It was in grade school math that I first learned about reducing fractions to their lowest common denominator. I hated math. Still do. But, I’ve learned that “reducing to the lowest common denominator” is a great term for describing how, in human interaction, we “sink” to the most basic, least sophisticated level of those with whom we are engaging. If you’ve ever argued with a child, you know what I mean. Before you realize it, you’re on that kid’s level.
We all behave badly at times. We get angry and lash out, we are disappointed and have a meltdown, or we’re just grumpy for no apparent reason. When it comes to our primary relationship, the tendency to “reduce to the lowest common denominator” often results in the other partner mirroring bad behavior. The results are never pretty. Example:
Matt was responsible for preparing a complicated bid on a job for his engineering firm. An ill secretary and a finicky Internet connection were the tip of the what-went-wrong iceberg. With minutes to spare, Matt hit “send” on the email that submitted the bid. He left exhausted and cranky. Lila, who had a day of meetings, had that morning asked Matt to pick up dinner. He did. As he walked from the garage to the back door, the food bag broke. The potato salad container burst on contact. The roasted chicken popped out of its box and rolled under a hedge. Lila heard Matt’s expletive, she rushed to the door, and asked, “What happened?”
Matt snapped. “What happened?” he yelled. “I dropped dinner. The perfect end to a totally miserable day.”
“Why are you yelling at me? It’s not my fault,” Lila knee-jerk responded.
“If you hadn’t insisted I get dinner, this wouldn’t have happened,” he knee-jerk (albeit irrationally) responded back.
“So it IS my fault,” she shouted and stormed into the house, leaving Matt to clean up the mess.
Things go wrong—usually at the worst possible time. The oven malfunctions, the appetizer burns, and your snooty in-laws will arrive any minute to a smoke-filled house. The TV with the gi-normous screen you’ve been bragging about goes on the fritz moments before kickoff, and 22 of your buddies will miss the game of the century. As you’re leaving for your sister’s wedding the baby throws up on the perfect silk dress you shopped for months to find. The flight is cancelled and you’re late getting home from the business trip you didn’t want to take, causing you to miss your own birthday party. Few of us handle these moments with the poise and equanimity of a mature adult. Nope—at such moments, we’re sure there’s a cosmic conspiracy to ruin our life and, thus, a meltdown is justified.
What’s more, when our partner does or says something that hurts our feelings, angers, or disappoints, the natural tendency is to sulk or lash out. Our partner “reduces to the lowest common denominator” and, before you know it, you’re in an argument where words you’ll later regret are said.
Bad behavior is usually the manifestation of an underlying emotion. Jack wasn’t really blaming Lila for his bad day, he was just expressing his frustration. A meltdown is an expression of disappointment at things not turning out as hoped. Sulking and verbal attacks on our partner usually stem from hurt feelings.
While there may be no valid excuse for bad behavior, especially when taken out on our sweetheart, who among us hasn’t gone there. When it happens, the smart partner looks beyond the behavior and responds to the underlying emotion. By doing so, you avoid “reducing to the lowest common denominator,” help your sweetheart return to the world of sanity and reasonableness, and, most importantly, avoid damaging arguments.