It is easy to tell our partners the many ways in which they are not getting it right. It’s easy to point out their faults and to bemoan the fact that if only they could do (fill in the blank), life would feel so much happier.
Change doesn’t happen by trying to blame, strong-arm or criticize our partners into changing. As Dr. John Gottman states in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, “Instead of criticizing your partner, remind yourself of all of the things you appreciate about them, and share those things with them. Be genuinely interested in learning about why they see or do something differently than you, and be open to respecting and even celebrating what makes each of you unique.” By focusing on accepting each other’s differences, partners create a safe environment that allows for change to happen. Change occurs not by being shamed into it. When we feel judged and criticized, we aren’t open to what our partners are telling us. We tend to stubbornly dig in to our position and try to prove our way as the “right” way. When people feel emotionally safe in a relationship, change can be negotiated and feel less as an absolute judgment and more as a way of caring for the ones we love.
Understandably, in theory this sounds great. But when your significant other has invited people over for the 3rd weekend in a row during football season and all you want to do is to sit and relax and watch the game, it’s hard to celebrate the differences and not just want to lock yourself in the basement with the tv! But in this example, instead of a fight that could easily ensue about who is right and who is wrong, this situation could be looked at and negotiated from a different perspective.
I like to call this “You do you and I’ll do me.” Here’s how this works.
- When there is a chronic issue that comes up, (see above for example) instead of immediately falling into the finger pointing, accusatory role that leaves everyone feeling angry, defensive and misunderstood, define the problem as a chronic problem. Simply stating a factual summary of what is going on can help to create a bond of the two of you being in it together as opposed to being against each other. For example, “ok, you’re upset because I invited Jim and Jane and the kids over today when Jim doesn’t like football and you want to watch the game.” No blame, no judgment, no accusations-just stating the facts of what the conflict is about. Wait for your partner to affirm that that is indeed the problem, or if it is something more complicated, have your partner restate what the actual facts of the problem are without any negative emotions thrown in.
- Ask your partner why this particular situation is so important to them. And listen. In the above example, one partner, let’s call her Susie, would ask why having the time to watch the game quietly is important to her partner Steve, and Steve would ask why having company 3 Sundays in a row is important to Susie. The information they can learn from listening without making anyone right or wrong but just hearing the message can be invaluable. In this example, this couple learns that work has been incredibly stressful for Steve and there has been no time to take care of himself with any down time. Steve had carved out a few hours on Sunday as the restorative time he needed and when it continually was taken away it made him feel more stressed and not cared for. Susie, on the other hand, has been living with the consequences of Steve’s stress, without it being discussed or verbalized. Susie has been doing double duty with kids, house, bills and was wanting a few hours on Sunday for some much needed fun and socializing.
- Put your emotional weapons down and think about each other. What this couple learned is that one of them is overtaxed and feeling overstressed. The other one is lonely, feeling alone in the marriage., and taking on too much of the family responsibility without having enough fun. Instead of either one of them being angry and resentful, by hearing each other, it brings a bond and a connection of empathy to the conflict and it brings an opportunity for the couple to be there for the other person
- This is where You Do You and I’ll Do Me comes into play. Use what you learned and be the couple you want to be. You want to be loving, happy, balanced, fulfilled. Use what your partner is needing and give it to them. Instead of having to frantically fight for your unmet needs, use your energy towards your partner-not yourself with the knowledge that they will be doing the same for you. In this example, Susie cancelled plans for Sunday and offered to take the kids bowling so that Steve could enjoy the house to himself and have some needed alone down time. Susie also offered to give Steve a foot massage when he come home late from work one night. Steve, not wanting Susie to feel lonely and overwhelmed, hired a cleaning service to come in one day that week so that she could have a break from taking care of the home. Steve also planned a date night for the two of them so that they could connect together and have some fun as a couple.
- A fight that normally would have been all about finger pointing, blaming and shaming, instead becomes an opportunity to be the best partner each of you can be and results in a deeper understanding of your individual experiences without either of you competing to be the right one. Being right is overrated. Being in a loving relationship in which competing needs are allowed and dealt with is much more fulfilling than being the winner. If you do you and your partner does them, it allows the relationship to thrive and strengthen.