Thursday, August 06, 2015

"I'm Sorry" Doesn't Always Fix Everything

Several people have written to me over the years about issues related to anger, emotional abuse, and even physical abuse. Angry, hurtful, or uncaring outbursts can leave scars you often can't see on the outside. The following is a succinct analogy to illustrate this point. We all need to remember this when we feel tempted to lash out at a loved one.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Dismaying Story #139: Why Are We Having Petty Arguments?

Dear Andrew,

My boyfriend and I have been together for six months. He travels for work and has already been away twice, for a month at a time. The long distance sucks but I think we handle it fairly efficiently. We also have a seven year age gap, although he says it doesn’t bother him.

I have undoubtedly brought some issues to our relationship. I have pushed him by moving things more quickly than he desired and I can be insecure. Having said that, we are great together. We don’t disagree on much, have a lot in common, and we both enjoy spending time together. I can tell he cares by the way that he looks at me and how he acts toward me, but the lack of verbal reassurance can be difficult. Sometimes I feel distant and find myself wondering how he feels.

We also have a lot of trouble having effective arguments. I try to fight fairly (though not always successfully) and I don’t think he even considers it. I really try to understand where he is coming from but sometimes it seems he isn’t trying to understand my side.

The following is a recent text message conversation that has driven me to write to you. We have exchanged some photos of ourselves since he has been away. I sent him one and didn’t receive a response. Two hours later, my Facebook homepage was filled with him liking / commenting on things. Thus began our argument via texting:

Me: Hitting Facebook ahead of answering a picture of me?

Him: You would say that

Me: Well lol doesn’t exactly feel the best when you notice that your significant other has found time to do things on Facebook but not to respond to a picture you took for them

Him: Ever read a text and forgot to respond? Of course not

Me: I didn’t say that. Of course I’ve done that. Although, I’m not sure I’d forget about receiving a picture of you. But I’m sorry if that’s the case in this situation. It was a little difficult to see that come up on my homepage and not feel like I was being ignored

Him: Whatever

Me: This is exactly what I meant about feeling shut down. I’m trying to express how I feel and all I’m getting is shut down.

Him: I have other things on my mind than my girlfriend being upset that I didn’t respond to a text picture before I went on Facebook. I have bigger issues to deal with. Shut out or not, this is ridiculous.

Me: Ok

Him: It’s times like this that I find our age gap really shows

Me: Pulling the age card here is pretty unfair. I have every right to have feelings, and when I’m hurt as a result of something that you did (or didn’t do), I should be able to express myself in a constructive manner. I’m trying really hard to understand where you’re coming from, and I don’t think I’m receiving the same courtesy. I understand that you have a lot on your mind right now, and forgot to answer. So yes, it kind of hurt me, but I’m completely over that. I just don’t like that it seems like I’m not receiving any understanding, and that everything is my fault.

Him: It’s a childish conversation and I’m not having it. I’ll just delete Facebook so this doesn’t happen again. I hate these stupid little arguments.

It seems like he was first trying to make this issue my fault, and when that didn’t work he threatened to delete his Facebook to make it go away. I just don’t get it. Am I doing something wrong? What can I do to help our situation? How can I make him see that there is something seriously wrong with the way we argue? Is there any way to help him make the necessary changes?


Dear Frustrated,

I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that the two of you use some of the most common less than optimal habits when it comes to resolving conflict. The good news, however, is that you can replace those habits with more effective ones once you understand what is happening and realize there are better alternatives.

Conflict resolution is a complex topic. I’ll focus on a few key ideas that occurred to me when I read your email. Let’s start by translating part of your conversation into underlying messages:

You: Hitting Facebook ahead of answering a picture of me? (Underlying message: I’m accusing you of doing something wrong and I’m upset at you.)

Him: You would say that (I’m ignoring the issue you raised and instead accusing you of also doing something wrong.)

You: Well lol doesn’t exactly feel the best when ... (I’m accusing you of doing something wrong and I’m upset at you.)

Him: Ever read a text and forgot to respond? Of course not (I did nothing wrong. I’m accusing you of being unfair. I’m being sarcastic so you’ll know I’m upset too.)

Me: It was a little difficult to ... feel like I was being ignored (I’m accusing you of doing something wrong and I’m upset at you.)

Him: I have other things on my mind than my girlfriend being upset ... this is ridiculous. (I’m frustrated because I don’t know how to resolve the conflict.)

Notice that the underlying messages all start with “I.” Each of you expresses your own needs at every turn, rather than addressing your partner’s needs. I don’t think either of you are trying to be selfish, but the focus is clearly inward rather than outward. This leaves both of you feeling like the other doesn’t care about you, and you end up with exchanges that go like this:
“I want this.”
“Well I want that.”
“Yes, but I want this.”

You began the conversation with exactly this type of message, by stating something you wanted (for him to respond to your picture) and implying you were upset that he didn’t provide it for you. As an alternative, what if you had first considered the situation from his point of view? Were there other possible explanations for the sequence of events other than him not caring about you or your picture? Could you have given him the benefit of the doubt, at least until you talked with him?

When you have an issue, a more effective way to broach the subject is to find a positive spin. Instead of saying you’re upset about something you view as negative, turn it around and predict something great if the opposite were to happen. You might have tried something like this, which could have led to a different exchange:

You: Did you get my picture earlier? I was excited to hear what you thought of it. (Underlying message: You value his feedback and attention.)

Him: It was great

You: Glad you liked it. I was kind of disappointed you didn’t respond before but I figured you must have just forgotten. (Underlying message: You noticed the lack of response, but you’re being reasonable and understanding, and you’ve clearly considered the situation from his point of view.)

Him: Yeah sorry I was busy then and when I got back to my phone later I just forgot. It’s great though

By opening the conversation in a more positive manner, you’ve dramatically increased the chances of getting what you really wanted all along, which was for him to show appreciation for you via your picture. And because you haven’t made him feel attacked, he is more likely to apologize without feeling the need to defend himself.

His responses to you in the original conversation also left much to be desired. He employed a classic defend and deflect strategy. “I’ll explain how I’ve done nothing wrong, so the argument must be her fault for unfairly criticizing me. Besides, she does plenty of things wrong too.”

To many people this feels like a logical and appropriate response to an accusation. “If I can show that I haven’t done anything wrong, then I won’t be in trouble anymore.” Unfortunately this type of response usually makes the situation worse. When he says, “I haven’t done anything wrong,” then you hear him say, “Your concerns are invalid. There is no problem. Don’t expect me to contribute to a solution.” This tends to frustrate – and even more likely, infuriate – the person who raised the concern. You believe there’s an issue or you wouldn’t have brought it up. With this type of response from him, it’s no surprise that you sometimes feel like you’re not being heard.

Let’s look at a more effective response to your original opening salvo:

You: Hitting Facebook ahead of answering a picture of me?

At this point he needs to fight down the urge to become defensive and angry about the accusation. With a bit of practice, he can learn to ignore the manner in which you state your need and focus on the fact that you have one. He could figure out that you are feeling ignored and unappreciated, and make the whole problem go away with something like this:

Him: I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to ignore you. The pic was great! I was just busy when I got it and then I forgot when I got back to my phone. My bad.

He might feel that a response like this would make him look bad, like he was opening himself up for further criticism by admitting fault. On the contrary, this is an effective way to make himself look good. By acknowledging his own role in creating the situation, he is now making it clear he heard your statement of need and he cares enough to address it. You’re now more confident that a solution is on the way and that he will help in creating the solution.

Here’s a good rule that both of you should use. When one of you states a request for change, the other must resist the urge to respond with a counter-accusation. Stick to the first request without muddying the waters with other topics.

The two of you are also dealing with a gender gap issue. You’re very interested in talking about feelings, whereas he’d be happier if the topic never came up. To you, feelings are what relationships are all about. He, on the other hand, feels no need to tell anyone about his feelings so the issue feels trivial and “ridiculous” to him.

This is another area where each of you approached this conversation from your own point of view rather than your partner’s. You could be more effective by realizing that talking about your feelings is likely to make his eyes glaze over. I’m not saying that’s fair to you -- it’s just that he doesn’t seem to have the empathy at this point to deal with extensive discussions about feelings. You’re likely banging your head against the wall by explaining your position in that manner. As I described earlier, try stating your need in terms of a possible positive outcome.

He, on the other hand, could be more effective by recognizing that you being upset is, all by itself, enough of a reason for him to help. It shouldn’t matter if he doesn’t understand or agree with your apparent reasons for being unhappy. It shouldn’t matter if you state your unhappiness in an imperfect way. In my world, if my wife thinks there is a problem, then there is, by definition, a very real problem and it’s my job to help make it go away. (...unless she just wants me to listen and stop short of going into Mr. Fixit mode, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Often all it takes is for one of you to be the hero and respond with, “Yes, I understand. I’m sorry.” That’s usually enough to start draining the tension away.

With both of you using less than optimal strategies, it’s no surprise that your conversations sometimes degenerate into bickering. Obviously you can choose to make changes on your side, but you might be wondering how to get him to change his ways. There are a few things you can try. One would be to get him to read this article. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if he is less than excited about reading a post by some Internet relationship guy. If that approach doesn’t work, I suggest you focus on your own behavior, not his. The simple reason is that you can’t control how he acts. You can only control your own actions.

If that sounds like bad news, it isn’t. Making choices regarding your own behavior provides all the control you need to initiate change. You are half of the relationship. He acts, you react, then he reacts to what you just did. In other words, you’ve just influenced his actions. The question is whether you’ll influence his actions effectively, in directions that will strengthen your relationship.

The next time you’re tempted to say something negative that he might interpret as a criticism, first try thinking of the situation from his point of view as well as your own. Bring up the topic in a way that makes it clear you’ve looked at it from both sides. Use positive messages more often than negative. Hopefully this will encourage him to do the same.

Finally, don’t lose hope when your change process takes time. It took many years for both of you to develop your current strategies for dealing with conflict, and it will take time to ingrain new habits.

Hopefully that gives you a few ideas to get the two of you started in a better direction. Good luck!

All the best,

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Friday, June 28, 2013

Dismaying Story #138: Her Rage versus His Insecurity

Dear Andrew,

My husband has an odd mix of traits that make him wonderful on so many levels. He is brilliant, affable, funny, and down-to-earth. He is passionate, capable and with certain people, compassionate to a very high degree. He’s handsome and affectionate. He’s a good provider for our family and has no problem doing housework. In fact, he excels at both! So how could I dare speak against such perfection when so many women would KILL to have a guy even a hundredth this awesome? Because there are some deep-rooted psychological issues that I’ve attempted to help resolve, but I’ve been unsuccessful.

My husband grew up in a trailer-park to an alcoholic, abusive father and an accommodating doormat of a mother. His environment could be described as squalor, he said. At one point, his father was arrested for assault after threatening his mother with a gun. My husband was probably ten or so and his refusal to move from in front of his mother saved her life. His father and younger brother purportedly did nothing while he and his mother did all the cleaning, cooking, laundry, etc. Essentially, they enabled.

My husband graduated high school and married his high school sweetheart, with a daughter born not long after. His wife, sadly, had several challenges that stemmed from childhood trauma, such as debilitating OCD and crippling insecurity that led to risky sexual behavior like multiple affairs. Two additional children and worsening symptoms later and he was in front of a court-appointed counselor who recommended that he should leave his wife and take the children with him, or the courts would do it instead.

Then he met a woman with two even younger children who was about to become homeless. He re-married, but she was abusive, hateful and entitled. He went from having $30,000 in the bank to being $40,000 in the hole. She publicly humiliated him and privately emasculated him. He didn’t want to be a two-time loser so he stayed and became a miserable, functioning escapist via alcohol, porn, and mild drug use.

Eventually he left her and met me six months later. I spent the first six months of our relationship reminding him I’m not one of his exes. He would project based on their past behaviors. We eventually married but we’re struggling in a few areas.

I was raised in a home where the physical environment was the exact opposite of his. My parents were so controlling, so perfectionistic, that they threatened to burn all my clothes but one outfit if I didn’t keep them perfectly washed, folded and put away at all times. I wasn’t allowed to shut my door because that is a sign of people who are doing something wrong and they threatened to take it off the hinges if I did. I was told to be seen and not heard. Laughing and singing was considered obnoxious and I was quickly slapped or beaten for speaking out of turn. EVERYTHING I did was criticized, belittled or shamed. I left as quickly as I was able but carried many emotional scars. It took two failed marriages of my own and a lot of counseling to get to where I was able to have some semblance of inner peace. I learned how to keep things clean without being obsessed about it and that it’s okay to let go of the need to be perfect.

Enter my husband. A dish left unwashed causes him to obsess that things are going to revert back to his childhood days. The only time he can relax is if he is surrounded by the starkest, cleanest of environments. If he had his way, while we were taking our last bite of food, we would be walking to the sink to wash the dish so as not to leave any dish undone for any length of time. Clothes are the same way. Leaving a nightgown or PJs on the bed so I can rewear them the next night makes him stressed. Keeping a hairbrush or medication or a toothbrush on the bathroom counter is intolerable. And while some people would say, just tell him to clean it up himself, that means he is entering into other peoples’ spaces and cleaning up others peoples’ things, putting them where he wants them to go or pitching them if he feels like it. Which is invasive, controlling and extraordinarily inconsiderate.

He admits to obsessing over things but denies that it’s detrimental. He says, “It’s who I am and I can’t change what I feel. It’s hard-wired into me from my childhood.” He feels that as long as he is able to control his environment, he is able to have peace and we should all help him achieve that peace if we love him. While he doesn’t belittle or shame us, it’s obvious he’s distressed over every little thing. I have successfully convinced him to leave my side of the room alone, but in shared spaces, such as the bathroom, he refuses.

Because I grew up in a very aggressive, very violent household, I learned all about rage very early. I experienced passive-aggressive behavior on a daily basis. It took me years to learn successful coping skills to prevent going into a rage or acting passive-aggressively when something upsets me. My technique is to calmly state that while I want to resolve the situation, I am feeling very emotional and very stressed and feel it’s best to remove myself from it for a time. I reassure him that I will come back to resolve it when I am calmer and more able to think clearly. My husband takes this as outright rejection. In the past he has followed me wherever I went, demanding that I talk to him NOW and saying that my behavior is unbiblical and is equivalent to asking for a divorce. When I forced him to go to counseling to get an outside, third-party perspective, he saw the harm that his aggression was causing, but he still hasn’t been able to let go of the feeling of abandonment and rejection. In spite of every effort to reassure him (even while trying to stifle extreme anger), it doesn’t register with him that my coping skill has nothing to do with punishing him, but that I simply need to be where it’s calm and quiet so I can think and regroup.

So, there are my two issues. How do I deal with his need for perfection? And secondly, when we’re arguing and I need to be alone for a while, how do I deal with the constant texting about how alone he feels and how rejected he feels?

Again, it seems so ridiculous to be complaining at all when so much of him is the stuff of dreams! It’s just that these two problems are the source of 99% of our disagreements. Even if it seems we’re disagreeing about who left a dish out, what we’re really talking about is his perfectionism and inability to overcome it. Or, if we’re arguing about his invasion of space and my need for solitude, we’re really talking about his inability to step outside of his own needs and trust. Which is so strange because in most circumstances, he is extraordinarily empathetic. But when he’s emotional, he ceases to be rational. And while learning effective coping skills would work great for him, he doesn’t think he has a problem. He blames others for having a problem with him. It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s exhausting.


Dear Perplexed,

You say the physical environment you had while growing up was the exact opposite of your husband’s, but I think you’ll agree that your childhood experiences include an unfortunate common element; you both had to deal with abusive situations. I hate that the two of you had to endure the abuse you’ve described, and I’m sorry to hear about your current problems.

Abused children are tremendously affected in myriad ways, many of which exhibit themselves as challenges during adulthood. One common pattern is for such children to struggle with adult relationships. Your letter mentions several of the ways in which this can happen, such as:
  • Tolerating abuse or other negative behavior when it starts to occur with a partner, perhaps due to low self esteem or because you’re used to dealing with it;
  • Interpreting your partner’s behavior in the context of the previous abuse you’ve received — constantly looking for negative ways to interpret their behavior, rarely giving them the benefit of the doubt; and
  • Bringing various insecurities and sensitivities into a relationship.
This last category seems most highly related to the two primary challenges you mentioned — the struggle over standards of cleanliness and your differing approaches to conflict resolution.

First of all, you shouldn’t question the need to deal with such issues. A problem is still a problem, even if many other aspects of your relationship are wonderful.

The last paragraph of your letter makes the distinction between topics and issues. When you talk about whether or not he should touch your toothbrush, that’s a topic. His desire to move the toothbrush and your desire for him not to do so are just the visible symptoms. The true issues run much deeper. You’ve touched on some of the issues, such as the inner distress you both admit to feeling in certain situations. You both seem to be aware that these issues stem from your past experiences to some degree.

Your frustration is obvious in your letter. You’re searching for ways to exert some control, a path you can take that will lead to improvements. I can promise that discussing the symptoms (the topics) will not effectively deal with the underlying issues. You’ve already seen that. You can ask him to leave your mess alone until you’re blue in the face, but he’ll still feel the same anxiety inside.

Identifying an underlying issue is a necessary first step to resolving it, but it’s not a full solution. This sounds like something you’ve tried. You believe he’s obsessing and you’ve told him so. Unfortunately the types of issues you’re dealing with are long-standing and complex. Pointing them out is not enough to make them go away. That’s like coming across a highly claustrophobic person who is unfortunate enough to be trapped in an elevator. You can say to them, “Oh, I know what this is. It’s claustrophobia, so you can stop being anxious now.” That’s clearly not going to work, just like it hasn’t worked for you to point out what you see as his issues.

By the way, I understand his position when he says, “This is just how I am, I’ve always been this way, and I’ll never change.” He believes this to be the absolute truth. From his point of view, he has been like that for as long as he can remember. Nothing has ever happened to change his experience, so it’s an understandable assumption on his part that nothing could ever change it.

I said I understand his belief. I also disagree with it. Just as our internal and external behaviors are shaped by our experiences, we can re-shape and re-learn new behaviors. When past traumas are involved, however, the re-learning process almost certainly requires extensive work with trained professionals and comes with no guarantee of eventual success. The individual must be highly committed to the process, so often it’s easier to say, “It can’t be done. This is just who I am.”

Okay, now let’s move on to some good news. I do have one suggestion that I believe will help you feel less perplexed and a bit more in control of whether your interactions with your husband have positive outcomes.

Here’s a fundamental truth I’d like you to wrap your head around: You can’t control his behavior; you can only control your own.

At first that might sound like bad news. After all, your letter clearly states that you believe he’s the problem and you’d like to know how you can deal with it. I suggest you take a moment and re-read the last paragraph of your letter above. In describing each of your two issues, you use the phrase “his inability.” You describe your standards of cleanliness as within normal bounds, while his need for perfection is obsessive. Your approach for handling conflict is apparently a reasonable strategy you’ve developed in response to your past traumas, whereas his approach is an unreasonable “inability” that has arisen from his past traumas.

According to you, you’re right and he’s wrong. You’d like to keep doing exactly what you’re doing, and you’d like to know how to change his response.

You haven’t mentioned anything about changing the part you can control — your own behavior. And that’s where the good news comes in. Every relationship is a give and take. You act, he reacts, then you react to his reaction. In other words, both of you have just influenced the other. The key to success is to realize that the most effective way to influence the situation in a good direction is to behave in ways that promote positive outcomes.

A further insight is related to this “I’m right, he’s wrong” business. There’s a spectrum of possible behavior for each of the two issues you mentioned. Let’s start with your standards of cleanliness. Your husband seems to be toward the “ultimate clean freak” end of the spectrum, while you’re able to exist quite comfortably in the midst of a bit more clutter. Statistically speaking, I suspect a larger number of people would tend to be similar to you rather than him in this respect, but that doesn’t make you right and him wrong. It just means the two of you are different. Your approach feels right and comfortable to you, as does his to him.

I’m willing to bet there are untold numbers of men to whom you could be married where this situation would be reversed. In other words, many men would consider your standards of cleanliness WAY too stringent when compared with their own preferences. Imagine being married to the guy who considers it a waste of energy to make the bed more often than Christmas and Easter. He leaves his tightie wighties on the floor in front of the shower every morning, and no amount of reminding or downright nagging is enough to get him to drop them in the laundry hamper instead. You have the daily pleasure of either picking them up yourself or looking at them every time you walk into the bathroom. If you want to talk about statistical probabilities, this is the situation I hear about more often than yours.

In both types of situations, the problem isn’t that one partner is right and the other is wrong. The issue is that each of you feels comfortable within a certain range of cleanliness along the spectrum, and your ranges don’t overlap. You haven’t been able to come up with a common compromise where you can both be comfortable and happy.

The same is true with your respective approaches to conflict resolution. You’re more comfortable being apart immediately after the onset of conflict (so you can deal with your rage), whereas he’s more comfortable being together at that time (so he doesn’t feel rejected). Both of you have your own needs. Both of you feel justified in those needs.

Both of you have the opportunity to change your own approach.

Neither of you is inclined to do so.


The underlying assumption embodied in your letter is that your approach should stay the same and he should change. What if you opened up the possibility that you could both change? If you think about that, I bet you’ll agree that this doubles the possibility of finding a common comfort zone along those spectrums I described above. If both people can move toward middle ground (rather than only one of you) then successful compromise is more likely.

As an example, let’s talk about your rage reaction. I get the sense you’ve accepted that this will always be a part of your life. Your coping strategy isn’t about avoiding rage. Instead, the rage comes over you and you find a way to ride it out in isolation.

What if you could learn a different reaction to conflict, one that doesn’t involve rage? Pick a situation where you became enraged and had to withdraw so you could regain control of your emotions. Many, many people could be presented with exactly the same stimuli and have no anger reaction. “That’s true,” you might say, “but they don’t have my background. Unfortunately the rage is part of who I am and I can’t change what I feel. It’s hard-wired into me due to the very aggressive, very violent household in which I grew up.”

Hmmm. That sounds a lot like the argument your husband offers for why he can’t change. I’ll offer you the same rebuttal; it is possible for you to re-learn how to react to conflict, although admittedly that would require commitment to change and plenty of hard work with the support of a professional. Imagine if you could remove or lessen your rage reactions. I’m betting you would enjoy life more, and the two of you would have one less issue standing in the way of compromise.

I suspect the two of you share more similarities than you might be willing to admit. You’ve both suffered tremendous emotional trauma. You’ve both endured the pain of multiple failed relationships. You both have complex, deep-rooted issues that affect your current ability to compromise with your partner.

And you both have many wonderful qualities that make it WELL worth whatever effort it takes to find those compromises.

I’m not trying to downplay the difficulties of dealing with issues stemming from childhood abuse, but I do believe you can increase your chances of shared happiness if you (a) gain a bit more understanding and empathy for his point of view (rather than simply considering him to be wrong), and (b) open up the possibility of two-way compromise, rather than expecting all the concessions to come from him.

I’m so glad you chose to write to me. You clearly care a great deal about your husband and your marriage. He’s lucky to have such a caring spouse, and I suspect that one fact will go a long way toward helping the two of you be happy together. I wish you both the best of luck!

All the best,

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Dismaying Story #137: The Talkative Partner

Dear Andrew,

We've all heard the Golden Rule before: “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Usually, I find this to be sage advice, however, I'm starting to get the feeling that this behavior is driving a wedge between me and my partner.

I prefer a more verbal communication style. I ask my partner to share his thoughts with me because it makes me feel like my partner trusts me and I feel like it gives me a chance to see a side of him no one else does; therefore, I try to role-model this behavior by talking about my innermost thoughts and desires in the hopes that it will encourage him to open up. My partner, on the other hand, seems to prefer a more silent approach, where hugs and kisses are supposed to communicate these deeper feelings. For example, about 15 minutes after having an argument, my partner pulled me aside, gave me a kiss, and said “I love you.” I later found out that he considered that an apology, but I was looking for an acknowledgement of his role in the argument and a clear-cut apology.

I recognize that my partner probably doesn't want to hear me babble on and would prefer a more reserved approach, but I also feel that if I stop role-modeling the kind of attention I want to receive, I will never get what I want. How do you reconcile differences in how you want to be treated?

Signed, Chatter Box

Dear Talkative One,

I can understand your desire to be with someone who fulfills your needs. We all want that. It seems, however, that the way you’re trying to achieve this isn’t creating the desired outcome. Let’s examine why.

For starters, I could interpret “Do unto others” somewhat differently in your scenario. You interpret it as communicating openly with him in hopes he will communicate openly in return. What you’re actually doing, though, is trying to change him. You’d like him to behave in a way that doesn’t come naturally to him. So if he were to treat you the same way you’re treating him, he would use his natural behavior (which he’s already exhibiting) in an effort to change you. He’d try to get you to adopt his communication style. That would likely result in an unproductive stalemate.

You’d like him to make you feel good, so the golden rule suggests you should find a way to make him feel good. As you’ve described it, however, your babbling is intended to satisfy your needs, not his.

Every person and every relationship evolves over time, so it’s natural – even necessary – to ask for change once in a while from our significant others. It’s generally a recipe for disaster, however, to enter into a relationship knowing you’ll only be happy once you’ve changed something fundamental about your partner. I’m not saying that’s what you’ve done, but you have to be careful about trying to change your partner’s basic personality. I get the sense you’re effusive and he’s more reserved. If so, you might as well accept right now that this will always be his general nature. No amount of asking, modeling, or pressuring will change someone’s core traits.

Here are a couple of questions you should ask yourself. Will you be happy only once you’ve changed his basic nature? Or will it be enough if he can learn a few tricks of the trade so he can fulfill your needs better? If it’s the latter, we can start think about how to teach him ways to accomplish that.

One of you has to break the impasse by taking the first positive step. I suggest you do so, for the simple reason that you can make that happen but you can’t choose for him to do so. One of the most effective ways to begin making changes is to first acknowledge your own role in how things have gone so far.

You mention using role modeling as a way to ask for change. That’s unfair to him, in a sense, because it requires him to guess why you’re acting that way. He could be forgiven for coming to the most obvious conclusion, which is that you’re sharing your inner thoughts because that’s what you naturally like to do. You could admit to him that your explicit objective in doing this was to encourage him to do the same, and then you could apologize for becoming frustrated with him when he didn’t take the hint. This is an example of what I mean by taking the first positive step. You start to ease any existing tensions by offering an apology.

Another well known chestnut is not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He offered you the gift of an apology after your argument. He did so using language that took a while for you to decode, but nonetheless he was sincerely trying to make up. Your response was to be critical of his gift. It would be good if the two of you can come together on how to state apologies so they work best for both of you. Since that hasn’t happened yet, your initial olive branch might include an apology for not being more gracious in accepting his attempt on that occasion.

Finally, I suggest you forget your strategy of hoping he’ll take your hints. Instead, simply flat out ask for what you want … but with a few caveats:
  • Be conscious of putting a positive spin on your requests. Avoid saying things like, “I hate it when you’re quiet all the time.” Instead try this: “It makes me feel special when you share your innermost thoughts and dreams. Will you do that for me sometimes?” Rather than predicting failure if he doesn’t comply, predict great success that will come from the requested change.
  • Don’t ask for more than he can deliver. Like I discussed above, asking him to change his fundamental nature is likely to end in failure.
  • Be as specific as you can. Something like “Will you please be more talkative?” is too general, because it’s difficult for him to know specifically what he should do to make you happier. Instead, ask for something he can do right now: “It would make me feel better if you acknowledged your role in that argument. Will you please do that for me?” And by the way, that one works better if you’ve just finished acknowledging your own role.
  • Avoid the dreaded C words – ‘can’ and ‘could.’ We men can be literal creatures, so a request like, “Can you tell me what you’re thinking?” is often interpreted as, “Do you have the ability to tell me?” You’re not questioning his capabilities; you want him to take action, so state it that way: “Will you tell me?”
I get the sense from your email that you and your partner have plenty of positive things going for you. His giving nature prompted him to proactively offer up an apology after your argument. You obviously care enough about the relationship that you’ve given the issues serious thought and have reached out for help. Hopefully you’ll find my suggestions helpful in reconciling your differences. I wish you the best of luck and I’d love to hear how things turn out.

All the best,

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Question of the Week #29: How Well Do You Handle Criticism?

That moment when someone criticizes you. They might not even mean to do so, but the words are out there and the instantaneous flash of emotion has roiled up inside you.

This is one of those dangerous moments that can create all sorts of conflict between couples, friends, family members, co-workers ... you name a relationship and criticism is a great way to muck things up.

Or not, depending on how the two of you handle the situation. And this really is a matter for the two of you, because two related but entirely different skill sets come into play.

Let's suppose your significant other asks you this: "Hey Hon, what do you think of these shoes?" And let's further assume you don't particularly like those shoes. Which of these responses would be closest to your style?
  • "They look great!" (Avoiding handing out a criticism, even if it means being less than truthful.)
  • "Maybe ... what do you think?" (Does that fence hurt?)
  • "Oh you know me, I really like your black shoes, so anything else just pales in comparison." (Trying to deliver the negative message so it sounds like a positive.)
  • "You've always been terrible at picking out shoes!" (Hey, when you believe you're right, go in with all guns blazing. Hopefully you've got the divorce lawyer on speed dial.)
What if you're the one wearing the shoes and you got the message loud and clear - your partner thinks your ability to choose shoes sucks. Be honest now - how do you tend to react?
  • You recognize the value of an honest opinion and are happy for the help.
  • You feel an immediate flash of anger but you manage to stop yourself from responding in kind.
  • "Oh yeah? Well what about those ugly brown things you always wear every time we go to your mother's?"
We're all human, so most of us manage to let criticisms fall out of our mouth from time to time, whether intentionally or otherwise. And it's easy for your feelings to get hurt when you're the one being criticized.

Are there are other factors for you too, such as whether the topic is something that feels particularly important to you? What if you're tired or already grouchy? How about if the two of you have been at each other's throats about other things just before the shoe debacle went down? Would you tend to react differently?

There are a number of actions that can reduce tension in situations like this, like making it clear you're doing everything you can to avoid giving offense, or offering a sincere apology. What have you found that works for when you need to calm the waters?

How important do you think this issue ranks in terms of factors that threaten the harmony of our relationships? I'd love to hear about your opinions and experiences.

All the best,

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dismaying Story #136: A Recipe for Emotional Healing

Dear Andrew,

I read Dismaying Story #100: Getting Past a Rape and it struck a deep chord within me. I grew up in an emotionally and physically abusive house and was kicked out when I was 13 by my brother’s father. (I am the oldest of three, each with different fathers). He kicked me out for eating his Oreo cookies. Mom moved me into an apartment across town where I lived by myself for several months. She would come by after work and check on me, then go back to his house with my brother and sister.

A man broke in one night and raped me. I don’t even know what color he was because he put a sheet over him, and then placed it over me. When I was about 15-16, the man I babysat for would bring me home at night, after first making a stop in a dark elementary school parking lot, where he would force me to perform oral sex on him while he touched me. This was a pattern repeated multiple times. He was very well-known in the community (still is), a successful businessman, handsome, well-liked, wealthy, married with two children. I couldn’t tell anybody, not even mom, because she thought he was so wonderful.

Another reason I couldn’t tell her was that she didn’t initially believe I was raped. My brother’s father would touch me inappropriately at various times and when I told her, she didn’t believe that either. She said I was imagining it. She wouldn’t have believed me about this other man either.

I am in counseling with a therapist who specializes in PTSD. He told me that I need to forgive, not for the rapists, but for me. Only thing is, I don’t know how to do that. I understand the logic behind his words, but that is all I understand.

The man who I babysat for is now 71, he was in his 40s at the time. Some years ago, I called the police and they said there was a statute of limitations and if I reported him, called him out, or in any manner tried to do anything about it now, this man could sue me for slander. There is so much hate and anger in me that I don’t know how to rid myself of it. Realizing that I am only poisoning myself doesn’t help me get rid of the violent emotions inside of me.

Is there some guidepost to forgiveness? Like I told my counselor, I am a great cook and can follow any recipe I find, but forgiveness is ethereal. There seems to be no recipe to follow. I can't grasp it in my hands, look at it, smell it, taste it, mold it, and so I don't know how to do it.

Signed, Feeling Trapped By My Emotional Pain

Dear Feeling Trapped,

First of all, I am so sorry for the pain you’ve had to endure, both in the past and also today. I haven’t lived through your experiences and so I can’t (and don’t want to) pretend that I understand what you’ve gone through. Only someone who has walked in your shoes can truly say “I understand.” It’s clear, though, that the events you describe are horrific. It’s no surprise that trying to heal from all of that is tremendously challenging.

I’m glad you’re working with a therapist, and one who has specialized credentials. I urge you to continue. No doubt you already know this, but just to be clear for anyone who might read this post: Any thoughts that I might offer should never be considered as an alternative to working with a professional. Nonetheless, you’ve asked for my help and I certainly would like to do whatever I can.

If you haven't already done so, I urge you to forgive yourself for whatever guilt you might still have regarding your role in the abuse. You did not cause it ... not ANY of it. There is no behavior that a teenage girl could do that would / should cause any type of abuse to come your way. You didn't invite it and you didn't deserve it, not in any way. None of it was your fault.

You asked about forgiveness. You want to rid yourself of hate and anger and violent emotions. Can someone in your position really decide to ‘forgive’ the hurtful people from your past, and therefore get past those emotions? And what does forgiveness mean in that context?

Some people find the word forgiveness disconcerting because we associate that word with an action directed at the tormentors. The meaning here is that you need to stop hating. You’ve spent so much time and energy on actively feeling the rage. It has consumed far too much of your life. It is horrible that those abusers and rapists ruined your past, so you need to find ways of preventing them from ruining your future as well.

No doubt your therapist has explained that this is not about absolving your abusers of their responsibility for hurting you. By getting past the hate, you are not accepting in any way that what they did is somehow okay. In fact, the process you need to go through has nothing to do with them. It’s all about healing you, and only you.

If I’m reading your letter correctly, the painful emotions have been ever present inside you for around thirty years, or even longer if we consider that you grew up in an abusive home. You’ve endured decades of negative thoughts and feelings. This is not just a set of events you need to get past; your entire lifetime has been characterized by the hate and anger. You’ve been conditioned over and over again to associate emotional pain with your memories. Every time you remember the past and feel the emotional pain, you become even more strongly conditioned to associate one with the other. Feeling the anger is not a choice you make, it’s a conditioned response … and an understandable one given what you have gone through.

I doubt very much if there is a single person on the planet who could get past that type of decades-long conditioning simply by deciding to do so. It would be staggeringly difficult to say, “Okay, as of this moment I won’t be angry at those people anymore.” Our brains just don’t work that way. It takes much more than that do undo the conditioning.

In short, this type of healing is a process, not an event.

The process starts with your decision to let go of the anger. This is a necessary step, but the decision itself is not what will lessen your anger. Instead, that decision is what starts you down the road to accomplishing a longer-term goal.

The fact that you are working with a therapist is a good indication that you have already decided you want this for yourself. I believe you are already on the road, although you may not recognize the signposts, nor where the road can take you.

Can you imagine a day in the future when the rage is gone? Or at least when it is reduced to some manageable level so you can proceed happily with your day? I bet that sounds like a tremendously tough thing to accomplish. After all, your experience so far has been that your anguish is never ending. Not only can’t you see the light at the end of the tunnel, you may not even be convinced that the tunnel HAS an opening at the end. It can be difficult to muster the courage to take the first step when the road ahead looks impossibly long.

So perhaps one way to get started with your healing process is to set a tiny goal that you have a good chance of achieving, and quickly.

What kind of goal? Well what you’re really after is to spend time without rage and hatred in your heart. Any amount of time you can spend like that is a victory. In psychological terms, each time you do that is a conditioning event where you start to associate ‘you’ with happy thoughts, rather than ‘you’ with anger. This is one way to start breaking the old familiar feedback cycle in your mind.

You can think of a conditioned response (your anger) as habitual behavior, which arises when you have certain thoughts. Right now this happens often. I’m sure you would like to reduce the frequency.

I happen to believe we don’t ‘break’ habits. Instead, we replace them with new behaviors. One starting goal you might set for yourself is to engage your mind in a more positive way. The idea is to make it so the negative emotions have no room to live inside you, even if only for a small amount of time. Maybe it’s half an hour. Heck, maybe it’s only five minutes.

The type of positive activity that will be effective for you is as individual as you are. Some people achieve inner peace through meditation or long walks. Others lose themselves in exercise or a creative activity like painting or sculpting. Perhaps talking with your therapist, a good friend or a support group allows you to spend some time basking in the light, keeping the dark at bay. Whatever turns out to work for you, each moment of peace is proof that you can exert some level of control over your situation, even if it is only briefly and even if the control is tenuous.

It’s a start. And we can even do better than that.

I’m going to take an educated guess that self esteem is part of the issue. How could it not be? Ever since you were young you’ve had people demonstrating how unimportant you must be. Your step-father valued a bag of Oreo cookies more than you. That forced your mother to choose which was more important to her, you or him. She chose him. The men who raped and sexually abused you clearly valued their momentary gratification more than your well being. Who could blame you for coming to the inescapable conclusion that you are not worth much?

Well let me tell you – those people were SO wrong. You are every bit as worthy and deserving of happiness as every other person on the planet. It’s important that you start to gain faith in this as part of your emotional healing. You need to recapture the feelings of self worth that those people did their best to steal from you. By discovering how great you really are, you will recover the lost treasure – you will recover yourself!

In my experience, the best way for you to discover how great you are is for others to show how much they appreciate having you in their life. That’s why I suggest you choose your positive activities with one word in mind – giving.

When we give of ourselves, we usually get back much more. I’m betting that will be ultra true for you. Here are some ideas you might consider.

Drop by an old folks home and spend some time reading to the residents. Many dog owners are shut ins, elderly, or workaholics … so take their dog out for some exercise. The next time you’re out with your girlfriend, tell her how glad you are that she is your friend. Help your co-worker meet her deadline, even when (especially when) it’s not your job to do so. Hold a door open for the person behind you.

The possibilities are endless, the opportunities are every day, and the payoffs can be tremendous. The personal satisfaction you gain will momentarily help to crowd out the hate. Each time you hear “Thank you” and “You’re amazing” – well, those kind words will start to erect protective barriers of self esteem. Over time those fences will make it harder and harder for the anger to find its way back in.

So that’s my recipe for forgiveness. Over time, find repeated opportunities to re-learn what an amazing person you are, crowding out the anger as frequently and in as many ways as you can.

Here are a few ingredients that are important for making the recipe work:
  • Be patient. Don’t become discouraged if it seems like the process is taking a long time. You’ve spent decades getting to this point, so give yourself permission to spend whatever time it takes to help yourself.
  • Don’t try to do it all alone. Look for help wherever you might find it, whether that’s with friends, professionals, books, online, wherever. Make use of whatever seems to work for you.
  • Recognize that partial victories are still victories. Finding yourself angry from time to time doesn’t mean you are failing. If you can eventually hold the pain at bay enough so it’s manageable, that is still a huge victory.
  • Expect to go through peaks and valleys. Don’t let the dark days convince you that the good days will never return.
  • Celebrate your victories, no matter how small. Use them to help motivate you that gradual success is not only possible, it is inevitable!
On that last point, here’s one thing you really need to understand: You’ve already achieved several victories! Despite the tremendous hardships you’ve gone through, you’ve survived and become a person with some obviously strong life skills. You were able to recognize and admit your challenges, form a goal to find help, identify and obtain appropriate professional help, listen to and really hear his advice, and work hard to find a way to implement the advice. You communicate well and you’re clearly a problem solver. And I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface.

I can assure you of this – you’ve already begun the process of healing and you’ve already achieved some significant victories. Take heart in that and keep going.

Again, I am so sorry for what you’ve had to endure. It is definitely possible to re-gain your happiness, and it sounds like you’re doing the right things to get there. Please know that at least one person in the universe is pulling hard for you to do exactly that!

All the best,

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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Foreplay That Really Works

Mark Twain popularized the saying that there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Twain realized it can be devilishly difficult to flush out the true meaning behind sets of numbers.

As a case in point, news organizations all over the world have recently been trumpeting the news of a paper published by lead author Sabino Kornrich in the current issue of the American Sociological Review. This study surveyed 4500 American couples to test the link between sexual frequency and husband’s participation in housework.

Prevailing wisdom for many years has been that men who roll up their sleeves and pitch in around the house are more likely to have appreciative wives who are less tired, less stressed out, and more likely to see their guys as sexually attractive. Several studies have supported this notion. For example, sociologists at the University of California, Riverside report the results of a survey involving 3500 American children and their parents. This work showed that “… wives interpret husbands’ domestic contributions as a sign of love and caring and are therefore more sexually attracted to their mates.”

As another example, in 2010 Constance Gager of Montclair State University published the results of a similar survey of 6800 American couples, which showed that wives and husbands who spend more hours in housework report more frequent sex.

Kornrich’s study suggests the opposite is true if the type of housework is taken into account. He asked husbands and wives what percentage of the work they did when it came to “core” housework (tasks more traditionally thought of as the woman’s responsibility, such as cooking and cleaning) versus “non-core” work (tasks more traditionally associated with men, such as mowing the lawn or household repairs).

The analysis found a negative correlation between the percentage of “core” tasks done by the men and the number of times the couples reported having sex in the previous month. In other words, couples where the men did more “women’s work” are the same couples who reported less sex.

This has resulted in some sensational headlines. Here are a couple of recent examples:

“More Sex Is In Store For Husbands Who Do Less Chores Around The House” blares the Huffington Post.

Yahoo! News puts it this way: “Want to have more sex? Men, stop helping with the chores”

Guys, take it from me – don’t you believe it! And I can explain why.

The news headlines above clearly imply that men helping with the chores causes less sex to happen. Various articles suggest such causal factors as the possibility that women might see their husbands as less manly if the guys do “women’s work.”

Sorry, but this is not what the research shows. You see, Mark Twain had it right. You have to be careful when interpreting statistical results.

The issue lies in the difference between correlation and causation. Let me illustrate with an example.

Let’s suppose we gathered statistics at various times on the height of the tide on a particular beach, as well as the position of the Moon as it moves around the Earth. We would, of course, find a correlation between the two. One conclusion might be that the movement of the water on our beach somehow causes the Moon to move into different positions in the sky. Scientists, however, tell us the opposite causal relationship is true; the Moon’s gravitational pull influences the tides.

The same issue arises with the correlation between helpful hubbies and how often they end up in the bedroom. Which one causes the other? Or are there other variables not included in the study that might somehow influence this correlation?

I can think of several possibilities:
  • In marriages where sex is less frequent (for any number of reasons), perhaps the husbands are prone to try whatever they can to entice their wives, including helping out more around the house. (And it might be that the frequency of lovemaking would be even less without these efforts.)
  • Couples who enjoy sex more frequently might also be the kinds of free spirits who are less picky about how clean the house is kept.
  • The lower frequency of sex might occur in couples where the wives are more tired and stressed, which is also why the hubbies are stepping up to help out more.
  • Guys who are secure in their marriage might be able to get away with helping out less without affecting the health of their relationships.

I could go on and on. The point is that there are plenty of possible reasons for the correlation. I understand why some folks might think the statistics imply the somewhat sensational idea that a husband who helps out is likely to inhibit the couple’s sex life. That causal relationship is simply not shown, however, by Kornrich’s research.

And notice I am not questioning the original research. Kornrich’s paper is valid, interesting, and published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal. My issue is with news headlines that imply marriages might be better off if husbands stick to more traditional household tasks. In my opinion, the exact opposite is true.

I should also point out how much “more sex” actually means in this case. Kornrich found that all couples taken together reported having sex an average of about 5.5 times in the month preceding the survey. Even for the most extreme case – couples where men do all of the “core” housework versus leaving all of it for the wives – the statistics predict a difference of only about 1.5 sexual interludes per month. While statistically significant, I’m not sure we’re talking about life changing differences here.

But here’s the biggest reason why I wanted to write this post. This is more to me than just a quibble over how to interpret statistics. My reasons have to do with you – the community of To Love, Honor, and Dismay readers.

Several articles have appeared on this site related to housework and supportive spouses. Readers have chimed in with a gratifyingly large number of comments and suggestions. The topics range from the effectiveness of traditional work sharing, how to ask your man for help, and this humorous look at the link between helpful hubbies and amorous wives.

Several messages have become clear in the course of this discussion:
  • Many women could use more help around the house;
  • Wives are not overly thrilled with this situation and have tried letting their husbands know about it, but with mixed results;
  • Frequent stress over this issue is common;
  • If this goes on long enough, many women give up and just stop asking; they figure if they’re going to end up doing all the work anyway, they might as well skip the arguments; and
  • Guys who do help out are usually very much appreciated … and sometimes in ways the guys are likely to enjoy.

This sort of feedback is why I decided to write a book entitled Housework Harmony: How To End The Chore Wars So You Both Win, which is scheduled to be published in the next few months. It is also why men who want to improve their marriage (including their sex life) would NOT be wise to try doing so by letting their wives handle all the housework alone. I suspect that would tend to backfire in rather spectacular fashion.

So as my final response to all those headlines, I’ll leave you with the following reader feedback, which I gathered from earlier posts. My thanks to everyone for your continued support and participation!

All the best,

Guys, here’s some “been there, done that” advice from a number of wives. You might notice there’s a certain consistency in the messages:
  • “I can vouch for the fact that there is nothing sexier than a man loading the dishwasher, washing the floor or bathing and putting his children to bed. I mean absolutely nothing!”
  • “My husband helps out because he wants me to feel appreciated, nay, cherished and it works! Some male friends don’t understand why he is always helping out but that may be because they are not around to appreciate the rewards he reaps when we are alone. ;-)”
  • “I would leave a comment, but I’m due in the bedroom. You see DH did the dishes, helped with dinner, and did some handyman stuff, so ‘away we go!’ ”
  • ”You are so right about the sharing of work being sexy and appealing! My hubby has taken it upon himself to share all the work with me once we are both at home in the evenings, and this works really well. Once the kids are in bed, we both can relax and unwind. Makes for a much happier marriage!”
  • “When my husband’s in the kitchen, he’s the sexiest man alive. There is nothing more appealing than a man willing to put on an apron for the sake of a woman’s happiness.”
  • “I wonder when men will figure out that if they help out more around the house, they will get lucky.”
  • “My husband has figured out that if he helps his wife out around the home she is more likely to have sex with him instead of being too tired and stressed out!”
  • “I always tell my husband, I think you’d look really sexy with a dish rag in your hand, or, I think it’s sexy when a man vacuums the floors. There were years when our sex life would have been so much better if he could only have taken the hint!”
  • “I think a man in the kitchen is HOT! HOT! HOT!”
  • “One afternoon my husband saw me trying to drag the dining room table outside to refinish it. After a moment he said ‘Hey, let me do that.’ I was more than happy to let him have a go. It was hot outside and after a few minutes he took his shirt off. I sat watching, fascinated because I saw muscles I never realized he had. Horny? You betcha. A few hours later, a little cold lemonade, a shower and, well, you all know where this is going.”

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