Sonika and I enjoy a good series as much as the next binge watcher. Given our profession, it’s perhaps not surprising that we like shows where human relationships are front and center, such as This Is Us and A Million Little Things.
But it’s also hard watching series. Being relationship coaches, we know too much! The protagonists are often so bad at relationships. Where normal binge watchers might scream, “Just kiss each other already!” at the couple on the screen, we’re more likely to yell, “OMG, can’t you see you’re making up unproductive stories and negating your partner’s reality?”
Lately we’ve been watching the show Virgin River on Netflix (SPOILER ALERT: We’ve watched up till Season 3, Episode 7 and I’ll be referring to events from the show).
Even if you haven’t seen the show, not to worry. The conflicts and relationship breakdowns are easily recognizable from hundreds of other shows and perhaps from your own relationship.
I’ll give a very brief recap of the Virgin River plot, and I promise I’ll make it relevant for a relationship-centered blog (hint: it’s about how we deal with conflicts and disagreements).
In the show, Mel, a big-city ER nurse moves to the little mountain town of Virgin River for a nursing position (supposedly in Humboldt County CA, complete with a prolific pot growing industry). She’s nursing her own tragic losses, trying to get away from it all. Virgin River has one restaurant, owned by Iraq vet Jack, and it doesn’t take long before romantic banter and sizzling sparks are flying between the two.
Sometime in season 2, Mel and Jack finally get together and start a real relationship (what took them so long!? They clearly belong together.) Granted, it’s not all honeymoon. In the span of a few months, Jack gets shot by a local drug kingpin and almost dies, his house burns down, and he’s having twins with his snippy ex. But on the bright side, his house burning down finally provided the impetus for Jack and Mel to live together in her house, an adorable-perfect cabin with a private lake (what took them so long!? They’re perfect for each other:-)
By mid-Season 3, Mel and Jack have a serious relationship and they’re really good together. They’re gracious with mistakes and quick to apologize when they say the wrong thing (which happens A LOT … does no one take communication skills courses?). They clearly love each other. But there’s a brewing conflict, and this is where it becomes relevant for everyday relationships like yours or mine.
Mel has worked through her past losses enough to embrace that she does indeed want to be a mom (we all saw that one coming). Jack, as mentioned, is having twins and may need to enter a lengthy court battle with his ex and her douchebag boyfriend. So he’s a bit hesitant about trying for another baby with Mel.
SPOILER ALERT COMING UP (this is your last chance to turn around).
Much to the shock of us binge watchers, just as they’re finally living together, he breaks up with her! On the very same evening she’s surprising him with tickets to Maui for their first-ever trip together. He just drops the bomb on her with no warning! (Jack, what were you thinking, dude! This is the love of your life.)
Why does he do it?
To protect her. To avoid breaking her heart later when he won’t be able to handle all his challenges and she won’t be able to have another baby with him. So in order to (maybe) not break her heart later, he crushes it today with certainty.
From his point of view, it’s the noble and considerate thing to do. Seeing as he’s having twins and (probably) having to fight a court battle while at the same time running his restaurant and rebuilding his burnt-down house, he concludes he won’t be able to make her happy and won’t be able to try for another baby with her. And since her loves her, he wants her to have her dream of starting a family, so he shouldn’t stand in her way, so he has to break up with her.
So goes his reasoning. Standing in his shoes, perhaps there is some logic to this thinking, but it still illustrates one of the most common failures in relationships, namely the failure to come up with win-win solutions.
Being in a marriage or long-term relationship, it’s inevitable that you’ll disagree and diverge on many issues. For example, whether to have a child or not. Or how to deal with your (difficult) ex and your kids from another marriage. Or where to live. Or how to deal with remodeling a house. Or … any other issue you’re not on the same page about.
Jack’s dramatic breakup illustrates a sad but common lack of imagination. In his mind, there are only two options: 1) He stays with Mel and then disappoints her and stands in her way of a family; or 2) He leaves her now, breaks both their hearts, but free her up to pursue another relationship with someone who’ll have a child with her.
Those are crappy options!
This faulty binary choice shows up over and over again when we coach couples. It’s showed up in our own marriage many times. We start off on opposing positions, and it seems that the only way to reach a conclusion is either my way or your way. There seems to be no other non-crappy solutions.
Equally common is the sense of urgency we often feel around impasses and disagreements. As if we have to come to a solution NOW, or else! Jack and Mel are in this false sense of urgency, too. Mel expressed her desire to have a child with Jack. Jack is not sure. There is no actual deadline or immediate pressure, but they still whip up a whole lot of artificial tension which builds to the point of the breakup.
As casual (relationship expert) viewers, it’s duh-evident that there are a gazillion better options than breaking up. It’s plain-as-day obvious that this decision does not have to be reached today, and that if they cooled their boosters a bit, they could talk, negotiate, support each other, get some help, and reach a workable solution (I mean, come on, we waited a whole season for them to get together, and now they’re splitting up again; this can’t be happening!)
But when conflicts happen in your own house, in your own relationship, none of this is obvious. When you get mad or hurt or anxious, all you want to do is decide something so the anxiety will subside.
Because it’s so difficult to reach win-win solutions in the face of disagreements, you often end up arguing about it or reaching premature solutions that you’re not both behind. A premature solution is a decision made before you reach agreement or mutual consent, or where one person says, “ok fine, whatever!” just to be done with it. When you go with the premature solution, it’s extremely likely that the underlying lack of alignment will resurface in the next conflict. When you say, “Ok fine, let’s be done with it”, you might be done in the moment, but you’re setting the stage for not being done at all.
The only sustainable and mutually empowering option is to figure out how to reach decisions that you can both support.
There is an art and a skill to this process. The process requires several elements, including …
- Helping both of you to feel heard, really heard.
- Including all relevant concerns in the discussion.
- Staying calm and clearheaded enough for an actual discussion (i.e. not getting hijacked by anger, fear, or hurt).
- Gaining clarity about your true motivations for wanting what you want.
- Seeing the issue from your partner’s point of view, with genuine curiosity.
- Finding the place of overlap between your desires/concerns and your partner’s.
- Brainstorming possible solutions, preferably many possible solutions.
If this is a relationship skill you’d like to have and use, we have designed a short “mini-workshop” for you. It’s called How To Create Win-Win Solutions. In the span of just 90 minutes, we’ll walk you and your partner through our step-by-step process to arrive at win-win solutions. Learn to reach agreement and win-win solutions here …
Don’t be like Mel and Jack who created (perhaps irreparable … oh no!) heartbreak because they couldn’t create a win-win. Trust us when we say there are ALWAYS other options than “yours” or “mine”. We just have to be a bit creative and use a few crucial communication tools.
(And if you have a direct line to Netflix’s producers, tell them to invite Mel and Jack to our mini-workshop. They really need it! They’re about to throw away a timeless love story. But then again, if they effectively and harmoniously reached decisions to tough issues without setting their relationship on fire, we might not watch it:-)