We talk a lot about “drama” when it comes to relationships and how to avoid it. Drama – in this case, unnecessary or manufactured conflict – is frequently the boogieman of dating; go to any online dating site and you’ll see hordes of people declaring that they’re a “drama-free zone” or have “no time for drama”. We all realize how much drama can sabotage an otherwise healthy relationship and why it’s so important to establish and maintain healthy boundaries in order to drama-proof our lives.
But we rarely ever stop to think that we might be the ones causing drama.
It’s an easy thing to overlook. We tend to see drama as being something other people do. Men especially tend to see themselves as drama-free zones; even among otherwise egalitarian and feminist men, there’s a tendency to equate “drama” with women. But drama is gender agnostic; men are just as prone to creating unnecessary conflict as women… we just don’t get called on it as often. There’s a saying I’m fond of: if you encounter an asshole one day, you’ve met one asshole. If you’re constantly surrounded by assholes you’re probably the asshole. Similarly, if every woman you’ve ever dated is a drama-queen… well, let’s remember who’s the sole common denominator in those relationships.
Making sure your relationship is a drama-free zone is more than just making sure that you’re dating emotionally mature partners; it also means not creating that drama yourself.
One of the biggest lies we tend to tell ourselves is that we’re perfectly rational and objective when it comes to our own lives. It takes a lot of emotional energy to be completely honest with ourselves or to assess ourselves objectively. We have a massive host of cognitive biases that color how we see the world and how we see ourselves, and it’s incredibly easy to justify ourselves to paint us in the most positive light. As a result: it’s pretty easy to end up blind to some of your own flaws or mistakes.
Sometimes you have to look at things from a different angle to get much needed perspective. So with that in mind, I want you to answer some questions as honestly as you can.
- Do you often feel like your partner or your friends just don’t understand you?
- Do your friends, family or partner describe you as “high-maintenance”?
- Are you easily irritated by things that other people seem to brush off as minor or unimportant?
- Do you argue with your family or loved ones often, especially about minor issues?
- Do you seem to find yourself surrounded by people who are jealous of you or who want to sabotage you?
- Are you continually frustrated people don’t get it when they’re just wrong?
- Do your friends, family or partner seem to refuse to see things the way you do, leading to fights?
- Do those fights never seem to end? Do they drag out for hours or flare up repeatedly?
- Do your friends, family or partner accuse you of needing to be the center of attention?
- Do you seem to move from crisis to crisis, where everything seems to constantly go wrong?
- When it does, is it usually someone else’s fault?
- Does your partner never seem to listen to your side of things, but accuses you of not listening?
- Are you frustrated because people never seem to see why things aren’t your fault?
- Do you feel that your partner takes other people’s sides against you too frequently?
- Do you feel like your partner never gives you the credit or acknowledgement you deserve?
Individually, these questions don’t mean anything in and of themselves. After all, sometimes our friends or partners don’t get it. Sometimes when things go tits-up it is someone else’s fault. That being said, however, the more of these questions you answer “yes” to, the greater the possibility that you could be the source of much of the conflict in your relationship.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you’re an asshole or a bad person. Most of the time, we’re completely unaware that we’re acting this way – we’re too stuck in our own heads and don’t see how the way we’re acting or responding is affecting the people that we care about. Worse, it can be hard to admit that there’s even a problem, never mind that we’re the cause. But this behavior ruins relationships and makes it hard to improve or even form meaningful, long-term relationships with friends, family or romantic partners.
So if these questions have you worried that you’re causing unnecessary drama in your relationships, let’s look at the things you can do to help prevent it.
Unnecessary relationship drama tends to come down to specific issues: a need for control, an inability to communicate clearly, a need for validation or a lack of self-awareness. Here’s how to fix them.
Defusing The Drama Bomb By Using Your Words
One of the things that causes unnecessary conflict in relationships is simply not being understood. One of the oldest, hoariest tropes in fiction – especially when romance is involved – is how poor communication causes problems that could easily have been avoided. But as much as we may shake our heads at Ross and Rachel for not fixing things with a simple conversation, we rarely recognize how often miscommunication complicates our own relationships. If you’re continually complaining that your family, friends or partners never understand you… well, it may be that you’re not making yourself clear.
One of the biggest ticking drama bombs in relationships is the tendency to assume that your partner is a mind-reader. Most arguments – especially in long-term relationships – tend to have two levels: what the fight is about on the surface and what’s really wrong. The problem arises when we expect our partners to divine what we really mean. Unfortunately, unless you’re dating Jean Grey or the Martian Manhunter, you’re not dealing with a telepath, you’re dealing with an ordinary person and those surface details are going to complicate the issue. It’s the classic “I want you to want to do the dishes” scenario – when someone says this, what they really mean is they want consideration and appreciation from their partner, not someone with a cleaning fetish. But that surface issue – the dishes – becomes a distraction and the meaning is lost.
To help communicate your point clearly, especially when there’s a conflict, you want to focus on the goal, not the details. The details can be argued, nitpicked and otherwise derailing – what do you mean by X, why do you say Y when I did Z, etc. When you’re having an argument, ask yourself: what change are you hoping for? If things went exactly as you wanted, what would happen? Why would this be better than the situation as things are now? Those answers help you drill down to what you really want, and keeping that clear during the discussion helps keep things straight-forward.
Sometimes the problem isn’t that you’re getting distracted; the problem is that you’re arguing about two entirely different things or that you have different ideas about what you’re asking for. Making sure you’re on the same page is important to resolving conflicts; if your partner thinks you’re asking for something absurd or insane, they’re going to assume that you’re being unreasonable, picking a fight for drama’s sake rather than trying to address sincere, heartfelt issues. The ur-example is, of course, from Friends: whether Ross and Rachel were on a break or not. Rachel having an idiosyncratic definition of what it meant ultimately engendered the ongoing fight between the two of them. When you feel like you’re not being understood, stop and ask your partner to explain what they think you’re asking for… and listen. Don’t get angry at them for not intuiting your real meaning or attack them for misunderstanding you, clarify things, preferably in simple terms.
It’s worth remembering that clarity is critical when it comes to resolving miscommunication issues rather than speed. Many people need a moment or two to figure out how to phrase things properly; when they speak off the cuff they may misspeak, use the wrong words or generally create misunderstandings. If you have a tendency to say the wrong thing or aren’t sure exactly how to phrase things, take your time. Don’t let your partner prod you into a response; get actual distance if need be so you can organize your thoughts. Tell them “I need a few minutes to figure out how to say this. I’m going to go to the other room/ take a walk/ get some quiet until I can make sure I know what I’m trying to say.” That time to choose your words can make the difference between fixing the problem or letting another misunderstanding turn a disagreement into full-blown drama.
Ask Yourself: Why Do You Need To Be Right?
You’re a good person. You know you’re a good person. That’s why it’s not your fault when things go wrong. You knew what to do, and if people would just listen to you, everything would be fine. But no, you put yourself out there and nobody seems to acknowledge it or shows any gratitude. They’re the ones who’re screwing you over…
So why doesn’t anyone see this?
One of the most insidious causes of unnecessary drama is the need to control the narrative – to be “right” and, more importantly to have other people agree that you’re right. It’s a way of finding and maintaining power – especially when you may feel powerless otherwise. By being “right” and demanding that others conform to your world-view, you’re making others validate your beliefs – in essence, expressing power over them. It may be that you want them to acknowledge that you’re uniquely disadvantaged by the universe – that you have barriers and limitations that are out of your control and that things are not your fault. It may be getting them confirm that other people are wronging you – confirmation that you’re a righteous person who’s maligned by others. It may manifest in arguing details rather than core problems in order to delegitimize someone else’s anger or complaints – you’re wrong about X, Y and Z, therefor you have no right to be angry at me; by continuing to do so, you are persecuting me.
You are, in essence, fighting for the right to define reality in your favor.
That need to be right, to constantly have one’s world-view validated, is incredibly toxic – it makes relating to others increasingly impossible because disagreements become attacks. People who disagree with you are challenging your prerogative to claim the moral high-ground and the righteousness of your cause. It makes every interaction a struggle for frame control and social power because giving up that illusion of power means ceding a worldview that demands that others serve your needs without your having to admit or take ownership those needs. Not being “right” means that you may have to acknowledge your failures and deal with the consequences of your actions. It justifies your lack of power in a given situation by making you a victim… regardless of your own involvement in the matter.
If you’re continually finding yourself fighting over whether or not people have a right to be upset with you or when people continually “refuse” to see or experience the world the exact same way you do, it’s time to ask yourself just why it’s so important that they agree with you. Will their conceding to your view change anything… or will it be a reason why you shouldn’t have to change?
Take Control By Taking Responsibility
One of the ways we cause drama in relationships is by looking to deflect responsibility. The perpetual victim – the person who lurches from crisis to crisis when everything is going wrong and they need rescue – is seeing approval and affection… but doesn’t want to take ownership of those needs. Similarly, the person who insists that they’re being victimized by others – whether it’s women, society, or just the universe itself – is seeking ways of absolving themselves from failure. The refuge in victimhood creates a narrative around being prevented from succeeding either through the machinations of others or just the sheer unfairness of the universe. If things were fair, then they’d totally succeed but since they aren’t…
The logic of the surrender of personal autonomy gets especially twisted into salty tear-soaked pretzel shapes when the victimizer (such as the MRA/RedPill-ers imagined cabal of women and their White Knight quislings) are simultaneously able to persecute the individual while also being inherently inferior. It allows the “victim” both the indignity of being robbed while also being superior in every way to the others.
This particular form of drama is especially irritating to their friends because of their staunch refusal to do anything about it. Offers of help or suggestions on how to improve things are inevitably met with a “yes but…” or reasons why it couldn’t possibly work, regardless of whether they’d tried it before or not.
That abdication of responsibility is a response to feeling powerless to affect meaningful change. But the secret to untying this particular drama-inducing knot isn’t to give up control, it’s to take it back. You may not be able to control others’ actions or behavior – whether women refuse to date you, your co-workers act like dicks and shirk their responsibilities without consequence, those jerks get all the women, etc. – but you can control your own. If you’re convinced that you’re “too ugly to date”, you focus on dressing better and developing your personality and presence – things that are within your control. If your co-workers fuck off – something out of your control – you focus on your own productivity and refuse to take responsibility for their work. If you fail to succeed at something, own your failure so that you can do better next time. When people offer you assistance, take it… with the knowledge that you have to do the work in order to solve your problem.
People only have so much sympathy for a victim. It’s one thing to be a casualty of fate; it’s another to be a perpetual loser who refuses to lift a finger to help themselves.
Eliminate Drama By Learning To Accept Yourself
One of the hardest parts of avoiding drama in relationships is that we all have a tendency to get lost in our own heads. We know ourselves (or rather, we think we do) so well and are so familiar with our own wants and needs that we don’t realize that we lack a certain degree of self-awareness.
We focus outward, looking for validation and distraction because… well, it’s easier than looking inward. Being alone with our thoughts, examining ourselves and questioning our beliefs – especially beliefs that confirm that we’re right – is incredibly uncomfortable. We all have a psychological immune system to maintain our own identity that rejects information that contradicts our sense of self. This is why it’s frequently so difficult to recognize that we’re often our own worst enemy – the things that make us see ourselves in a bad light are ignored, invalidated or otherwise rationalized away. We don’t want to believe we’re wrong and we take criticism, even self-directed criticism, as condemnation rather than as an evaluation.
In addition, some people will take the opposite reaction to criticism – they’ll martyr themselves to their mistakes, declaring themselves to be the worst, the unforgivable and so forth. This breast-beating, wailing and gnashing of teeth is equally unproductive and is as much of a defense-mechanism; it not only disregards the need to change (because they can’t) but derails the matter as they beg for sympathy instead. A willingness to improve doesn’t mean that you’re broken and flawed. Having made mistakes doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. Creating unnecessary drama in a relationship doesn’t make you a loser or scum; most of the time you weren’t even aware you were doing it. Beating yourself over the head with your awfulness is equally as over-dramatic as refusing to believe you could possibly be the problem.
The key to overcoming this defense mechanism is to learn to accept yourself. Accept that you’re imperfect but you can improve. Accept that you are not and can not be objective about yourself and that other people’s perspective and opinions can be useful and valuable. Listen to what people have to say with as open a mind as you can, taking it as advice, not as judgement. Surround yourself with people who want you to be better.
You may have been the drama bomb before… that’s OK. That’s in the past. Accept it. Take responsibility for it. Learn from it.
And when your next relationship comes around, marvel in how wonderful a drama-proof relationship can be.