On Tuesday, I revealed a problem sent in by a reader and asked for suggestions from all of you. As she sees it, and I must agree, the problem is how they address their disagreements. Neither is happy with their approach.
As an example of the sort of disagreements they are addressing, she offered one spouse asking the other not to interrupt when the other is speaking slowly. As it turns out, this was not her request (as I reported) but his. But even this request hit a nerve with some of the commenters.
Here is my take on the request. First, it is not only OK, but an excellent first step to ask for what you want. In many cases, what one views as an annoying habit is nothing more than a non-meaningful choice made while living among other people, one fairly easily changed to please a loved one.
If it is a deliberate choice or a compulsive one your spouse is not willing to change, it is also OK to stand your grand and insist that the habit is a bad one, even one you cannot tolerate. However, you might want to limit the number of these judgments, because each one distances you from your life partner and mate and increases your anger. Looking for ways to better tolerate the habit, as one reader suggested, is a great idea.
But the real issue here is not the request for a habit change. It is a big difference in the way these two want to deal with such requests. It will come up again every time they discuss taking out the trash, diaper-changing intervals, driving speeds, and a host of other issues.
Their first two options (I ask nicely / you change and let me tell you why you want me to change) are not working for this couple, and both of them are frustrated by it. Frustration turns into resentment. Resentment corrodes a loving relationship. It affects every other part of the relationship. It is a marriage killer.
And it is SO easy to get sucked into. At first, we cannot see any other options, so we argue for or against the ones we have at hand. Those we ask for help usually stick to the two options, too. A number of commenters jumped in and supported or argued against one of these. And this is where things go so very wrong.
These options do not work for this couple. One or the other of them might be right for another couple, but neither is right for this couple. Simply asking for a change does not work for them, because it feels to him like intimacy and connection are lost and there are minefields to be avoided in what should be an open and loving relationship. Analyzing family of origin dynamics and past history when a request is made does not work for her. It feels like an insulting attack. Others (especially graduates of Imago training) might enjoy this. She does not.
Here is how you get away from the first two options when neither of them works for you as a couple. First, you jump the net. You agree to discard your approach, because it doesn’t work. And you agree that whatever your mate’s approach offers your mate is important and desirable and therefore something you want. You reject his or her first take on how to get it, but you want to get it somehow.
Next, you create the specifications for a Third Alternative, one that makes both of you as happy as the ones you were proposing. The specifications need to include two things: what you thought you would get from your alternative that matters to you and what you feared or disliked about your spouse’s alternative.
I am working with limited information, but here is my best guess at the specs for our reader and her husband:
As I understand it, what she wants is to be able to ask him to change a few behaviors to make her more comfortable. While she’s willing to hear no when her needs conflict with his, most of the time, she expects a gradual change in these distressing behaviors. What she wants to avoid is feeling that she, her mother, or other family members are dysfunctional because she wants these changes.
What he wants is to be able to contribute to her emotional growth by using his analytical skills and insight into people. He most likely wants to discuss the causes of his own preferences and annoyances, too. What he wants to avoid is any off-limits topics in their marriage. I will go out on a limb and say he also wants to avoid changing his behavior in a way that enables her to stay stuck in an old problem.
Notice that what he wants to avoid does not include giving her a yes or a no. It does not include making the changes she asks for. They can both agree on what she wants, just not the way she pictured getting them.
Notice, too, that she wants to avoid feeling insulted or put down for asking for what she wants or for saying no to things he asks for. But she does not object to talking about difficult subjects or taking advantage of his people skills. It’s only tying them to requests and ending up at the conclusion that she or her family are dysfunctional that she wants to avoid.
Put these together, and we are looking for a way to avoid making any topics off-limits and avoid pronouncements of family or personal dysfunction while allowing each of them to ask for what they want and get a yes with change or a no, allowing discussions that might lead to emotional growth for both of them, and allowing a ‘no’ to a request because it feels like enabling.
Here are some ways to achieve this:
- Create a new way to ask for changes that makes it harder to slip into analytical discussion, perhaps a handwritten letter (a love letter that includes praise, too, might be great, because, as Barbara Sher writes frequently, praise makes us brave). Or cut out letters from magazines and make it look like a ransom note. Or sing your requests. Anything to signal that the manner of responding should now be a yes or no, saving any discussion of reasons for another time, should help.
- Initiate discussions of how you each came to be the people you are at times other than when discussing a request for a change.
- Have a private signal to use when one of you feels attacked instead of helped by these discussions. Stop the discussion and take a 10-minutes break apart, hug each other for a few minutes before continuing, or have a pillow fight. Emotional flooding won’t help your relationship. Nip it in the bud. Don’t try to ride it out.
- Deliberately focus on character strengths as you try to understand each other. Remedying weaknesses turns out to be a less successful strategy than using our strengths more. And a lot of weaknesses are simply the result of overly focusing on something that became a strength.
- Come up with a follow-up question to use whenever you reach one of those “dysfunctional mother” or “cruel sister” or “raised by wolves” dead ends. Maybe, “And now that that’s over, in which direction does happily ever after lie?”
Don’t use any of these unless they give both of you what you’re looking for without raising any new fears of trap doors. If they feel wrong, go back and tweak the specs to reflect what you learned, then resume brainstorming. If you’re not getting anywhere, try hot-dogging, coming out with outrageous, even fantasy approaches to meeting your specs. It clears out the rust in the pipes and helps get ideas flowing again.
And do not, I repeat do not, judge any of the ideas as they are flowing. Just write them down until you are done. Then check them against your specs and your gut.
Our inquiring reader may need to tweak the specs and brainstorm a few more ways of meeting them, but I hope this provides a useful example of how to tackle even a big, oft-repeated disagreement with a Third Alternative.