Dear Navigator, I am in a relationship with someone I would describe as "touchy-feely." He knows a lot of women through his charity work for a local women's organization. He often greets them with full-body hugs that are longer-lasting than I am comfortable with. He hugs all women this way -- young, old, attractive, unattractive. He is very popular with them, in fact, some of them have told me that I am very lucky to have him, which concerns me. Is there anything I can do? (revision 2.2)
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Some of the most challenging conflicts are those that exist in grey areas. What constitutes a proper hug? Is it the closeness of the hug, the duration, or other signals such as facial expressions or eye contact?
Okay, let's say that I was in this situation -- my mate is regularly giving full-body hugs to men I suspect are interested in her. What would I do?
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Here are some questions I would first ask myself:
* Are we clear about the purpose of our relationship? <div class='answer'>Maybe my mate does not see the relationship the same way I do? Many counterproductive behaviors make sense when viewed from a short-term and individual perspective. It is therefore important that my mate and I get clear about the purpose of the relationship. Throughout Navigating Love, I encourage couples to build a long-term and mutually-fulfilling relationship.</div>
* Is this situation a deal breaker (i.e. does this issue have the power to create Visible Resentment if left unresolved)? <div class='answer'>If this issue is not a deal breaker, is it worth raising? In my experience, many of the serious arguments I've found myself in happened during the conflict resolution process itself -- Someone speaks carelessly, says something they don't mean, expresses a genuine concern the "wrong" way or cracks a clever "joke", triggering a misunderstanding followed by an argument full of words that can't be taken back. If something needs to be said, I will say it, but I think very carefully before doing so.</div>
* Am I clear about the real problem here? <div class='answer'>Maybe the problem is a specific person or a group of people I believe are a threat to my relationship? Maybe the real problem is an unresolved conflict in our relationship that has left me feeling particularly vulnerable?</div>
* Have my mate and I ever directly discussed my perception? Have we ever talked about how her actions (or lack of action) make me feel? <div class='answer'>It is important to have direct conversations. Although some issues seem so obvious that a discussion is unnecessary, I am often amazed by the innocent misunderstandings that occur in relationships. Perhaps we are having this issue because my mate did not realize how important this was to me or she was told, but simply forgot? Perhaps she considered my perspective more in the past, but seems thoughtless now because she is not feeling well or has something else on her mind like a work related emergency or a family situation? Having direct conversations has the added benefit of preventing my mate from claiming ignorance. In Navigating Love, I refer to Plausible Deniability as a "get-out-of-jail free card" because it is a powerful way to end losing arguments. I used to think that phrases like "I didn't know" and "how was I supposed to know?" were rarely spoken in relationships, but over the years I've discovered that they can be used pretty often. In my experience, the only way to combat these phrases (or combat me second guessing myself when they are used) is by making myself more clear.</div>
* If this issue is a Deal Breaker, does my mate understand that? A Deal Breaker is more than a conflict I believe is "very important" -- A deal breaker is a conflict worth parting ways over if it cannot be resolved in a way that works for me.
* Do I feel any pressure to get my mate to see things my way? <div class='answer'>If I am attached to a specific outcome, it can be difficult to love my mate for who they are. Trying to make someone be someone they are not is a common source of resentment. If I love myself, I am never so attached to a outcome that my attachment has the power to create resentment in me.</div>
* Do I see this as a decency, fairness, love, loyalty, or respect issue? <div class='answer'>It may very well be, but expressing conflicts in these ways will likely make my mate defensive and mask the the central issue -- my unmet expectations.</div>
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It is said that we dislike in others that which we dislike in ourselves. Could that apply to this situation?
* Perhaps my mate's hugs seem inappropriate because they are more intimate (in my opinion) than the hugs my mate and I share? It may be that my displeasure with those hugs is a reflection of something lacking in the relationship. I should share this observation with my mate.
* Perhaps I dislike the way she hugs others, because I fear I will have to deal with the advances of others in the future. I should express this concern or I should learn how to calm those fears.
* Perhaps dealing with a similar situation in the past has made me overly sensitive to it? Perhaps I should work to resolve that sensitivity.
* Perhaps my concerns stem from an inability to see my mate's perspective? I should learn to be more empathetic and see the platonic side of hugging, so I no longer get so worked up about it.
* Perhaps I dislike this situation because I've constructed a web of beliefs about it? I should work to deconstruct that web.
* Perhaps I dislike this situation because I have unrealistic expectations about how the world is supposed to work. I should get my expectations in order.
That being said, this truism can also be used a diversion tactic -- a way to counter-argue legitimate concerns. Self reflection will help me figure out if that is the case here.
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It is possible that my mate is totally to blame for this situation. Before I assume that however, I should reflect on how I might be contributing to this outcome:
* I am insecure? <div class='answer'>I would get clear about the value I bring to the relationship. If my mate is interacting with adventurous, financially successful, physically attractive, sensitive, well-dressed men it is very likely (almost reasonable) that I would be insecure -- especially if I brought none of those things to the relationship. I would use my insecurity as an opportunity to look for reasonable improvements I can make in my life.</div>
* Am I projecting my world view onto my mate? Perhaps I view my mate's actions as "inappropriate" because of my beliefs about what her actions mean? Perhaps I've learned to believe that my way of doing things is the "right" way and I look down on her because she behaves differently than I do? <div class='answer'>Unless my mate's actions are universally frowned upon (adultery, physical harm, theft, etc.), I would shift the focus from my mate's behavior to my expectations. This does not make my concerns less valid -- it makes them more clear. In the process, she has an opportunity to ask questions or challenge those expectations. By understanding where my expectations came from, she might come up with alternate expectations or a better way of achieving them than we could have otherwise.</div>
* Has our relationship become too complicated? Maybe the hugs reflect an appreciation for simple relationships, free from all of the rules and responsibilities you've created over time? <div class='answer'>I would look for routines that need to be updated. Maybe we need more outside activities or new games to play? Maybe we can simplify time-consuming activities or outsource them?</div>
* Does my mate's behavior bother me because it is happening in front of me? <div class='answer'>If I trust my mate, but I am uncomfortable witnessing it first hand, I would avoid situations where it is likely to occur.</div>
* Maybe what I am asking for sounds difficult for my mate to do? <div class='answer'>I would ask my mate to repeat back to me what she thinks my expectations are and tell me what she thinks she will have to do to live up to them.</div>
* Maybe what I am asking for seems unfair given the relative value I bring to the relationship? <div class='answer'>It is possible that my mate perceives her contribution to the relationship to far exceed mine, making me seem ungrateful or making my request seem unfair. Some people use the authority granted to them by being in the relationship to make selfish demands. They defend such requests using truisms such as "love doesn't keep score" and "love has no limits." As beautiful as it would be to hold these beliefs, imbalances have the power to create resentment. I would ask myself then ask my mate if my request seems fair and (using the safe space we've build over our time together) encourage her to tell the truth.</div>
* Did I do something to encourage my mate to behave this way? <div class='answer'>Her actions may be in response to something I did in the past -- perhaps something so small that she is not consciously aware of it -- she may be annoyed with me, but not know exactly why. I would brainstorm possible past situations with her. This may seem counter intuitive to people, because the hidden goal in many arguments is to avoid fault. My goal is a long-term mutually-fulfilling relationship, thus the quicker we resolve past problems the better.</div>
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If I've taken a hard look at myself and I am still bothered by this situation, then a talk is in order. If these hugs happen on a regular basis, I would wait until one happened (if possible) and in private, I would say "Can I ask you something? When you hug people, something about the way they hold you makes me uncomfortable. Are full body hugs important to you?"
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I would try to empathize with my mate -- I might say something like "Please understand that I am not saying that you've done anything wrong. Something about those hugs is triggering strong emotions in me. What do you think?"
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It is critically important to me that my mate's actions not be coerced -- I want to make my concerns clear without demonizing her or guilt tripping her into agreeing with me. Coercion has the power to create resentment, which is not good for the long term health of our relationship. Inevitably, that resentment will be directed towards me if allowed to persist long enough. Coercion also hinders my ability to understand my mate's true beliefs and feelings.
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One way to reduce my mate's defensiveness is by shifting the focus away from my mate's actions. It is logical to wonder what what else there is to talk about if I believe my mate's actions are the problem? In my experience, focusing on my expectations is the best plan:
* It's hard to point out a person's undesirable behaviors without them feeling judged and taking it personally.
* Focusing on another person's behavior requires that we speak about something we are generally ignorant about -- another person. Generally speaking, we do not know that another person is thinking, what their goals are, what their fears are, and what outside forces are at play.
* When the focus is on my mate's behavior, it is hard to argue without demonizing that behavior for two reasons: On one hand, convincing my mate that her actions are the problem can make me appear objective. On the other hand, failing to convince my mate that her actions are the problem makes the argument feel petty which gives my mate a wide array of counterattacks she can use against me.
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Navigating Love is a structured approach to conflict resolution. Unfortunately there are many negative beliefs around the idea of structure -- Let's examine a few of them:
* We all express ourselves differently. No form of self expression is better than any other
* Love has no rules <div class='answer'>Rules/agreements help groups of people operate effectively. Relationships are simply groups of two. There are many unwritten rules in relationships -- Rules about sleeping with people outside the relationship, rules about honesty. An argument against rules is effectively an argument in favor of suffering. A sad fact is that we seek freedom in our relationships then use that freedom to (inadvertently) hurt each other. The belief that love has no rules undermines the incentive (and hinders our ability to) create any, almost ensuring that none will exist when we need them most. Attempting to create rules as we go makes it likely that we will argue about the rules and the rule-making process make things worse.</div>
* Don't sweat the small stuff <div class='answer'>This makes sense intuitively, but generally fails in practice because we lack a strong definition of the word small. Without this definition, couples end up spending a lot of time in arguments over the size of conflicts -- arguments that often make things worse. In Navigating Love, I define a "small conflict" as one that "will not lead to resentment." With this definition the perceived size of a conflict is irrelevant. With this definition we can focus our attention on the conflict resolution process itself.</div>
(c) 2016, Malik Spencer. This will be part of a new book "Dear Navigator" -- Please do not distribute."