Advice Goddess

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Q: I’m a married lesbian. Yesterday on the phone, my wife invited her sister to spend the night (in our small one-bedroom apartment) without asking me. When I confronted her, saying it’s OUR home, she said, “It’s my sister!” Family’s very important to her, and her sister didn’t come, so I let it go. But what’s the protocol with guests, specifically family?—Feelings Ignored

A: To err is human—as is the tendency to duck personal responsibility like it’s a shoulder-fired missile.

We have a powerful drive to be consistent—to have our actions match what we claim to stand for. We are also frequently inconsistent. Welcome to “cognitive dissonance,” social psychologist Leon Festinger’s term for the discomfort we feel when we hold two competing beliefs or attitudes or when our beliefs and our behaviors clash. An example of this (totally random!) would be the belief “I’m a loving, respectful, considerate spouse” and then the behavior “I just hauled off and told my sister our home is her hotel room—without so much as a courtesy ‘Hey, hon…?’ to my wife.”

Social psychologist Elliot Aronson, one of Festinger’s former students, found that we manage our inconsistencies through “self-justification.” This involves creating an explanation for our hypocritical attitudes or behavior that makes us look good: smart, honest, and 100 percent% in the right.

So (again, super randomly!) an example of self-justification would be a spouse who’s just acted like a singleton instead of a partner—who excuses it with “Family is everything to me!” instead of conceding “Whoopsy…got a little impulsive on the phone and forgot to run Sis’s visit by you.” (Just a guess, but you probably wouldn’t have been all “Sorry, but the couch is totally booked up with our unfolded laundry.”)

As for your question—“What’s the protocol with guests, specifically family?”—unfortunately, there’s no set of numbered stone tablets to answer that. In fact, as with so many questions that come up in relationships, the process of answering—not the actual answer—is what really matters.

I see this constantly in my work as a volunteer mediator (doing free dispute resolution for Los Angeles residents in the LA City Attorney’s office). Conflicts that turn ugly and escalate are typically the result of people pushing for “positions” without regard for “interests.”

Positions are our goals—the “what,” as in what we want another person to do (or stop doing). So, your position might be “I want to be asked, even just as a formality, before you tell somebody they can stay over.” Interests are the underlying motivations—the “why”: “I want to be treated with respect, like my feelings matter.”

In my mediations, I’ve found that positions that are deeply important to a person can become far less do-or-die when you tend to their underlying interests. This starts with framing whatever happened in, uh, flame-retardant rather than inflammatory terms. You do this by expressing your feelings—“I felt really humiliated when X happened’’—instead of making accusations: “You did this, you relationship criminal!”

Hearing feelings (instead of blame) allows you to empathize with each other. (HINT: You should actively try to empathize—and, in mediator lingo, “validate” feelings,” meaning let the other person know that you get where they’re coming from.) For example, in addressing this guest issue, you might’ve said to your wife, “I hear how important family is to you.” Hearing that you understand eliminates the need for her to try to MAKE you—meaning she can approach the conflict between you more like a loving partner than a “Thrones” swordsmistress, bent on turning the enemy into a human doily.

The beauty of dialing down from combat mode like this is that it enables you to engage in collaborative problem-solving—for example, brainstorming together to come up with ideas for how things could work regarding overnight guests at your place.

And finally, following the lead of parents with tantrummy children, you could preplan to say “Hey, let’s take a time out” when things get heated.

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