si dawson

experiments in self-improvement

Category: communication

Tetris Relationships

There’s an amusing saying:

“If Tetris has taught me anything, it’s that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear.”

I don’t know a better quote for describing the effect of holding grudges.

Where this is particularly noticeable, and damaging, is in the area of relationships.

Everyone is growing. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is occasionally tired, thoughtless, distracted or careless.

Things happen and people get hurt – no matter how careful we are towards the person we love (see also: every parent ever).

This is a normal part of life, and to be expected.

Where it all gets messy is when our partner makes these mistakes and we choose to hang on to those mistakes instead of letting them go.

Eventually, this will kill any relationship. How can it possibly survive when every time we look at them our head and hearts are filled with the thousand awful things we remember them doing?

As always, it’s helpful to keep things simple. Make a choice:

Do you want to have a loving, happy relationship …

… or do you want your relationship to die?

I realise that sounds melodramatic and a prime example of either-or thinking, however on a long enough time scale, that’s your choice.

Of course, if you’re only in the relationship for the short term or you really don’t give a shit about the other person, then feel free to ignore everything I’m saying.

The thing is, if we don’t proactively choose to let go/heal/whatever the myriad of minor (and not so minor) bumps and scrapes that eventuate from any average relationship, then we are actively choosing to let the relationship die.

No one can sustain under that much pain. Eventually, the traumatic blocks stack up until they hit our ceiling and it’s game over for that relationship.

If we refuse to learn, if we refuse to let go of these blocks, these hurts, we’ll be doomed to live the same relationship over and over. Watching blocks build up, experiencing all that pain until eventually we’re forced, once again, to quit.

The other thing here is – much like Tetris, you have to keep working at this constantly. Couples counselling once a year or once a decade isn’t going to cut it. You have to get up every damn day with the intention of letting go of whatever pain comes up.

If we don’t let it go, we’ll be doomed to think about it again and again, letting that wound fester like a rotting abscess.

Every time we rethink about something that has wronged us, to some degree we are reliving that trauma. We’re strengthening the neural pathways. We’re making it worse for ourselves.

What may have been a fairly minor misunderstanding, after we’ve thought and rethought about it dozens or hundreds of times can expand into a soul crushing trauma of biblical proportions. How on earth can we be expected to remain loving towards someone with that kind of storm raging through us?

Plus, of course, much like Tetris, small hurts or mistakes lead to larger ones.

Why is this? Because we look at events through the filter of our minds. If we decide (for whatever reason) that a person is, say, untrustworthy, then everything they do will be viewed through that filter. Every little word and action will be judged and suspected. Grudges lead to judgement.

In short: once we have a belief, we use our brains to find data to validate that belief.

Now sure, some people are untrustworthy, that’s fine. But a lot of the time we paint people incredibly unfairly, simply because of some trauma or other that we’re carrying around. Half the time it really has nothing to do with them at all.

On top of that – this is someone we’re supposed to be in love with. Shouldn’t we be at least trying to be loving towards them? How can we do that if we’re harshly judging every little thing they do and say?

The key, of course, is not too get too carried away with our minds. Realise that it’s our belief that is making us “find” supporting evidence. Once we drop that belief, voila, most or all of that evidence will fall away with it. We’ll see that our prejudices have been colouring our observations. Our pain has been creating more pain around us.

The great thing is – when we knock out a grudge or limiting belief, it’s like knocking out a line in Tetris. Except it also ensures that it will (almost) never come back. When we heal the hurt that caused us to believe someone was untrustworthy, we will have learned that lesson. For a start, we’ll be able to accurately interpret their actions. Secondly, we’ll stop attracting seemingly untrustworthy people into our lives. We won’t need to; we’ve learned what we needed to learn, the universe can now move us on to our next lessons.

Best of all, unlike Tetris, the more we let go of the slower the blocks stack up. It’s a game which starts insanely hard and gets easier and easier the more we play.


    Assume People Are Good – For Your Sake, Not Theirs

    Before we even get into this, let’s do a thought experiment.

    Let’s pretend people are bad. They’re ignorant. They’re willfully nasty. They want to hurt you.

    So, say someone cuts you off in traffic. Why is that?

    • Because they’re selfish?
    • They don’t care if they kill you?
    • They’re rude?
    • They’re bad drivers?

    the list goes on.

    Now, how does that make you feel, experiencing that?

    1. Awful?
    2. Angry?
    3. Violent?
    4. All of the above?

    The truth is though – you have no proof of any of the above. It’s all assumption.

    And those assumptions have left you feeling crappy.

    Let’s look at this another way.

    Say you’ve just cut someone off, why did that happen?

    • You forgot to check your blind spot because you were distracted by work or the kids?
    • You were feeling crappy and not paying attention?
    • You were tired?
    • You just made an honest mistake?

    Notice how often we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt while assuming the worst in others.

    Of course, driving is only one example. We do this everywhere.

    Does our boyfriend actually hate us? Probably not. So why interpet what he says as if he does?

    It doesn’t help our relationship, and it makes us feel shitty.

    Are our workmates really conspiring against us? It’s highly unlikely.

    But when we’re suspicious we become moody, which makes people less likely to want to connect with us. Which may make them look like they’re conspiring, when really they’re just avoiding our crap. Hello! Self fulfilling prophecy!

    Really, we go around all day every day making assumptions about the behaviour of the people around us. Interpreting what we see to fill in gaps in our understanding of the world.

    So, if we’re going to make assumptions, why not make them in our favour?

    If instead of assuming people are bad (lazy, assholes, etc) we just assumed they were good, how would that work?

    • If we see them doing something wrong, we’ll assume they made a mistake
    • If they say something that could be interpreted as nasty, we’ll assume they just didn’t phrase it well
    • If something they say could be taken two ways, we’ll decide they meant the good way
    • If we see them not doing something, we won’t decide they’re lazy: just busy, or distracted, or forgetful

    All these things are more compassionate (which is always good), but here’s a more immediate benefit:

    They all make us feel better.

    And the bottom line is, who cares why they did something? Is that really any of our business? If we must know, we can always ask them. Radical, I know.

    In the meantime, we’ll just see the world as filled with fallible but well meaning humans.

    Good people.

    Much like ourselves.

    And all that anger and vitriol we generate when people don’t behave or talk the way we want them to will dissipate with it. After all, we’re not the boss of their lives; they are.

    It’s not our job to control or change the people around us, and the sooner we let go of thinking we need to, the happier we’ll be.

    We can start by adjusting one basic assumption and get more peaceful right away.




      The Four Horsemen Of The Relationship Apocalypse

      Many moons ago, I heard about a researcher who’d figured out how to predict with 94% accuracy whether a marriage would end in divorce.

      Needless to say, this immediately piqued my curiosity (not 93%, not 95%, but 94%? Turns out, it was actually 93.6%)

      I read a bit further, and his basic approach was this:

      1. He’d invite couples into his lab
      2. They would write down half a dozen issues they could never agree on
      3. He start a video camera
      4. He’d then pick an issue and they’d talk about it

      After 15 mins, he’d stop the camera, and almost universally the response would be “What?!? It can’t have been fifteen minutes. We only just got started.”

      See, what he realised was – in terms of relationship survival, it doesn’t really matter how we are when everything’s going well. What really matters, long term, is how we behave when things turn to shit.

      And the issues that would provide constant pressure throughout a relationship were those things that could never be resolved. Your mother is an ogre and makes his life a misery. He lives for football and you can’t stand it. You know, the basics.

      What Dr John Gottman discovered was that there were four attributes that indicated almost universal death for any relationship.

      He named these behaviours “The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse.”

      They are (in no particular order):



      This is easy to spot. If you’re stating a complaint in terms of an attack on the other person, or a defect in their personality? That’s criticism. Giving the other person negative trait attributes is not constructive, it just escalates the conflict.

      Here’s the secret: Telling people things that are shitty about them will never, ever make them change. It’ll make them hide those behaviours, or lie to you, or leave. Mostly though, it’ll just make them feel like crap.

      You really want them to change? Praise them when they do the opposite thing, the thing you actually want.

      The antidote to criticism is, if you have to raise an issue? Complain.

      A complaint is about a specific event. It’s aimed at the action, not the person – and the difference is critical. Criticism is global, about the person’s character or personality.



      Contempt is a bit more interesting. It turns out this is the single best predictor of divorce.

      Contempt covers anything which expresses disgust for your partner. Some examples: eye-rolling, sarcasm, name-calling, condescension, mockery and hostile humour (“You’re such an idiot”).

      The crazy thing? You can turn down the sound on a video of someone expressing contempt for their partner, and just count the contemptuous body language motions, and it will be an excellent predictor for how many infectious illnesses the receiving partner will experience in the next four years.

      Contempt doesn’t just kill your relationship, it quite literally kills the other person too.

      The antidote to contempt is appreciation. If you let everything else go in your relationship, and do nothing but appreciate the hell out of that person? That’ll fix almost anything. It’s incredibly powerful.

      (No huge surprise to long time readers of this blog, of course: Love heals? Whodda thunk it?)

      Here’s a great video on contempt:



      This is a knee-jerk response to criticism or complaint.

      It’s a way of saying “it’s not me, it’s you.”

      This is expressed through making excuses, shifting blame onto the other person, or denying responsibility. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack.

      The antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility (as ugly and difficult as that can be at times).



      Stonewalling is a tough one. This is where one person more or less completely ignores the other. They emotionally withdraw from interaction; refuse to acknowledge the other person exists, let alone talk about an issue, and so on.

      This generally only happens after a period of time, when one partner has “given up” or started to tune the other out completely.

      The antidote to stonewalling is (pretty obviously) to engage. Any communication, even painful and shitty, is better than no communication at all.

      Do I have anything more to add? Well Dr Gottman has spent forty years studying this stuff. His solutions (antidotes he likes to call them) are listed above in blue.

      He also recommends three things to avoid in any fight:

      1. Saying “You never…”
      2. Saying “You always…” (because these are both blanket condemnations)
      3. Anything insulting or acting superior

      Any of Dr Gottman’s videos are worth watching.

      Other than that? All the usual. Don’t communicate via text, if you can possible help it. Be patient. Say less than you think. Heal everything.

      Oh, and good luck. Take it one day at a time. Just try to be a little better today than you were yesterday. Over time, those little daily improvements add up to  disproportionately powerful outcomes.



        The Power Of Speech

        No, I’m not talking Martin Luther King type of speech (although that was pretty damn powerful), I’m just talking about regular old day-to-day speech.

        Pretty obviously, our actions are more powerful than words.

        Similarly, our words are more powerful than our thoughts.

        The problem is, for those of us who are of a *cough* slightly more loquacious nature, oftentimes our words are more or less exactly our thoughts.

        Now, I’m not quite in the “blurt before thinking” category, but I have, historically, talked a lot.

        Here’s where this is a problem.

        A lot of crap just doesn’t need to be talked about.

        Two examples from my experience:

        1. I’m in a relationship with someone, and something is bothering me.

        Why would I talk about it? To look for insight or emotional support; to try to resolve it, together; To try and subtly bully them into changing (dopey, I know); to get sympathy.

        2. To prove how difficult or painful my life is. Ie, how much I’m suffering.

        Why the hell would I do this? In short: looking for approval/love. I discovered I had a very deep pattern of using personal suffering to (try to) gain love & support.

        The thing is, in both these cases – I’m upset. As always, the issue is never the cause, it’s my reaction.

        In other words: rather than talking about it (and spreading our misery), it’s a lot more productive to get down to the root cause (almost never the person who’s standing in front of us) and get rid of that, not the seeming immediate stimulus.

        At Burning Man, there’s a saying: “You don’t always get what you want, but you always get what you need.”

        I’m starting to think this is exactly how life is all the time, not just out on the playa.

        Case in point.

        A friend recently called me out on exactly this situation. I was upset, and she pulled me up one day and said “Look, you can’t talk to me about this stuff.”

        At the time my immediate reaction was pretty negative, “What the hell? A friendship without emotional support?!?”

        The thing is, she was bang on the money.

        The message could perhaps have been phrased differently – but I’ve eventually heard and understood what she meant.

        All I was doing by talking about my internal emotional upheaval was making two people miserable, instead of just one.

        This is particularly silly given that for me, “misery” is usually extremely short lived – I pull out my tools, I dump the issue and ten minutes later I’m feeling great again (in the vast majority of cases).

        There’s a slightly more subtle issue too.

        If someone on TV says something offensive about you (“People who voted for him are idiots”), well, it’s pretty easy to discount.

        If, however, someone close to you – a partner or family member – says the exact same thing, it can really hurt.

        What’s the difference? The level of energetic openness and connection between you. By opening ourselves to someone, we choose to make ourselves vulnerable.

        The tradeoff (and why we do this) is, the more we open our hearts the deeper and richer the tapestry we can create together. The more beautiful the relationship has the chance of becoming.

        Either way, it’s a choice, and they’re vulnerable.

        So, saying nonloving things to someone who’s opened themselves to us causes far more pain than saying it to (say) a random stranger on the street.

        Why on earth would we consciously want to cause pain in someone we love?

        We should save our speech for adding value to the lives of those around us. Save it for being loving, supportive, encouraging.

        If it’s our crap, we should deal with it, not smear it around.

        As is so often the case, I more or less figured this out years ago.

        Some lessons, it would seem, need to be learned a couple of times from a couple of different angles before they really sink in.


          Why Relationships Die

          Relationships break up for many obvious reasons – physical, emotional or psychological violence. Alcohol or drugs. Distance. Infidelity. Money stress. Death. Or even simply growing apart – one partner grows, the other doesn’t.

          Under all this though, there’s one core reason most relationships die.

          It’s the same reason buildings rot away and collapse: Lack of regular care.

          Now, I’m not saying you should lacquer your partner every summer (unless that’s their thing of course), it’s a little more subtle than that.

          See, the reason relationships die is because of a gradual piling up of resentments.

          Resentments about what?

          Let’s step back a little first and I’ll explain.

          People come into our lives (ie, we have relationships with them) to help us grow.

          How do they do that? Well, usually by pissing us off.


          Because we attract people that reflect us; both our strengths and our weaknesses.

          So, they’re gonna rub up against those weaknesses, irritating us – just like a grain of sand in an oyster – and potentially with exactly the same outcome.

          When our frailties are exposed like this, letting it go can be easier said than done.

          Additionally, the closer someone is emotionally the more they’re able to influence us – for better or worse. This is why our family (particularly our parents) get under our skin so often.

          On top of all this, the basic experience of building a relationship with someone requires compromise and growth by both parties.

          So every time we have one of these natural little upsets we’re given a choice: hang on or let it go?

          • If you’re still bothered by something that happened a month ago, you’re collecting resentment.
          • If you’re fearful they’re going to behave as they have in the past, you’re collecting resentment.
          • If there’s things you wish they wouldn’t do any more, you’re collecting resentment.
          • If there’s things you wish they would do but don’t, you’re collecting resentment.

          What typically happens is that we happily burble along sharing our lives. All the while these resentments are slowly building up, until eventually it’s all too much and everything explodes.

          Depending on the temperaments involved, this may happen sooner or later.

          This is all a bit miserable, so what’s the solution?

          As I mentioned above: regular care.

          In terms of relationships rather than houses, we’re talking daily if not minute-by-minute care. A little bit often vs lots when desperation strikes.

          Couples often head off to marriage counselling in an attempt to repair twenty years of cumulative damage; this isn’t practical.

          Much simpler and easier is simply to commit to dumping everything that comes up, immediately.

          How do you do this?

          As with everything, you simply make a choice.

          What is more important – being loving to this person, or hanging on to this resentment?

          So often we self-justify feeling crappy “I’m allowed to be upset or angry, they hurt me!” – but really, why do this?

          Isn’t it better to feel good?

          And, after all, we love this person. Surely being unconditionally loving is better than only loving them if they behave exactly how we want. For a start, that’s trying to control them. Secondly, we never feel better than when we’re being completely loving, regardless of their behaviour.

          If we let go of the resentment as soon as it happens, we shift quickly back into feeling loving and feeling great again.

          The more we let go of, the better we feel. Not only that, but the easier it is to love that person. The deeper our love together grows.

          Essentially, we have a choice:

          1. We can hang on to our resentments until things inevitably explode
          2. We can choose to let go of everything as soon as it comes up

          Or, put another way:

          1. We can feel crappier and crappier until we can’t stand to be around them
          2. We can feel better and better until our love together is burning hotter than the sun

          Seems a little silly to even have to choose, but you know, free will. Yadda yadda yadda.

          So how do we let go of stuff? Well, all the usual ways I’ve talked about endlessly.

          In general though, the simplest way is to keep all of your attention on loving the hell out of them. Don’t leave any free to focus on whatever-it-is. Constantly pull your attention back to pouring love out of your heart and into theirs. Let everything else go. Whatever they’re doing, whatever they’re saying, you’re going to be 100% loving, all your energy unreservedly embracing them.

          Here’s the funny thing with all this.

          When you’re truly in that space, letting go as soon as anything comes up?

          Whatever it is that is happening doesn’t have a chance to hurt you. Not even slightly.

          I’ve been in situations, with someone I cared about enormously, where they were saying the most vile, violent things to me (they had their own shit going on at the time) – and because I was so focused on loving them, what they said didn’t even connect. There was absolutely zero pain or damage from it, even later.

          Not a great thing to have happen maybe, but a damn good learning experience. Particularly in terms of reminding me – our behaviour is always our choice.

          She chose to be hateful. I chose to be loving. As a result, I came out of it feeling like a million bucks. How is that even possible? I don’t know, but it sure as hell works.

          Of course, the usual caveats apply. Being loving doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. Eg, if I’d loved and respected myself more, I wouldn’t have put myself in the above situation in the first place.

          If only one party is loving, then the other person will continue to pile up resentments (with the inevitable conclusion). Obviously, the optimal solution is if both of you make this choice. If only you do then at least you’ll feel great, even if they choose to feel crappy.

          Loving the hell out of each other doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be together forever. However, when you’re in that loving place, you can make the optimal choice for both of you. If it’s the right choice, you can end things in a loving way, without an ugly death.

          All the junk that normally buffets you around is absent, freeing you to do what’s best for both of you.

          Being loving means making loving decisions. For you. For them.

          It also beats the hell out of some bullshit resentment from months or years ago making those decisions for us – killing our relationships without us having any say whatsoever.