What to Do When Both Things Are True

In mathematics, one kind of problem that sends the mind bouncing back and forth between seemingly opposite truths is called a strange loop. The only possible way out is for mathematicians to use a metastatement that draws attention to the loop itself. In the case of a dualistic dilemma, the metastatement is "Oh, I'm using either-or thinking when both-and thinking is required."

What makes a both-and mind-set so powerful is that it takes you beyond the two choices you thought you had. It opens up new, previously unseen possibilities and opportunities.

There is one caveat to all dual-emma relationships: If you or the other person involved can't or won't admit the whole truth—"Yup, I have a Dr. Jekyll side, but there's also a Mr. Hyde in here"—the relationship will become increasingly dysfunctional.

If both parties can discuss the full range of their behavior, however, almost any relationship can work. You just need to follow three basic steps:

1. Set Boundaries That Correspond to The Worst of Times
According to Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, the very first psychological need we have is to know we're safe. That's why, when you're around someone who's both good and bad, your first step is one that may seem a bit cruel: When times are good, establish limits that prepare you to deal with the relationship when times are bad. This is how you'll keep from being blindsided by something that—hello—you've already learned.

If your boss is a sweetheart who has tantrums, agree with him during a reasonable moment that you'll both observe certain rules of engagement: "No shouting, or we go to our offices and cool down until everyone's feeling civil." If your supportive friend tends to space out, ask someone more dependable to do a crucial favor. If your loving mom has bouts of negligence, don't entrust her with your twin toddlers.

2. Focus Your Appreciation on the Best of Times
In his book What Happy People Know, psychologist Dan Baker, PhD, describes an elderly woman named Marlene reminiscing about her beloved late husband. When Baker said he must have been a good man, Marlene said, "He was a womanizer and a drunk. A real pain in the butt." She simply chose to focus on the deep and abundant love they'd shared. Baker considered this choice a key to her health and happiness.

Notice there was no denial in Marlene's image of her husband; she acknowledged all his faults and refused to gauze over his memory. And then she chose to bask in his best legacy rather than his terrible betrayals. Setting strong boundaries frees us to take this attitude—and it allows us to access the happiness that's available right now.

3. Remain Calm While You Explore Your Options
That phrase—"right now"— is important. When you're dealing with a dual-emma, focus on being fully present with what's happening in this moment, rather than assuming past bad (or good) behavior predicts future consistency. This means alternating freely between the two previous steps. You don't want to spend your life anticipating your boss's next meltdown; neither do you want to assume that his jovial, charming behavior will last through the week. As you explore the scope of the other person's actions, you'll learn whether you can accept this particular mixed IV drip.

In Fiona's case, this meant realizing that, yes, Jack may be a player—and a really compatible match. Maybe, as Kathleen said, "he thinks he's all that" at some times but is grounded, affectionate, and responsive enough at others to make his occasional narcissism worth tolerating (with appropriate boundaries—"I'm going to watch TV while you preen, Jack dear. Call me when you're finished!").

As they contemplated Deborah's idea that a scoundrel could also be sincere, Fiona and her friends began, in the words of one yogi, "existing in continuous creative response to whatever was present"—in their love lives, their careers, their definition of self.

Try seeing your world and yourself this way, eyes open to whatever is before you, mind free of dichotomies. Are you good or bad, fragile or tough, wise or foolish? Yes. And so am I. What Jack thought about himself (at least according to Kathleen) is true of every human being. Oh, yeah. We're all that.

More Martha Beck Advice


Next Story