Coupling: Be nice first

July 1, 2014 

Sometimes, over time, a lot of pain can build up or one can hurt the other in a devastating way. The question is, how can we heal a damaged relationship?

A simple solution is to be nice first. This may not feel right. Your instinct may be that you have been wronged and you won’t let that happen again. This position will not lead to healing.

A common problem stemming from dysfunctional parenting -- or just being raised under difficult circumstances -- is the habit of accepting unacceptable behavior; or never forgetting or forgiving when we’ve been wronged.

This is not OK. We need to be aware of healthy boundaries and identify ways to name what hurts or isolates. We’ll come back to this.

Allow me to tell you about a thought experiment called the Prisoner’s Dilemma that comes from something called game theory. In a very simple form, the problem has two criminals caught and pressured to throw the other under the bus.

If they cannot talk to each other and have to make a decision as to what to do, it works out better if they do not rat out their partner. In other words, if they are nice, both fair better.

A similar experiment was enacted during the Cold War to try to negotiate the very dangerous problem of megalomania mixed with nuclear weapons. Scientists were asked to submit a program to meet other programs in mock battle, negotiation and compromise.

Again, without all the details, the program that won was a simple program with the first move of being nice.

A caveat, the program responded with aggression when attacked, in a tit for tat manner, but always returned to the “be nice first” rule when it could. The program even had a way to occasionally respond nicely when attacked to encourage that behavior.

This is real stuff and has meaningful instruction for our coupling. Always try to be nice first. Now, like we talked about, it is not OK to accept unacceptable behavior.

There are reasonable and logical consequences for errors and mistakes. These consequences may be different depending on the intention. Was the issue what my father would call a sin of omission or a sin of commission?

The punishment needs to fit the crime. Punishment probably isn’t the right word. We need to learn from our mistakes. A correction needs to take place; a wrong righted.

Twelve Step recovery teaches us to identify those defects of character that will cause pain. We then need to find a way to make amends, or set right the missteps we have made.

Our usual stance is to resent or carry bitterness about how we’ve been treated, ignoring our own culpability and responsibility in the confusion and tension.

To heal a broken relationship -- broken in big ways and small -- first take responsibility for your part, then be nice. Do what you need to do to repair the problem, then try to accept your partner’s efforts to do the same.

Bruce Conn is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and practices as a group therapist. Contact him at or call 478-742-1464.

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