A frequent belief that people have is that if we only had enough skill or the “right” attitude, we would never end any relationship. Indeed, I have had plenty of opportunities to hear people triumphantly present, as “proof” that Nonviolent Communication doesn’t work, the fact that “even” people with extensive NVC experience end relationships and go through breakups. In my view, learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is no guarantee for positive relationships. Moreover, I don’t consider ending a relationship to be a “failure” as some do. More important to me than whether people maintain relationships or bring them to closure is the question of how they reach those decisions and how they relate to each other while making them.
Why Getting along Is Tricky
One of the essential insights that NVC presents is the distinction between our core needs and the strategies we employ for attending to our needs. Needs are finite and tend to be universal. I like to group them into four basic categories: subsistence and security, freedom, connection, and meaning. The current list that I like to use is slightly longer than a hundred. Strategies, on the other hand, are just about infinite. There are so many ways in which any of us can go about attempting to meet our need for meaning, for example; so many ways, varying by factors such as culture and location, that we recognize something as meeting our need for respect. Human variability, cultural norms, and getting along are all about strategies, not about needs.
Getting along is about ease in aligning strategies, it’s not about needs. If I look at myself as an example, I happen to often have strategies for getting my needs met that are different from most people around me, even though I have the exact same set of needs that others have. My preferred strategies are unlikely to change just because I am learning a different way of thinking and speaking. I can use my NVC skills to resolve conflicts but it doesn’t mean that conflicts won’t be there.
What the NVC lens does provide, however, is a way to make sense of what’s happening in a relationship, why we may or may not get along, and what we might want to do about it. To be clear, I am not referring only, or even primarily, to intimate relationships; I mean human relationships of all kinds, with co-workers, friends, housemates, clients, vendors, or neighbors. In each human relationship that we have, we get along with people easily when our strategies align, and run into conflict when they don’t. If we take to heart this deep insight about the distinction between the two, then we can embrace the conclusion that conflict is also about strategies, not about needs.
Embracing Conflict in Relationships
Since I started sharing the insights of NVC with others in 1996, I have been wondering what it is that makes it so challenging for people to choose to welcome conflict. I can think of at least three reasons. One is that we have, in general, so few skills for handling it, and so little experience of conflict serving its fundamental purpose: supporting both parties in learning how to make better solutions that work for everyone. A related second is that we have largely been trained to address conflict as a mini-war in which there are winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. We tend to polarize and see one or the other of us as being at fault. On a deeper level, I have a sense that one of the pieces that comes into play is not about who the individuals are but about the social context in which we live. Fundamentally, we all live in society where human needs are more often not met than met, especially in our early years. We grow up, most of us, deprived around the fundamental longing to have our needs met, at least attended to and taken seriously. That makes most of us very non-resilient, in that having an experience of unmet needs can be very distressing for us. We all bring this lack of resilience with us to all our relationships, which makes it harder to get along because it’s harder to navigate differences in strategies, an essential feature of conflict.
If we are to have relationships that work, I see it as crucial for us to learn how to be in conflict productively. Absolutely core to this capacity is learning to change our relationship with the experience of unmet needs, so that we can remain present, pliable, and resilient when someone we are in relationship with wants us to do something we don’t want to do, says “no” to what we ask of them, or more generally does things we don’t like. I learned early on that our nonviolence is tested when our needs are not met. We can all be peaceful and loving when everything works exactly the way we want. In that sense, our capacity to engage in conflict largely depends on doing inner work, not on learning so many interpersonal skills.
Why and How Would We End a Relationship?
If conflicts can be beneficial, if our needs are fundamentally not at odds with each other, if we can grow stronger in our capacity to handle differences in strategies, why would we ever choose to end a relationship? I can see the appeal of this question, and why so many of us still somewhere believe that ending a relationship is a kind of failure except in situations such as domestic violence or workplace harassment.
Nonetheless, I still want us to have complete choice in the matter, and see a path to making that choice that is fully consistent with care for self and other. We are finite creatures, with finite resources, and I want to have choice about what I do with my resources. Just because I happen to be in a relationship of any kind with someone, doesn’t mean that I have to continue to do so regardless of the investment of resources in it. Because of the kind of work I do, I meet and form relationships with many more people than most. I am continually challenged to choose and re-choose which of them I can sustain. When any of these relationships becomes challenging, all the more so. Given that I operate in ways that are often different from many other people, I find myself in challenging relationships more often than I would ever want anyone to experience. The question arises for me frequently.
It is especially demanding for me, in part, because I do have the capacity to engage in conflict, and because I do know that conflict and challenge are opportunities for learning and for the possibility of greater closeness. I remember a time, years before either one of us knew about NVC, that I asked one of my sisters for support when I was agonizing about an intimate relationship that was full of strife. She comforted me and made it possible for me to leave at peace by reminding me that even though I was still learning, there would be other learning in other relationships.
I now know that I can choose how much challenge I want to have in my life or in any one relationship, and what kind of learning is most suited for where I am in life.
What about the Other Person?
By habit, when we talk about why we are ending a relationship of any kind, we are likely to explain it in terms of who and what the other person is: they are too demanding, too manipulative, impossible to work things out with, narcissistic, or any other favorite characterization that we might pick. I no longer do that. I believe I have fully integrated the belief that it’s never about the other person; it’s always about my own skill, capacity, and preference. This, to me, is key to ending relationships with care and integrity.
Just as much as I want to take responsibility, to the best of my inner ability, for tending the relationship, I want to take responsibility when ending it. I want to be able to tell the other person, and mean it, that I have reached my own limit rather than that there is anything wrong with them. Recently, for example, I have chosen to end interactions with someone on a temporary basis, and I knew it was all and only because I didn’t know how I could recover fast enough from my own reactions to this person’s behavior to be able to respond in the way I would most want. Was this person able to hear the absence of blame in that way of framing it? I don’t know, and I doubt it. What I do know is that I did my own inner work with great discipline to where I know there is no blame there. What remains to be seen is whether I can extend that inner discipline so that moment by moment I can transcend the experience of getting lost in helplessness and overwhelm in response to the anger and hostility I interpret as being directed at me. I want to be able to open my heart wide enough that I can literally hear the needs and pain behind the particular form of speech that I experience, and I am not quite there yet.
Could the other person work on changing how they interact with me? Absolutely. However, if this is not something they choose to do, it still remains my responsibility to choose how I want to respond, and I know I want to choose open-heartedness and not blame. What I am still evaluating is precisely that question about what there is for me to learn, still, and how much challenge I want to have in my life. The full, vibrant humanity of this other person is not in question.
This, to me, is the challenge of ending relationships well. It’s about finding a way to do it such that I hold complete tenderness in my heart for the other person, an understanding, based on a core NVC principle I practice, that their actions are invariably an expression of their own needs, however unskillfully or unconsciously their choice might be done. I also want to hold equal or more tenderness for me, so that I can accept my own choice without blaming myself for not being strong enough, resilient enough, or anything enough to make it work. I want to remember, for both of us, that sometimes more needs can be met when two people are apart than together.