We don’t like being called out when we’re doing things wrong. We like being right. We like being seen as good, competent, loving partners. What happens when there’s conflict? What happens when our partners call us on our BS?
We block. In theater improvisation the cardinal rule is YES AND, which means accepting and building on your partner’s offers.
The opposite of accepting these offers is called blocking your partner’s offers. We do this by negating our partner’s reality, stalling, or not listening. (Click here to read how to positively use your aggression in your relationships.) We block a partner’s offers in by acting surprised, insulted, or disappointed. I call these three behaviors The Holy Trinity of Blocking.
Why do we block like this?
- It postpones heat and conflict (a form of stalling). It keeps both of you acting ‘nice.’ (Click here to read about the price of being nice.)
- It casts your partner in a negative light. The three reactions position you as the righteous, innocent, victim: Your partner is wrong.
- It negates your loved one’s opinion/narrative. Insult is the highest form of blocking.
- It exempts you from actually responding to what your partner is saying because you are instigating drama, or a smokescreen, which helps you avoid talking about the hard issues or legitimate criticism of your behavior.
What are the prices for using the holy trinity of blocking?
- You position yourself as the small, reactive victim. These tactics essentially put you in a victim and persecutor dynamic detrimental to your relationship.
- Your partner will start to fake it or distance themselves from you. This behavior teaches your partner that essentially you cannot accept criticism or stay in the heat of the intimate crucible. So they will either fake it or not tell you what they really think about you or the relationship.
- Your relationship gets stuck. These blocking techniques prevent both of you from being honest and giving constructive feedback in order to grow.
- You become bored and boring. Since you block the heat, you’re going to suffer from shallow, boring superficial relationships.
Surprise. When you act surprised, you are basically sending a message that what was just said is not normal or expected: “I can’t believe you are saying that to me!” Are you really surprised? Often we implicitly feel the general direction of our partner’s thoughts and feelings. Surprise can often be a form of not owning your sh!t and not taking responsibility. And surprise sends the message, “How could you do that? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” This is in fact a defensive and deflecting behavior.
Insult. Insult is a highest form of blocking, because it conveys a message that your partner is a bad person. Shame on them. When we act insulted we say, “How could you say that?” But what we are actually saying is, “You have no right to say that. And you are a bad person for saying it.” And then, you don’t actually have to listen to what your partner is saying because you are so hurt. We hide behind our insult without reacting to the actual content. Moreover, we put a negative value judgment on our partner, which means we not only block them, but also one-down our partner, making us the innocent martyr.
Disappointment. So your partner says something like, “The joke you told in the party about me, was really embarrassing.” If we choose disappointment, we make a little drama that acts as a smoke screen in order to avoid letting the content of our partner’s feelings “land” in us. Over time, a partner learns that they can’t be honest with you because you repeatedly take offense. You are basically blackmailing your partner into not being direct in order to avoid your disappointment.
How do you let go of the holy trinity of blocking?
- Reflect and observe your heated conversations to see whether you or your partner tend to use the holy trinity of blocking.
- Share this post with your partner so you have a common language. Remind yourself and your partner that you are making these changes because you want a more authentic connection.
- Make a conscious choice to minimize these techniques. Remind yourself that these intimate crucibles actually help the relationship grow.
- Create a code word for the trinity of blocking. Use a code word or physical hand gesture whenever you sense that either you or your partner is blocking — and call yourself out when you get defensive. A code word will make this admission softer and more playful.
- Accept the sign and pause. If your partner reflects to you that you are blocking, take a moment and breathe. Accept influence. Rewind a little bit and say something like, “Sorry, I was getting insulted or disappointed from what you said. Let’s try this again.” Or, “The truth is I was initially surprised, but actually I’m not that surprised. I knew you were upset. Let’s keep going.”
Stay in the heat and you will notice over time that the standards for authentic communication will rise. There will be more truth, more genuineness, and more differentiated conflict. There will be less need to “check out” when the going gets tough.
So step out of the Holy Trinity of blocking and step into the heat of life.
Johnstone, K. (1989). Impro– improvisation and the theatre. London, England: Methuen.
Previously Published on Psychology Today