So said Andrew in a couple’s counseling session. Rachel, his wife, angrily shouted, “You don’t ever listen to me. You just wall up and ignore what I need. You don’t really love me or you’d listen to me and give me the love I need”. “See what I mean” was Andrew’s reply.
With some work it became clear to both Andrew and Rachel that she actually was attempting to get what she felt she needed and what she very much wanted, not by asking for it but by complaining and blaming about what she wasn’t getting. It also became clear that Andrew had come to hear just about every thing she said as a complaint, gripe or a personal attack to which he got angrily and offensively defensive.
With some more couple’s counseling things began to change for the better. “You’re always yelling at me” became “sweetheart, could you say that in a softer tone please?” “You never listen to me” was replaced with “Honey, I would like you to really hear me very carefully for the next few minutes. Would that be okay?” “We never go anywhere and you never take me out” turned into “Darling, I would really like us to go on a date this weekend, just you and me with real positive, romantic attitudes, OK?” “You’re a damned sex addict” and “You sexless prude” turned into “Let’s make some time for just love, and then some time for love and sex together.” “That sounds great. How about Friday night for one and Saturday night for the other?”. “You don’t love me anymore” became “I’m really hungry for your special love so could we cuddle and hug a lot tonight?”
Rachel and Andrew learned that requests are not easily heard when they sound like complaints. Desires expressed as gripes and longing framed as blame don’t work. Nor is anger easily understood as the hurt and frustration that usually underlies it. Frowns are more likely to be seen as disapproval than worry, and agitation often is not viewed as the fear and anxiety it often stems from.
With help Andrew and Rachel learned, practiced and built new, far more loving ways to go after what they wanted and help each other obtain their desires. They discovered that loving requests are usually not heard as attacks to defend against, desires well stated are not interpreted as criticism, and well expressed wants are not to be interpreted as demands or control efforts to be rebelled against.
Rachel and Andrew created their own version of some simple but very helpful rules to follow:
1. Talking about what’s wrong seldom leads to creating what can become right. Therefore, talk about what ‘right’ would look like to both of you. Then synthesize your two views if possible.
2. Talking about what went wrong doesn’t automatically lead to how you can make something go well. Therefore, talk about how you want something to go rather than how it went.
3. Talking about a past event that felt bad seldom gets a couple to a future event that feels good. Go directly after ‘feel good’ future events and keep talking in the future tense not in the past tense when you want something to improve.
4. Talking about who’s to blame seldom leads to who’s going to make an improvement or how to make a joint improvement. Talk about what is to be done in the future and who’s going to do it and when it will be done.
5. Talking with words that are demeaning (stupid, feather-brain, idiot, brute, etc.) destroys teamwork. Honestly praise and compliment your partner frequently (yes, there usually is something to praise, however small) and use many terms of endearment. It’s OK to say “Lover, right now I am very mad at you” but not “You ignorant bastard”.
6. Talking in unclear, imprecise, vague terms seldom gets you what you want or what is needed. Identify what you desire clearly and then ask for it in behavioral terms. Then add when you want what you desire. For example “You’re not affectionate” can become “I want a hug”, or cuddle, or to make love, or a compliment, or a date, or for you to look lovingly into my eyes, etc.. Remember to identify the time frame you want it in.
7. Talking with a bad or negativistic attitude, or a bland blah neutral attitude is divisive and de-motivating, and will not lead to happy togetherness. Therefore, talk with a loving and whenever appropriate upbeat attitude, and lovingly request the same of your partner. To do that, first purposefully center yourself in love not in anger, hurt, power, manipulation, etc.
I find most couples can benefit from these seven ‘rules’ and I hope you find them useful.
If you lovingly talk in the future tense where improvements can happen you may get to a love-filled future. If you talk in the past tense it will likely take you to the past and all you will do is repeat it. It can be OK to talk the negative, painful past if the talk can be devoid of blame, and does not re-create the bad feelings of the past, and also is accomplished with well demonstrated, two way loving empathy. Otherwise, avoid it. Attempting to get agreement on the past is often an unattainable and unnecessary endeavor. Focus on what is ‘now’ and ‘next’ instead.
Most of all learn to make truthful, accurate, clear behavioral requests with a loving attitude and do it frequently. Then, of course, work hard to really hear your loved one’s requests from a love-centeredness. We often make a mistake so common in our culture. It is the mistake of trying to make improvements in a relationship by talking in the negative i.e. griping, complaining, blaming, criticizing, etc.
Relationship related complaints are often founded in love hunger and an appropriate desire to be better treated, or are founded in some hurtful experience to which well expressed love will be the cure. The trouble with talking in emotional negatives is that it usually doesn’t get you to go toward emotional positives or anywhere else you want to go. Even if your complaint is well-based in something love related, it is only the exceptional, highly love able people who are likely to hear it that way. If you want to be well loved speak in strong, assertive, love filled ways, asking for what you want clearly. Then do a really good job of listening to what is wanted by those you love.
As always, Go and Grow with Love
Dr. J. Richard Cookerly
When you were growing up did the people around you communicate with unhappy sounding gripes, complaints, blame and criticism, or with loving requests? Do you talk the same, better or worse now?