“I love my partner but they really get on my nerves.”
“I want to spend time together but you’re so preoccupied with work.”
How did it feel to read those two sentences? If you read them again as though you’re the one saying them, chances are you’ll feel some tension. In each sentence, two opposite perspectives are in conflict with one another — In the first, two internal perspectives, and in the second, the perspectives of two different people. When we’re faced with opposites like this, our tendency is to grip tightly to the position we think is true. In relationships, we make ourselves right and the other person wrong. Internally, we might flip back and forth between which perspective is right, or we might do all kinds of unhelpful things to avoid the discomfort of the conflicting perspectives in the first place.
One way out of these battles is to take a dialectical approach. A dialectical approach recognizes that two seemingly opposite perspectives can be true at the same time. It’s like the cartoon below. From where each person is standing their perspective is true; both are right and neither are wrong.
The dialectical approach offers us a path toward solutions by dissolving either/or thinking. When one person or perspective no longer needs to be the only right one, we can work toward reconciling what appear at first to be incompatible opposites. We move from either/or to both/and thinking by accepting that more than one perspective can be true at the same time. From here, we can decide how to approach the situation in a way that accounts and allows for all of those perspectives, rather than fighting our way through it.
All of this can start with simply swapping one word: “but”. “But” sets us up for either/or thinking. It hints at conflict. It suggests that only one idea can be true. If you use “and” instead of “but”, you’ll likely find that feels a lot softer. Try it out with the sentences from before…
“I love my partner AND they really get on my nerves.”
“I want to spend time together AND you’re so preoccupied with work.”
Notice how the antagonism has softened? It might still be uncomfortable to hold both perspectives as true, but the implicit fight for the title of “the only right one” is gone. There is also more space for solutions in this set of sentences. If you both love your partner and feel annoyed by them at times, maybe you can negotiate a balance between time alone and time together. If you want to spend time with someone and they want to spend time on work, maybe you can plan something for a time when you can both be fully present.
So “and” is the secret sauce. It’s the first step out of the battle to be right in our relationships, and the first step out of internal conflict. It’s one small word that makes a world of difference.