Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 of Thoughts on Conflict Transformation.
Intentions, Not Excuses
Let’s be clear. My intentions:
- are not an excuse for my unskillful behaviors or misguided attitudes.
- do not justify my behaviors
- are not a defense for my secret-keeping or telling an escalating series of lies
- are never to explain away sticking my dick in another woman without my xp’s approval
- are not a tool to mitigate my consequences; “It wasn’t my intention to break that vase but I still have to pay for it.”
- matter only to me and the people that are interested in healing and understanding
- of my secret-keeping and the escalating series of lies were to never to make it worse or hurt others
- were compartmentalized creating intentions that were different for each woman
- were never about getting more sex, power, or love
- were about maintaining the status quo with my xp while trying to quietly fix the selfishness of my behaviors with K
- were designed to avoid further harming my xp or K
Without a doubt, my intentions were motivated by anxiety fueled desire to:
- fix the situation I created in a way that the people that loved and trusted me were protected from my selfishness
- would allow me to maintain my role as my xp’s Hero
- would allow me to keep my armor and white horse
- protect my reputation and relationships, and
- not create pain, humiliation, shame, or consequences for good people.
However, unless you talk and listen it is impossible to know to know the intentions of my intentions. And this is why intentions matter in transforming conflict: intentions reveal the difference between “what is the conversation about, and what is it really about?”
Brene Brown: So if we decide to be brave and stay in the conversation, how do we push through the vulnerability and stay civil?
Dr. Michelle Buck: One of the key pieces of advice I give my executive and graduate students is to explicitly address the underlying intentions. What is the conversation about, and what is it really about? This sounds simple but tends to be easier said than done. The intention is the deepest level reason why the topic is so important to the person. We have to understand what truly matters to us and learn why this topic is so important to the other person as well. For example, two family members may bitterly disagree about the planning of a family event. One or both of them may have an underlying intention of wanting to create more opportunities for the family to stay connected, which may sound very different than the details of the disagreement. Speaking our intentions does not mean that we will suddenly have the same preferences or opinions, but it often helps us navigate different conversations to maintain or build a connection by actually understanding each other’s motives and interests more closely.
I adore the second definition of intention: the healing process of a wound.
I find this definition places an interesting spin on L.R. Knost ‘s quote, “’Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but ‘through the healing process.’”
The key then is discovering the process and then embracing it as a child does a warm blanket. I’ve decided, for me, “more vulnerability, not less” is the warm blanket defining my angle of approach as I work to recover my self-respect and power.
It’s not simple.
If you replace Buck’s statement that “The intention is the deepest level reason why the topic is so important to the person” with the definition it clarifies what is really about: “The [process of healing] is the deepest level reason why the topic is so important to the person.”
As such, when I talk about my intentions related to my betrayal et al, what I am really saying is, “Knowing what I did, knowing it was hurtful and selfish, knowing that it was unskillful, what was my process for healing (aka intentions)?”
Apparently, my process included denial, shame, secret-keeping, and telling an escalating series of lies to good people. These were the unskillful processes by which I was trying to act on my intentions. It is the unskillful application of the cynical principle that “the ends justify the means.”
However, the skills by which I act on my intentions are learnable if I’m willing to be vulnerable.
Thirty years ago my Marine Corp Drill Instructors would say, “Good initiative. Poor judgment.” Restating this, and applying the wisdom to this moment in my life it sounds more like, “Good intentions. Poor execution.”
Here is the other piece I have learned: developing a process requires practice. As such, I fully intend to stumble and err, because that is the only way to uncover success. The role of practice to learn how to do a task better. Moving forward I need to embrace failure, and not cower before criticisms or perceptions.
I’m committed to the process to heal by doing the work, even if it is haltingly, occasionally angrily, and consistently imperfectly. Even if it is Ugly.
Talking about my intention means when I fail, and I will fail, it will probably be, as my fall from my xp’s grace demonstrates, spectacularly public but those closest to me will see I failed valiantly. The people that matter will be there to help me up. I will leave, as Teddy Roosevelt said, the second-guessing to those timid souls that know neither victory or defeat. The critic does not count; I know who I am, I know what I did.
I know my intentions. My intentions have a purpose. My intentions will stretch me.
As I’ve struggled with the shame, humiliation, guilt, and ostracization I’ve been plagued with self-doubt, second-guessing, and confusion. As a result, I often find myself questioning myself and my intentions (the process for healing). It’s taken me a long time, and lots of counseling, self-reflection, and determination, to find the courage to speak the truth of my intentions regarding my xp and K and to see clearly my unskillfulness by which I sought to fix what I broke.
And, as long as I keep working on personal development, more will be revealed. It’s been a fascinating journey.
Growing from this experience means I need to learn and practice some better skills otherwise I am just going to be trapped in the status quo with good intentions hobbled through more poor processes.
Over the last fifteen months, I’ve repeatedly had my intentions defined by outsiders, interlopers, frenemies, observers, and Flying Monkeys.
All have gone to great and small lengths to tell me my intentions of betraying my xp and K.
Of course, they have, without exception, never asked. Probably because the simple act of asking is also a vulnerable act.
Instead, they assume they have some magical insight and “just know” when in reality they cannot emotionally or intellectually separate intentions from actions. As such, as my doctor reminds me, they project their own pain and intentions on to me.
They can’t reconcile my behavior with any other perspective other than their own. I know some of the cruelest and most abusive trolls struggle with infidelity, empathy, alcoholism, mental health, and broken hearts. I’m a convenient target for them to project their own shames and pains onto.
Of course, humility acts as a reminder to self, without self-awareness I project my intentions onto others too. Their behaviors have been a consistent and persistent reminder that I need to practice not to pass my hurt onto others.
Intentions are Blueprints
Behind the intention is a process. A process is “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.” Which, in my position, my intention was to stop the pain, keep my Love of loves, and life intact and the series of actions I took to achieve my intentions included secret-keeping and lying.
The series of actions or steps I took were based on a life-long series of lessons about how to love and care for others. As the poet Mark Nepo wrote in The Book of Awakening, “Atlas wasn’t forced to hold up the world. He was convinced that if he didn’t, the world would fall.”
(And yes, the irony of comparing myself to the god of Atlas isn’t lost on me. I’m self-aware.)
Frankly, only two people, Dr. Deb Goldberg (Minneapolis, MN) and Dr. Christine Paisley (Columbus, OH), have asked me about my intentions. Not surprisingly, they are both trained doctors, each with twenty years or more of experience working with men and women teaching people more skillful ways to act on intentions.
Both have reminded me it isn’t my job to hold up the world contrary to the lessons of my life. I was not brought into this world to do for others what they should do for themselves. I’m not here to protect other people from feelings, to keep them safe, to pay their way, to take their abuse, to be responsible for their well being, to be the Knight, or to unring the bell. It is simply my obligation to own who I am, learn from the experience, and do better next time. Through Pride and Shames I voluntarily made myself a prisoner to other people’s expectations, needs, wants, and feelings and in exchange I found a purpose.
After all, if you cannot articulate your intentions when asking for help, collaboration, or clemency, how can anyone else make an informed choice? How can they see you as a person and not an obstacle?
If you are unwilling to talk about the deepest level reason aren’t you just hiding one more piece of you? Keeping one more secret? Avoiding vulnerability? Trying to fit in instead of belonging?
And this is why my intentions are a blueprint. They highlight who I want to be. The difficulty is my lack of skills, the lack of skillfulness, means I am trying to achieve my ambitions armed with not much more than a hammer. Everything is simply a nail because I have limited options.
For example, when conflict appears on the horizon my anxiety kicks in and I am Chicken Little running around acting as if the sky is falling. I am the boy crying wolf. Panic and fleeing are the skills my anxiety relies on to mitigate the crisis. In the situation of my betrayal that included secrets and lies. Unskillful responses.
What I am learning is that when anxiety strikes a more skillful response is to:
- check my heart rate and breathing
- reach out to my True Friends and tell them of my anxiety
- focus on the impermanence of the situation
- thank the feelings for letting me know I need to be aware
- make a list of my best and worse case options
- take the action that seems to line up best with my intention
These are skillful tools and every single time I try to apply them it gets better and easier. I don’t always do it well but the interval between wanting to run and willingness to face the situation gets shorter and shorter.
This reads easier than it actually is but I’ve started making a checklist to help me navigate the anxiety when it strikes. I have gotten better at engaging in my intentions in a more skillful way.
However, as I said, it is a practice and I’m practicing.
More on My Intentions
I can see how both my xp and K might perceive my intentions as designed simply to hurt them or use them. After all, both are seeing my unskillfulness through the filter of their pain and loss. Intentions don’t matter when you are bleeding out emotionally. You just want the emotional hemorrhaging to stop. There is no room for nuance when performing emotional triage on your identity and life.
I probably wounded both these women deeply.
In K’s situation, I often made unskillful attempts to build on my intentions. Attempts that clearly damaged her. I tried to run her off in a way that she wouldn’t blame my xp for being a homewrecker. I gave K words while I gave C actions. I loved my xp far more skillfully than I ever tried with my ex-wife.
I intended to act a horrible person with K so she wouldn’t blame my xp. This, of course, created a huge amount of shame because I am not a horrible person. Unskillful? Yes. Malicious and horrible? No. Being a dick takes work, it isn’t my natural state and required me to compartmentalize my best qualities. Perhaps that is part of why she was so confused about what I was doing. One day I’d treat her respectfully and try to adult through the situation and the next day I’d be ignoring her calls and texts, blatantly lying to her, attempting to ward off her twenty anxious phone calls.
For example, I tried to make my xp appear to be an open-minded, loving, passionate, caring, and loving person. So when K emailed my xp, I responded. This resulted in a series of four emails from my xp’s email account trying to impress upon K that my xp didn’t care who or what I did. In the last email, I did it such a way that my xp was sexually propositioning K.
I really believed that would have scared K off.
It backfired and the Law of Unforeseen Consequences delivered even more pain to everyone.
SIDEBAR: I had my xp’s permission to be in her account as I handled all of her business emails. My emails were one more act of betrayal of her trust.
In hindsight, I can see why every act made things worse in the long run. I acted on my intentions in unskillful ways. I wasn’t trying to hurt her, I was trying to end the relationship and still be able to claim the mantle of hero for my xp.
I was trying to break a relationship triangle without being the villain or having to say to either woman:
To my xp and to K: I made a series of poor decisions and then covered it up. Once you discover the truth you will hurt but that was never my intention. I’m trying to make this better but I cannot do that without hurting you. I cannot get help without leveling my pride, facing my shame and guilt, and owning the truth that I made a series of selfish, unskillful decisions out of entitlement, conflict avoidance, and an unwillingness to level my pride.
To K: You are a wonderful and amazing woman and friend. Being married to you was an honor but I am not prepared to move forward in a life with you in a way that is respectful to who you are and what you need. I cannot ask you to change when I see I am unwilling to do what is necessary to make this work with you.
To My XP: I’m asking for patience and clemency for betraying your trust, love, and lives. Yours, mine, and Ours as I learn better skills so that my actions match my intentions. My intention is to stand here with you as you heal from the pain I caused you for as long as you will have me.
Instead, I went and hid in the bedroom while C sat alone on the couch, watching Shameless, desperate to be loved and K sat alone 14 hours away one more night wondering what was wrong with her as I found a new unskilled and cruel way to reject her.
I see now, the only solution out of this was to embrace the conflict and transform it into something greater. Only through intention, a process of healing, could I break this cycle I created. In this case, I played the role of the Villian because I was the Villian – secret-keeping and lying are some of the behaviors of someone acting without integrity.
That is not the intention, but it will occasionally be the outcome. And occasionally, someone will believe hurting them was my intention because that will be easier than facing their own issues and patterns. And this is conflict.
However, I am learning: I am responsible to people, I am not responsible for people. Cast me the Villian if what I am doing maintains my integrity. In a more skillful partnership, I will be given the benefit of the doubt and met with generosity. Just as I am trying to meet their intentions even if I don’t understand their process. After all, I know better than many, nuance matters.
In reality, in my betrayal et al, everything I did to demonstrate my intentions relied on the damaged and misaligned tools. My intentions were forever hamstrung by unskillfulness.
I valued my relationship with my xp, my reputation as her Hero, and my role as Partner, more than I valued my integrity. Therefore, when I am asked why I would keep secrets and tell an escalating series of lies, the truth is, my intention was to keep what I had coveted.
I cannot repeat this behavior. Vulnerability requires a willingness to lose it all.
Guessing at Intentions
Conflict is inevitable because no one listens. We see only what we think our pain reveals about the other: hurt feelings becomes abuse; lying become gaslighting; selfishness becomes narcissism; unskillfulness becomes malicious.
Rarely is this true, but it doesn’t have to be true to feel true. Then do-gooders rise up around us offering a tribal mentality and common enemy intimacy instead of acceptance and empathy. We judge intentions by our pain and never look beyond our own biases.
For example, my xp’s decision to end the relationship without a conversation destroyed me, but I don’t believe that was her intention. The story I imagined, that her intentions are malicious, is just that, stories. Stories I made up to as I try to avoid my own pain. Pain that has never been her responsibility to carry or heal…just as her pain is no longer my burden.
Although to be clear, it would be my burden to help carry if we were still in a relationship. I had every intention to carry it regardless of the cost.
Now keeping my things, calling my clients, spreading rumors about me?
Well, my guess of her intentions in those areas is a bit more fluid. It’s hard to see her intentions except through the projection of my pain. I would never rub salt into another person’s wound. As such her silence only leaves me confused and adopting less than generous guesses as to her intentions…but I’m working on a more generous perspective.
The Cold War or Détente
Reading through article and stories by angry, and jaded partners (on all three sides), I see repeatedly how they malign the intentions of others while they choose to cling to their own self-serving stories of altruistic intentions. The Cold War escalates cycling through criticisms, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
Even in the relationships that don’t dissolve I often read how people are afraid to speak up for fear of breaking the uneasy truce that follows betrayal leaving one side to navigate nuance and the other seeking to focus on the absolutes. Neither side giving generosity of spirit to the intentions of the other. Both entrenched, as Moisy at Making This Better writes, in their bunkers trying to avoid the horrors of the emotional war.
Neither person dealing with their intentions or being honest about them. Relying on unskillful approaches to building on their life’s blueprints. In the case of infidelity, one demands absolute disclosure to ensure informed decision making, the other trying not to divulge too much for fear of making it worse.
Neither giving grace to the intentions of the other. For example, the assumption being trickle truth must be about keeping more secrets and covering up, the endless barrage of questions must be about punishment and shaming. Neither person skilled in transforming the conflict as Brown and Buck suggest. Instead, lacking the skills we turn to the pain armed with clickbait articles and the advice of armchair psychologists and pop-culture.
Only chumps stay right? No shame intended.
There is enough truth in both concepts to keep shame alive for decades but not enough truth to get to the root of the intentions of what matters: “are you willing to do the work necessary to repair to re-pair and build something deeper, more meaningful and beautiful?”
Essentially, “What are your intentions of staying?” This is the essential question regardless of which side of the triangle we are clinging too. A question everyone needs to answer but so often no one wants to be first or believed. For good reason, we doubt the intentions because we don’t understand the process. I have often stated my intentions thinking they should trump everything else – including common sense.
Are your intentions for staying rooted in: love, desire, compassion, the children, the assets, guilt, shame, or fear? Are you, as Dr. Caroline Madden ask’s in her book, “When a Good Man Cheats,” staying with an intention or behind fear-driven shame?
Of course, if they are leaving, the intentions don’t matter. However, if we are leaving a relationship there are ways to do that with an intention too (Perel).
My guess is you already know your intentions. Maybe you already know you want to be anywhere other than with your Partner. Maybe you know you want to be with your Mistress. Maybe you want to be alone.
Regardless, knowing your intentions doesn’t require quantum physics. It isn’t alchemy but acting skillfully probably feels like it.
I’m learning the act of admitting intentions requires willingness and vulnerability and perhaps a more skillful approach to building a life worth living.
For me, I knew I never wanted to be anywhere other than with C. Some days I still don’t. I knew my intentions but now I know I lacked the skills to follow my own blueprint.
Why it Matters
We are denying them the opportunity to be heard and seen. This is the least generous approach to intimacy. It isn’t surprising that the person being shut down with the art of unskillful criticism or contempt falls into defensiveness or stonewalling (Gottman).
We are rejecting the opportunity to be a part of the solution together and therefore avoiding sharing our intentions with them. We avoid the intimacy so many of us crave. We abandon the opportunity to belong.
Keep in mind, I am not advocating that the intentions of the man or woman that betrayed their loves and lives should trump the intentions of the people betrayed. I take Buck’s instructions to mean that instead of questioning the intentions of other people we should strive to “understand what truly matters to us and learn why this topic is so important to the other person as well.”
A perspective the Gottmans, and Esther Perel, Tara Brach, Caroline Madden, Alain de Bottom, and Stan Tatkin would all support as well…but nuance and good insight is conveniently ignored when we occupy the high ground.
When I read the stories, and listen to people facing betrayal I wonder how different the conversation would be if we were allowed to be truthful about our intentions.
Perhaps if there were a safe space to state the truth of our intentions separate from the shame, guilt, and expectations we might actually get to The Thing instead of being bogged down in the Way of the Thing. We say we want the truth while shaming and berating the other person for our pain when they give it to us.
An all too human approach to pain and loss.
I see many betrayed jump to the conclusion that the intention must be to cover up while the intention could very well be an unskillful attempt to protect the “us.”
While true when acting out the betrayer might not understand their own intentions, neither does the betrayed have some special magical insight either.
As Buck points out, until we are invited to openly discuss intentions without judgment, and reveal what makes us tick, true vulnerability is nearly impossible.
I think this is probably the most important example of why generosity is an essential component of Brown’s BRAVING. At some point in time, we have to acknowledge, no one gets up trying to make a bad situation worse. Not the betrayed with the list of questions and accusations and not the betrayer with their defensiveness or denials.
Until we “understand what truly matters to us and learn why this topic is so important to the other person as well” we are left with shallow, judgemental conversations.
I think this is why I read so much from the betrayed perspective: I want to know the questions are being asked. What is under the obvious questions and at the heart of what is important. “What,” asks Buck, “is the conversation about, and what is it really about?
I don’t believe my xp will ever ask but if she does I want to know what is at the heart of the question. Maybe it will help if I understand what the question is really about. Making the time to learn about my intentions, and me of others, is how I learn to love someone for who they are and not what I think they are.
And that would certainly be more skillful way to live my intentions.
5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Conflict Transformation: Intentions, Not Excuses (Part 2)”
That was honest Sean, really honest, and brave. You’ve put yourself out there and made yourself vulnerable, and that in itself shows learning.
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