. She could not imagine this happening accidentally, because it wouldn’t for her. So she interpreted his actions based on her playbook. By her book, one would only do this if the other activity (i.e., work) were a higher priority to him than she was.

One time, they went out for a romantic dinner. Over dinner, Donna raised the topic of the argument. For her, the only way to feel connected was first to discuss the issue, and feel like they were open and honest about it, so that it no longer stood between them. To ignore it would be to feel like she was being fake. Tom became very frustrated and distant. He could not understand why she would “ruin” their nice evening by bringing up the incident. For him, the best way to have fun with each other was to put the past behind them. The only reason he could imagine for her to bring up the incident was to hurt him while he was vulnerable and she had him as a ‘captive audience’ at dinner (which he accused her of doing), because that is what it would have meant if he had brought up something like that. Again, he was interpreting her behavior using his playbook.

In working with families, I have seen many such diametrically opposite ‘rules.’ In one family, the mother had to have the house clean BEFORE she could begin to feel relaxed and open to doing anything else. The father did not want to clean when he got home. He preferred to relax and hang out BEFORE he felt up to doing the chores.

The real irony in such conflicts is that no one is wrong, but everyone feels misunderstood and confused. Each person has their playbook, which inherently and unconsciously makes sense to them. You might not even know that you have such a rule until your teammate (family member) violates it. Often there is no ‘reason’ for a preference; it is simply how I prefer things, what feels natural. This is one of the fundamental challenges of being in a family. First, each family member has to recognize that the other is not simply being difficult, or stubborn, or inconsiderate, or superficial, or demanding, or any other such blaming assumption. They are playing by their book, just as you are. Their rules make as much sense to them. They are not seeking to disrespect your rules intentionally so much as they are simply living by their rules. Second, in order to achieve compromise, both will have to learn to play by other’s book some of the time, even though it is not how you would prefer to play.


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“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

-Simon & Garfunkel [i]

[i] From the Song The Boxer (1968)


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