You “Shouldn’t” Do This in Your Relationship

Whenever we tell someone what they should or should not do, we might as well expect the other person to get defensive and feel resentful. Think about the last time someone told you what you should do. You probably didn’t take it too well either.  We heard all about what we should or shouldn’t have been doing as kids by our parents. The last thing we want is to hear that as adults from our partners.

Some examples of “shoulding” I’ve heard from clients recently include:

“She should let me go out with my friends more often without freaking out about it.”

“He should do more around the house.”

“She shouldn’t get so angry and threaten to break up with me all the time.”

I don’t think that most of us realize how provocative it is when we “should” others. When we are in that state of mind, we really believe that our way is the “right” way and that any reasonable person would see it the same way.  This gives us the idea that it’s OK to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do.  Then we are often surprised when the receiver doesn’t take our statement too well, and now we have a new problem–a fight!

The truth is that even if we are “right” about what someone should do, nine times out of ten, the person who is on the receiving end of the “should” is not going to respond with, “Oh, thank you so much for enlightening me, you are right!”

Instead, they will dig in their heels and fight you on the topic way more so than they may have if things had been phrased a little bit differently.

In an ideal world, the person we are talking to is able to hear the upset and insecurity we are experiencing under the should statement and understands that when we tell others what they should have done, we really mean what we WISH they had done, because it would have made our lives a little bit better.

We would then sound more like this:

“I wish you would do more around the house, such as loading the dishwasher and taking out the trash (be specific).  It would really make life a lot better for me if those things happened more often. What do you think about doing those chores?” (ask what they are willing to do or not do as opposed to telling them what to do).

“I wish that you were more open to me hanging out with my friends. I don’t like having to fight with you about it every time it comes up. Being with my friends is important to me and I would really appreciate the freedom to see them more often without us arguing about it.  I want us to be able to understand each other better and get on the same page about this. What scares you about my outside relationships?” (ask for their point of view and try to understand)

“I wish we didn’t have these awful arguments where we get so upset with each other that you threaten our relationship. It’s scary to me when that happens.  I feel like I’m constantly walking on eggshells, about to lose the relationship with the smallest misstep. Help me understand how things get to such a bad place with us.”

You may have noticed that these phrases also enlist the other person’s point of view instead of simply telling them what we want or don’t want. All of us need to feel heard and understood, and none of us do very well with feelings of coercion from our loved ones.  That makes it important to send the message that you want to know where your partner is coming from, but to also be assertive about your own needs and wishes.

Maintaining a curious stance (Why does it upset you so much when I want to hang out with my friends?) will generally work better than the “should” statement (I should be able to hang out with my friends).

If you are able to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and tell yourself that if they are upset, there is most likely a legitimate point in there somewhere, your response will be more effective. You probably can’t hear the part of their argument that is valid, because their point was presented in an angry and self-righteous way that immediately triggers you not to listen. When we feel attacked, we get defensive or we counterattack.  When we feel coerced, we resist.  That’s human nature.

However, if you are able to put aside the fact that your partner seems to be making a demand on you with their “should” and understand that there is likely something reasonable going on for them, perhaps you will be able to  resist getting defensive, ignore the blame, and hear them out. Then, you may come to an agreement on the topic that both of you can feel OK about.

What many people do is to form a new problem on top of the original problem (housework, going out with friends, etc.) This new problem is the emotional distress, fear and anger that comes from not being in agreement, and this problem almost ensures that we will no longer be able to focus effectively on the original issue at hand.

People go around and around because they are each waiting to hear that they are right, and the other person refuses to say it. I think that we want to be right because we believe hearing it will be so validating. But the real satisfaction after a fight is the closeness that can come from feeling heard, and understood and told that we are making some sense. When both people can talk about their deepest desires for themselves and for their relationship, intimacy develops. That can’t happen when two people are at odds. Being “right” at that point is the booby prize at best.

When we don’t need to be right and when we don’t impose our “shoulds” on another person, then we are in a whole new place. Our relationships feel more mutual, collaborative and intimate.

The best we can do in our relationships is to ask for what we would like, but without the demand. We can let others know how important things are to us without telling them what they should or shouldn’t do and without needing to be right. When you put yourself on a higher moral plane than your loved one by thinking you know what they should or shouldn’t be doing, you are practically asking to be ignored or to be fought with.

If you are the one sending the should statement, try to revise your communication to include what you would like to see happen, while also keeping your partner’s wishes in mind as well. When we are acting assertively, we remember that while our needs and wants are important, so are our partner’s. There is most likely a middle ground that can be reached if we don’t add in that emotional pain from fighting and demanding that things go our way. You can choose to approach your partner with the spirit of collaboration, instead of telling them what to do or talking about how wrong they are.

If you are on the receiving end of the should statement, do your best to understand that you partner is trying to tell you something important. Make the choice to listen and validate their concerns (even if you can only validate 2% of what they are saying). Try not to counterattack with a “should” of your own (“You should want to be with me and not your friends”), or get defensive (“Well, you are no fun to be around so of course I want to be with my friends instead”).

John Gottman, a prominent couples therapist and researcher says that it’s not so much what happens during a fight that is such a big deal, but it’s about whether we can come back later and talk about what happened in a more effective way. Most people let things drop and never really resolve their issues because it seems too hard.

I would say it’s not that difficult, but we are scared to do it because we believe that we have to admit we were wrong and we really don’t want to do that. I think what we really need to do is reach out and let others know that we care and that they may have a valid point, we just couldn’t hear it under the criticism of the “should.” Maybe we don’t help out around the house enough, or maybe we do go out with our friends too much. That can be extremely painful to admit. It’s not about the other person being right, or about our being wrong, it’s about taking responsibility for our actions, and balancing your own needs with the needs of the relationship.

In Nonviolent Communication we talk about hearing the pain underneath others’ blame. A should statement is blaming and that is why it’s so provocative. But underneath the blame, it’s guaranteed that your partner is feeling some distress and probably doesn’t think they will be effective if they confide their vulnerable feelings to you. Try to help them make their point by listening and staying respectful. It’s not about sacrificing yourself or keeping your own wants and needs repressed. It’s about sending the message that you care and that you are willing to work with your partner so that both of your needs get met.

In the moment, you may not care to follow any of this advice. I can understand that because I’m telling you what you SHOULD not do, and you probably don’t like that. You might think that I’m telling you that I am right with my advice and you are wrong with your “shoulding”.

I’m not trying to be right, I’m just trying to help you have happier relationships. And I really don’t want to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, I just want you to be aware of the painful consequences of doing that to others. There is a better way that will get you more of what you want and need in your life.

In your next argument, you might still throw that “should” out there and refuse to modify it. Or if you hear a should from someone you care about, you may get angry and respond ineffectively and kick off a huge argument. That’s OK. It can feel very satisfying to do so. I know from personal experience. Couples therapists make a lot of the same communication errors as everyone else because we are all human.

However, when you have calmed down, go back and try again. Reassure your partner that their needs are important to you and you want to work with them so that both of you are happy.  You can even infuse some humor into the situation by saying, “I shouldn’t have shoulded you.”

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

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