Bernadette was frustrated.
“I did everything right, James,” she said. “I made sure to soften my approach, I talked about my feelings, I avoided blaming him … but I still think I might have wrecked everything.”
Bernadette had been wanting to talk to her boyfriend Connor for a long time. There were a few issues she was really struggling with in the relationship.
She knew from past experience that Connor got defensive when he thought he was being criticized, so she’d put off the talk again and again. She wanted to wait until she felt certain their relationship could handle the conversation.
I had confidence in Bernadette. I knew she was gentle, sensitive to other people’s feelings, and genuinely cared about making things better. She didn’t want to hurt her boyfriend’s feelings. She just wanted her needs met.
So when her conversation with Connor backfired, Bernadette was devastated. Connor was no longer talking to her.
A week later, I heard from her. Connor had broken things off. His text message read, “I don’t think I can be who you want me to be.”
Nine times out of ten, when a woman comes to me after a breakup, she wants to know what she did wrong. She feels personally responsible for what happened. She’s determined to find out how to stop making relationship mistakes.
These women are often surprised to hear my reaction. I ask them a simple yet challenging question:
“What if you didn’t do anything wrong?”
That question throws them. They’ve never considered that possibility.
They came to me willing to take full responsibility for the demise of their relationship, believing that this was the mature thing to do.
But relationships are never about one person. They’re always about two.
What if Bernadette had done nothing wrong by trying to talk to her boyfriend about her needs?
What if, in fact, she had done the RIGHT thing by trying to have a hard conversation in the best way she knew how?
What if she wasn’t responsible for the way her boyfriend reacted?
When someone reacts badly to something you said, it’s natural to assume that their reaction was your fault. You should have said things differently. You should have waited to have the conversation.
But that’s not necessarily true.
Life coach Dorrit Karlsen tells a story that illustrates this point.
She asks us to imagine that we’re holding a cup of coffee when someone passes by and bumps into us. The coffee spills everywhere.
Why did we spill the coffee?
Obviously, it was because that person bumped into us!
But Dorrit asks us to dig deeper.
The reason we spilled the coffee, she says, is because we had coffee in our cup. If we’d had tea in our cup, we would have spilled that.
“Whatever is inside the cup, is what will spill out,” she explains.
No one can walk through life without occasionally bumping into the people around them. That’s just life. We’re all doing the best we can.
When life gets bumpy, what’s inside of us spills out.
So if you’re a person filled with love, compassion, and understanding, forgiveness will spill out when someone bumps into you. You get it. Accidents happen. You clean up the mess and move on.
But if what’s inside of you is bitterness, resentment, or entitlement, you’ll get angry when someone bumps into you. They weren’t supposed to do that. They invaded your space. They should have seen that you were there.
Those feelings were already inside of you, looking for an opportunity to spill out.
So how does this help us understand Bernadette and Connor?
Connor felt that he’d been slammed in the gut by Bernadette’s words. He was standing there holding his coffee. He felt it was his right to stand there drinking his coffee in peace. It was all going great until Bernadette had to wreck it by bumping into him.
What was inside Connor spilled out.
Connor didn’t want to think about what was going on for Bernadette. Her feelings disrupted his day. He’d rather blame her than reach for understanding and compassion.
That reaction showed Bernadette what was inside Connor. She was merely the catalyst. She wasn’t responsible for the reaction.
When your relationship hits bumpy times, I hope you think about the metaphor of the coffee cup.
You’re going to bump into each other at times, no matter how much you try to be careful.
When you get thrown off balance, what’s inside of you comes out. Pay attention. A man who reacts with love and forgiveness might just be your Mr. Right.