Gentle Starts, Soft Landings

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The military readiness of America’s armed forces is described by the Defense Readiness Condition, better known as the DEFCON scale.

In 1959, as military and political leaders grew increasingly anxious about the potential dangers of the Cold War, it seemed wise to craft a system that would permit rapid and appropriate responses.  The scale goes from 5 to 1 – that is, from lowest risk of conflict to imminent war:

DEFCON 5: No immediate threats.  The U.S. and its allies are currently at this level, and have been for years. 

DEFCON 4: Intelligence sources are placed on high alert and special precautions are taken.  America has gone to this level on a number of occasions in the wake of global terrorist attacks.

DEFCON 3: Military forces go on standby and are prepared to mobilize, if necessary, within 15 minutes.  America has reached this level just three times: during the Yom Kippur War in Israel in 1973; a border incident with North Korea in 1976; and the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. 

DEFCON 2: US armed forces prepare to begin combat operations, if necessary, within six hours.  We’ve entered this precarious stage on two occasions: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and during the opening hours of the Gulf War in 1991. 

DEFCON 1: Nuclear war is imminent.  All forces are at maximum readiness.  This stage is known as “Cocked Pistol.”  America has never been here, and good-hearted people pray we never will be. 

The readiness scale represents America’s best attempt to prevent sudden, unintended escalations of global conflict. 

If only there were DEFCON levels to help manage relational conflicts.

Problems in marriages, partnerships, and extended family relationships are inevitable.  Even people who love each other deeply routinely experience conflict.  The art of healthy relationships is not finding the perfect partner (spoiler alert: there are none, and that includes you), but rather learning how to work through conflicts in such a way that emotions don’t escalate to DEFCON 1.    

Relationship experts John Gottman and Nan Silver are convinced that staying connected, even in the midst of disagreements, is crucial. 

They advocate “repair attempts” – statements or actions that restore a sense of calm in the middle of the storm.  Repair attempts can be gentle jokes.  Or self-deprecating remarks.  Or sudden words of affirmation.  Anything that lowers the emotional temperature qualifies as a repair attempt – something that communicates, “I know we disagree about this issue, but since we just shared a laugh we must still be OK, right?”

The gold medal winner for staying connected in the midst of conflict is this note that author Charlie Shedd received from his wife:

“Dear Charlie, I hate you.  Love, Martha.”

That’s the key: We choose to keep loving even when we feel like going Mt. St. Helens.  Instead of suppressing contrary feelings, we acknowledge them.  “Don’t secretly hate your neighbor.  If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt.” (Leviticus 19:17, The Message)

Gottman and Silver note that when it comes to crucial conversations with the people we love, the emotional temperature at the start is usually the emotional temperature at the finish. 

According to their research, the outcome of a 15-minute conversation can be predicted with 96% accuracy based on what happens during the first three minutes. 

If we begin on a high tide of emotion – “Why do you always try to hide how you’re spending our money?” or “What gives you the right to say such a thing to my friends?” – both partners feel defensive and emotionally flooded from the get-go.  It won’t be easy to ratchet things back to DEFCON 5. 

But if we choose a gentler start-up – “I’d love for us to find a few minutes to talk about something that’s important to me, so you can know how I feel” – the odds are much higher for a happier ending. 

When things are painful, we have three choices. 

We can move away from each other.  We can move against each other.  Or we can move toward each other. 

May God give us the grace to learn, from experience, that all the resources of heaven are aligned with option #3.