Saturday, August 27, 2005

free advice

Comments on that last post are prompting me to spew out a few more things about relationships that I’ve decided are true. Not that any of it is new, or that I'm an expert – I’m just on board now…

They (counselors, etc) say that in order to feel good about your relationship, there needs to be five positive interactions for every negative one. Some say it’s more like 10:1.

Just because you’ve been married for a while (or whatever) is no excuse to start treating the other person like they must continue to love you no matter how you speak to them. A friend of mine told me that her husband said one time “When I come home, I feel like throwing a dishtowel in the door first to see what happens to it, so I can tell if it’s safe or not.” She said it had a profound affect on her because it made her remember that we all have a choice whether to come home or not. I would further add that we have a certain responsibility to not make our partner’s life miserable by the way we interact with them.

This applies to other relationships, too, of course. Everyone has a goodwill bank. When you have to correct/discipline the kids, say, or be in conflict with someone on some issue, if you haven’t been filling up the bank beforehand with good stuff, their feelings about you will be defined solely by how they feel about the negative issue you just went through with them. On the other hand, if you’re making regular deposits, keeping their account topped up with positive stuff, there’s something there to draw on when you have to tell your kid you’re taking away his car for a week or whatever.

In a marriage, when you need to be in conflict with your spouse, I think some excellent questions to ask yourself would be:
“How will saying this make my partner feel?”
“Have I been making enough effort to be positive/loving recently that I can say this without overdrawing the goodwill account?”
“How would I like to hear this?”
(or even better: “Based on my experience with my partner, how would THEY prefer to hear this?”)

This applies to being “helpful” as well. It doesn’t matter if what you’re telling your spouse will solve a specific problem for them, make them a better person, make things run more smoothly, help the family finances, or whatever. It’s still important to ask yourself “How will this make them feel?” If your words make them feel lesser than you, or stupid, or inadequate, or like they’re a big disappointment to you, or a burden to you, or any of the other things we’re so good at conveying, you’re doing it wrong. They will not appreciate the help. They will not think “Gosh, I better try harder to please this person.” They will not feel glad about the relationship. They will not feel lucky to be with you.

This issue first informs the question of WHAT we say. IOW, there are a lot of things that maybe we just need to let go of – resist the urge to give your spouse the benefit of all your vast wisdom, and just let them figure some things out on their own. Things don’t need to always be done the best way. You don’t have to have everything perfect, or everything you want. If you think they’d appreciate the help, ask to be sure. The sentence “I have an idea about that – would you like to hear it?” isn’t that hard to learn. Likewise “Would you like some input/help on X?”

Which brings us to the stuff that for whatever reason DOES need to be said/dealt with. For those things, HOW you say something is also very important. A couple of rules:

1. Take ownership of your desires/expectations. Try to remember to say “I would like X”, not “You should do X” or “You must do X” or even “Please do X.” I can’t over-emphasize the power of this. When you make a request, you open the door for your partner to give you something, and for you to receive it and give appreciation in return. When you give an edict, or an “it must be so”, your partner has nowhere to go to please you – if s/he doesn’t do it, you’re disappointed/angry; if s/he DOES do it, you’re not grateful, you’re merely neutral since according to you it had to be done. There’s no appreciation, there’s no reward, there’s no incentive.

The request approach limits argument/strife also. If you want me to do something I don’t want to do, as soon as you say “it MUST be so”, I have something to argue about, since I can probably make a case that it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. But if you say “Can/would you do X for me?” you’re merely expressing a desire which I have the freedom to fulfill or not. There’s no argument, simply a yes or no.

The first step in this is of course to admit to yourself that what you want is merely that – something you want. We get pretty used to setting up “musts” in our mind. The familiar is comfortable and secure, so we get attached to a certain plan or idea or way of doing things, and we begin to feel that’s the only way to do it. And everyone else in the world should be made to do things our way if at all possible.

Taking ownership of our desires is costly; pretending what we want is divinely dictated is emotionally rewarding. If things MUST be a certain way because it’s simply the best way, then we don’t have to expend imaginary political capital with a request, or think of ourselves as demanding/picky/controlling. Furthermore, when we pretend things MUST be a certain way, if our partner refuses to go along it’s not a personal rejection – we can just think of them as stupid or stubborn for failing to get with the established program…

Expectations are a fact of life in marriage. You wouldn’t have married this person if you didn’t have certain expectations of them. But the key (once again) is to take ownership of them – express them as your expectations, not as the universe’s. You have control of YOU, not the other person. So if your partner can’t/won’t meet your expectations, your choice is to live with that or leave; you don’t get to control the other person, to force them to comply.

2. Take ownership of your feelings. Say “I feel X when you do Y.” Not “I feel X because you do Y.” Not “You make me feel X” or even “That makes me feel X.” Just state what you feel and when, not what the other person has done to make this bad feeling happen. Feelings may be reasonable or irrational, helpful or unhelpful, laudable or regrettable, but a statement of feeling isn’t correct/incorrect. You feel how you feel. When you express things as feelings, there’s nothing to argue with (you’re simply stating a fact), and there needn’t be any sense that you’re accusing your partner of wrong-doing. After you've conveyed your feelings, your partner is free to make a choice as to whether he/she wants to modify his/her behaviour because of your feelings.

It doesn’t mean that he/she must approve, understand, or empathize with your feelings, nor that they MUST adjust their actions to make you feel differently. Maybe your feelings are irrational in the extreme. But at least you're being honest and non-accusatory, and it gives everyone a choice as to how they will act.

And finally: a gratuitous male-centered only-loosely-relevant example of what I’m talking about:
If you jump down your partner's throat for looking at another woman on the street, your partner has little reason to feel sorry. I think I speak for many men when I say we feel like responding: “Good grief, relax. All I did was glance at her. In case you didn’t notice, I’m here with you, eating the same kind of cereal* for the rest of my life (not that I’ve gotten much cereal lately anyway), and you’re breaking my balls about a two-second look. Maybe if you weren’t such a crab all the time, I’d be looking at you.” He will feel resentful, put-upon, and have little incentive to want to please you.
On the other hand, if you say “I feel jealous when you look at other women because I want you all for myself” it makes your partner feel wanted and gives him a huge incentive to stop doing that (in front of you, at least). I can guarantee you that this is a hundred times as affective as the cranky/accusatory approach.
And of course, the best approach of all is the one that says “I don’t care who you look at, but I’d like it if you’d try to be subtle when you do it...”

*metaphor alert…

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


If I could start my marriage over again, some of the things I would do (in no particular order) are:

1) Not take things so personally. Understand that often her moods or her unhappiness aren’t about me (even if she thinks they are). Learn to listen to her venting, her expressions of frustration, or her overly-emotional descriptions of events without taking them literally.

2) Try to learn to love unconditionally. Not to have so many expectations. Be more willing to let my wife handle her life in her own way. Not be so quick to offer the benefit of my experience or my brilliant philosophies – to let her learn her own lessons on her own schedule. To not try to control her by deliberately letting my hurt or disappointment show. To not try to “fix” her or change how she feels by explaining that her reaction to action A by person B is irrational, self-defeating, and counter-productive.

3) Be more romantic. Learn to love the cards/flowers/presents thing. Sweet nothings in her ear, poems, compliments. Learn to let go of my tendency to be logical, to focus on the concrete, to prioritize & organize, etc – to learn that, illogical though it is, a $40 bouquet (or even a $4 card) can speak more loudly than a $5,000 paycheck.

4) Start couples’ counseling before the wedding. Lots of problems I could have side-stepped if I’d understood more about human psychology and the differences in the traditionally male and traditionally female view of the world. Lots of bad habits we could have avoided if we’d learned other, better patterns early on.

5) Learn to state my needs and desires clearly, completely, and without embarrassment. To own and honor them unashamedly regardless of my partner’s reaction to them.
To be willing to say “I feel X when you say/do Y.”
To say “I would like Z – is that something you can do for me?
To say “I don’t care for that – you do what you like, but that’s not for me.”
To say “I disagree with you about this issue – how might we find a compromise?”

6) Not be such a nice guy, not always try to smooth things over or avoid conflict. Sometimes confrontation is necessary, whether or not a couple is good at resolving problems in a healthy way. Sometimes you have to stick to your guns, to call people on their immature or selfish behavior. I’m convinced many men do themselves a grave disservice by putting up with their wives’ badgering or bitchiness – not just because they don’t get what they want (peace and civility), but because rather than appreciating or emulating their husbands’ politeness, wives lose respect for them. As Neanderthal as it sounds, I think most women prefer that their men stand up for themselves, even if sometimes it means saying “Step off, Girl – I love you but Homey don’t play that tune. You want a man that puts up with that, you want somebody other than me...” I’ve come to believe that many times a woman will give her husband a terrible time, and then be unhappy with herself and resentful of her husband for letting her walk all over him. The first time I was scolded, I wish I had said “Let me propose something to you. I won’t tell you what to do, and you don’t tell me what to do. Let’s learn to make requests of one another, in love. If you’d like me to take my boots off, all you have to do is ask – but don’t give me orders in my own house, and I will offer the same respect to you.”

7) Wait till I was older. If I’d had more experience with more women, I might have been prepared for what I view as the inconsistent, irrational, emotion-driven approach to life some women have. And just as importantly, waiting would have allowed me to mature, to become more emotionally and financially secure myself, and to understand more completely what I expected out of marriage.

8) Wait a while before having children. I love my kids and wouldn’t want any other, different ones – but I wish we’d waited until we were married a few yrs before firing up the baby factory.

9) Find a magic 8-ball to tell me how much sex my wife was going to want. – especially after the babies were born – so I could make a more informed decision, or at least prepare myself mentally for the adjustment.

The above sounds as though I regret getting married. I don’t. I like who I am now, and I might not be this person if I hadn’t gotten married. Besides, we have two terrific kids who are more precious than life. My wife is a good person, and I respect her honesty, her grit, her talent, her courage. She has not had an easy time living with me, either. The above is just what I would do differently if I had it to do over...

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Cultural sensitivity

My cousin & his wife had a series of evenings in which they explored the cultural traditions of different peoples. They are Christians, but enjoyed preparing shabbat supper; not a kosher meal, just learning different songs, prayers, blessings, etc that might have been part of their Friday night ritual had they been Jewish.
Happily, there were no actual Jews present, since my cousin's wife prepared what she often finds convenient to fix for large groups: pork roast.

Monday, August 01, 2005

to bee or not to bee

This month a committee of yellowjackets built a 16-inch-diameter nest in the eaves of the second story of our house.
My neighbor and I decided yesterday that calling someone to come and take it down was likely to be
a) expensive, and
b) a sign that we were total pansies.

So today we went to the hardware store and bought a couple cans of wasp spray.
Then we made ourselves beekeeper hats out of gardening felt, an old window screen, and duct tape.
I told the neighbors what I was doing, so they could keep their kids indoors for a little while.
I called my wife at her exercise class to warn her to stay away from the house for 1/2 hour. With great difficulty I disengaged from her many questions about how I thought I was going to do it, why I was doing it (actually, "You're going to try to do it yourself?"), and her skepticism about our plans and our wisdom it attempting the task.

NOTE FOR WIVES: Always be sure to grill your husband about the jobs he undertakes. Demand that he run his plans by you first. The more questions, the better. Best of all is advice or outright orders about how to do it -- and make sure the subtext of your questions/comments sounds like "I think you are stupid and incapable." This will endear you to him and make him feel lucky to have you, since we all like to be made to feel inadequate.

Of course, this advice goes for both genders, but it's especially apropos when we're talking about how to handle men. Women seem to be more about being, men about doing -- men's lives are defined in larger measure than women's are by our actions. I think in part that explains why most of us want two main things from our wives: affection and approval. If you're stingy with either one, we fairly quickly lose our inclination to romance you, woo you, adore you. Conversely, if you're generous with those two things, most of us won't care that much how educated you are, how well-spoken, how successful, how talented, how well you cook, how much money you make/spend, how you handle the house, how you do your hair, or whether you're a few lbs juicier after having kids. Give me love and appreciation, baby, that's what I need.
Just my take on things...

Anyway, we used the wasp spray, which barely reached the nest. Then we got the water hose and sprayed the nest until most of it fell into pieces and off the house.
I scraped the rest off with a rake on an extension pole.
Then I climbed up on a ladder and cleaned off the rest of the nest with the hose.
The neighbor went home, we cleaned up, Hannah came home and was pleased no disasters had happened.

The End. I didn't say it would be interesting.