Recently, I had an interview with Donna Hicks on my radio show Dialogue on Divorce. Donna is a dignity expert who is the author of a terrific book, Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, which was published in 2011 by Yale University Press. She’s the founder the DeclareDignity.com and a teacher of conflict resolution and the dignity model, a human-centered approach to rebuilding conflict relationships and to creating a culture of dignity in a variety of settings in the corporate, healthcare, education, faith communities and non-profit organizations.
Donna explained that, when relationships break down, underneath all of the things that the couple thinks they’re arguing about, like money or children or who’s going to have custody, if you go deeper under those interests and those issues, you’re always going to find some kind of an addressed dignity violation.
When we fall in love, there’s all kinds of brain chemistry involved in that wonderful feeling of closeness and you’re crazy about the person and you want to be with that person all the time. Overtime, though, with familiarity, we get a little sloppy with all of that, with all of those connections and that deep appreciation of people and we tend to lose sight of the inherent value of our partners. And then you add the stresses of the world that we live in today, the economic stress, the family demand, kids going off to college and all of the financial aspects of what it means to be together as a family. Those external pressures, which are the same even in international conflicts, can begin to degrade those initial feelings of closeness. Particularly if you don’t have that really strong sense of trust and bonding to begin with, if you haven’t done that work with your partner, there are so many ways in which those pressures can undermine our dignity and our sense of the dignity of our partner. Ultimately, Donna believes that we have to be reminded over and over again of the impact that our words and our actions are having on our partner.
Donna’s book outlines 10 different ways people can honor other people’s dignity. One of these methods is giving people the benefit of the doubt. In relationships, when there’s a lot of pressure and the question of your partner’s intention is really in the forefront of someone’s mind, you ideally want to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, you might be certain that he intended to hurt you or get even.
This dynamic of wanting to get even is such an unconscious process. Almost 90 percent of our behaviors are motivated by unconscious forces. This is what the neuroscientists are telling us now. We are hardwired to question someone under circumstances of threat. If someone comes at us with something negative that feels hurtful, we are not going to give that person the benefit of the doubt. In fact, all of our self-preservation instincts get turned on and when that happens, our intimate relationships are in trouble.