Traditionally at this time of year I’ve posted about gratitude for those cherished relationships that mean so much to us. It’s easy to point to the abundant research telling us that emotionally supportive relationships, and our expressions of gratitude for them, are crucial to good physical and mental health. But what is a supportive relationship? Does “supportive” mean our spouse or friend is always in complete agreement with us? When their opinions and preferences don’t mesh with ours, does that make them “unsupportive”?
Certainly life would be monotonous if we were all identical—and clearly we are not—so we might expect to encounter conflicting agendas even among those with whom we feel the closest bonds. The good thing is that conflict in a healthy relationship can be a welcome springboard for personal growth as well as for growth within the relationship.
But how do you know whether your relationship is healthy or destructive? One way to tell is to look at how conflict is handled when it (inevitably) occurs.
In his book The 3 Dimensions of Emotion, psychologist Sam Alibrando suggests that one key to handling conflict constructively is to balance the way we relate to one another in three emotional dimensions. Physiologically, scientists refer to these dimensions as “fight, flight and freeze,” but awareness of three such dimensions is not really a modern thing. As Alibrando points out, one ancient writer known simply as Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) describes what essentially amounts to similar dimensions using the terms “power, love and a sound mind” (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Alibrando refers to them as Red (fight/power), Blue (freeze/heart) and Yellow (flight/mindfulness).
All three dimensions contribute something positive to our interactions when they are in balance. But each has a negative side when not balanced by the other two. For instance, if you operate primarily in Red mode (fight/power), you are highly attuned to differences between yourself and others. In other words, your first emotional instinct is to diverge. In balance with Blue and Yellow, Red is the basis for courage, protectiveness and confidence. But without the influence of the other two dimensions, Red mode can come across as aggressive, critical, hurtful and angry.
In Blue mode (freeze/heart) you converge: you don’t want to fight; you want to focus on similarities. In balance, this mode is the basis for empathy and support, but without being tempered by the other two modes, Blue can come across as helpless, subservient, too deferential.
In Yellow mode (flight/mindfulness) you want to drop out of the action, go silent and observe. In balance, Yellow is a sound mind: the basis for self-awareness, patience, calm objectivity and careful consideration. But without the empathy of Blue and the courage of Red, Yellow becomes isolated, aloof, indifferent and disconnected.
In conflict, someone acting out of negative Red mode would go on the attack with impatient criticism and blame. In negative Yellow, their spouse or friend might respond by retreating into a hole, disconnecting emotionally. Or a Blue spouse or friend might give up his or her agenda completely, choosing compliance simply to appease the other.
Most of us have a tendency to rely on a habitual approach that may favor one or two of these dimensions. But with a little self-awareness we can recognize our weak areas and tweak our style. And as Alibrando points out, when it comes to managing our relationships, our style is the obvious place to start any program for change—for the simple reason that I can’t change anyone but me, and you can’t change anyone but you. Fortunately, the changes we make to our own reactivity can influence the reactions of others and will usually (though perhaps not in the most extreme cases) make a tremendous difference to the overall outcome.
To reach the overall outcome we want (i.e., a healthy approach to conflict), Alibrando recommends a strategy he calls “working the triangle.” This exercise is less about focusing on what we’re doing that’s unhealthy and more about focusing on what we’re not doing that is healthy. For instance, the best way to overcome a tendency to criticize and blame (unhealthy Red), is to take the time to stop, think and listen objectively (healthy Yellow); and with the resulting calm, express your feelings (healthy Red) with kindness, in love and humility (healthy Blue).
Perhaps you’re an Orange (Yellow and Red) or a Purple (Red and Blue). Or maybe a Green (Yellow and Blue). You probably wouldn’t try sitting on a stool with only two legs, would you? Just as that third leg forms a plane and offers stability for the stool, so when we have these three interpersonal dimensions in balance, we are more likely to have stability in our relationships.
If Alibrando’s model seems to echo ancient concepts, perhaps it’s because these concepts are as relevant today as ever. As we “work the triangle,” we are essentially working toward exercising power, love, and a sound mind in our interactions with others. In doing so, we reap the benefits of a universal law that governs healthy relationships and opens the door to the kind of supportive connections we can truly be grateful for.