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...”