After the stress of Glacier Bay and its resident grizzly bears, we had 5 low-key days planned in Whitehorse. Five lovely days to rest, relax and recover. Or so we thought. After settling in to our hostel, we decided to go the grocery store. On the road and in the backcountry, our diet consisted of lots of bread, peanut butter, oatmeal and dehydrated meals. So we were pretty thrilled about having a full kitchen at our disposal, and a store stocked with all the fresh produce we could want.
With much excitement, we entered Superstore and started haphazardly grabbing fruits, veggies and other delightful fresh items. Then we got to the hummus section (cue ominous music).
Lisa: Roasted garlic hummus?
Bryan: Let’s get normal hummus. [Grabs family sized container of plain hummus]
Lisa: Why do we always have to do things your way?
Bryan: I am sick of garlic hummus.
Lisa: You never listen to me.
Bryan: Yes I do.
Bryan: [Points to a container of tzatziki] How about tzatziki?
Lisa: Hummus is fine. But I guess we could do tzatziki. We could use it on sandwiches too.
Bryan: Ah yeah, tzatziki doesn’t have the same substance and fibre as hummus. So we should get hummus.
Lisa: No, I just said we could get tzatziki!
Bryan: I was just talking out loud about the tzatziki and saying what I thought you were thinking about it. I am fine with hummus. I just want hummus!
Lisa: You never listen to me! Why don’t you ever listen to me?
And then it got uglier. We are sure you can imagine how it went. By the time we left the grocery store, we were both fuming over hundreds of imagined slights and insults.
As we drove back to the hostel we talked about what had happened. Both of us were shaken by the intensity of the fight, especially over such a seemingly insignificant topic. How had we managed to get along well in the midst of Glacier Bay, which was objectively a much more stressful scenario, but could not make a simple decision together about what type of hummus to buy?
As we talked through the disagreement, we realized it wasn’t really about hummus at all. Since we left Edmonton over a month prior, we had been together 24/7, and had made absolutely every little decision together. Everything – from what type of bagels to buy, to when to boil water for our dehydrated dinners, to our minute-by-minute plans for any given day – had to be negotiated and agreed upon. Everything. Fortunately, there was a rather simple solution to this issue: some decisions that we were currently making together (and fighting over) could reasonably be made individually. For example, we could very well each buy different things to eat for some of our meals. We could also split up and spend a few hours apart, especially now that we weren’t under the constant threat of a grizzly bear attack.
We resolved to make these changes, hoping it would fix things. The next day, which was our “day apart to fix everything,” Bryan drove Lisa to the Yukon Beringia museum, an interesting place about prehistoric Yukon. While Lisa went through the museum, Bryan sat outside and sorted through photos. Then on the way back to the hostel, Lisa suggested we grab some video of us driving in to Whitehorse. Bryan hesitantly agreed. So we pulled over by the “Welcome to Whitehorse” sign and talked about what we wanted to do.
Bryan had a very specific vision in his mind, and was quite firmly set on it. Lisa on the side of the road with a camera, Bryan driving the car past the sign, and Lisa following the car and getting some footage of said event. Lisa suggested putting the GoPro on top of the car and getting footage of what we saw driving the car into Whitehorse. Bryan immediately dismissed her idea. Lisa got mad. Our day apart to fix everything fell apart in a matter of seconds, and we were back to fighting.
Once we got back to the hostel, we had another conversation. What was going on? What could be so broken that we could not stop fighting, even on our specified day of non-fighting??
We talked through things and came to a number of important realizations:
- Bryan often dismissed Lisa’s ideas without explaining why. In his head he had his own reasons, but he often would not share them with Lisa.
- Lisa wanted her ideas given due consideration rather than being dismissed outright. It was OK if Bryan disagreed, as long as he at least considered her suggestion, and could offer some rationale for his own opinion. But when he just disagreed seemingly automatically with no explanation, it drove her CRAZY.
- Bryan thought that Lisa was mean to him when she was mad, but that he was not mean to her. He learned that every time he dismissed one of her ideas outright, he was being mean to her. So they were both being mean in different ways.
- Fighting in and of itself was not a bad thing. It was a way of resolving underlying conflict that may have been building up for quite awhile.
- If we wanted to survive the next year of travelling together, we would need to allow for some separate, autonomous decision-making where possible.
Out of this, we each made a commitment to improve our relationship by changing some key behaviours. This is what we committed to:
- Bryan: don’t dismiss Lisa’s ideas outright. Consider, talk through them and give good reasons. Avoid being condescending.
- Lisa: don’t assume the worst about Bryan’s intentions. Give feedback (note: not criticism or insults) in the moment rather than letting resentments build.
Remember the ladder of inference? Thinking of these things through the lens of the ladder, Bryan was going up his ladder without explaining his thought process to Lisa. So, she only knew his conclusion, without understanding the reasons behind it. This left her going up her own ladder to fill in the gaps, drawing her own conclusions about Bryan’s intentions.
So, examine our own thought processes and explain them to each other? Challenge our own assumptions? Easy peasy, right? Well, we’ll see.