Posts Tagged ‘free relationship advice’

You “Shouldn’t” Do This in Your Relationship

February 18, 2010

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.

Emotional Safety: What it is and Why it’s Important

March 25, 2009

couples-looking-at-eachotherMy major task as a couples therapist is to help establish emotional safety in the relationships of my clients. A brilliant couples therapist named Don Catherall, creator of the Emotional Safety Model, helped me see that emotional safety has to do with three things. First is the belief that your partner accepts you and trusts you and that you accept and trust your partner (I am OK and my partner is OK). The more accepted and valued by your partner you feel, the more you are in the safe zone emotionally because your sense of self is intact. However, if you feel that your partner believes something negative about you, your sense of self may suffer and you will feel emotionally unsafe. The same goes for your partner. If you think something negative about him or her, their self-esteem will likely suffer as well and they will feel emotionally unsafe with you.

The second thing you need is good self-esteem (I am OK). If you feel that you are lovable and adequate, your self-esteem will generally be pretty high and you will feel entitled to receiving love and care in your relationship. If you don’t feel good about yourself you will be wondering how your partner could possibly care about you. Both you and the relationship will feel insecure, which will lead to you feeling emotionally unsafe a majority of the time, which contributes to a lot of arguments and/or a lack of intimacy.

The third thing you need for emotional safety is a secure relationship with trust and commitment (we are OK). That means that there are no threats to how loved and cared about you feel by your partner. This includes anything that could affect your relationship security such as feeling that your partner is not making enough of an effort to nurture the relationship, or more obviously the threat of an affair, or one person threatening to leave the relationship.

Most things couples fight about have emotional safety as the underlying concern. But they don’t know that is what it’s about. So they get stuck on topics such as the bills, the housework, the kids and so on. If my husband seems to be putting a lot more effort into work and hobbies than into our relationship, and I experience our relationship as insecure, I will do different things depending on how I generally feel about him, myself, and the relationship. Here are a few examples of how I can respond to feeling emotionally unsafe in this scenario…

1) If I feel that I am worthy of his time and attention (I am OK) and feel pretty sure that he cares (we are OK), then I will let him know I’m concerned about our connection and would like more time together. So even if I feel the relationship is insecure right now, I’m still feeling generally OK about myself (I am lovable and adequate) and OK about him too (I trust him, and I can give him the benefit of the doubt). Now I am able to talk to him about the lack of effort I sense in a way that he can likely hear me and respond well.

2) If I feel (unconsciously) that I am somehow not worthy of his time and attention (I am not OK) OR that he really may not care about me all that much (we aren’t OK), I will be feeling really emotionally unsafe. I won’t feel entitled to ask for the connection to be repaired (I am unlovable, I am not entitled to love and care), and I won’t likely be able to give him the benefit of the doubt either (He is not someone I can trust). When I approach him it will probably sound blaming and critical. And he’s not going to be able to figure out that I really don’t want to fight, I just want him to be more engaged with me. He won’t hear my implicit message, “I’m lonely! Let’s spend more quality time together!” and he won’t know that I am sad and feeling unsafe about the disconnection. He’s going to hear, “You are a bad husband! You are failing me!” and what will usually happen is that his self-esteem will take a hit, he will feel a sense of shame, and now he must defend himself from feeling bad, at the expense of repairing the relationship.  We will likely jump right into a negative cycle of me pursuing for closeness in a way that feels like an attack on him and him distancing to protect himself.

However, this is not foolproof. It’s not necessarily as simple as how I approach him or how nicely I tell him I don’t feel important to him. Whether my husband can really respond in a way that puts the relationship back on solid ground depends a lot of how he feels about himself, me, and the relationship. If he feels he is still OK even though I seem unhappy, and he doesn’t start thinking he’s a bad husband, then he might tune in and ask how he can make it better.  But, another very likely response is that my being unhappy in general triggers his shame and he suddenly feels he isn’t OK. Instead of him being able to stay with his shame and still be able to hear me, he may withdraw from the conversation because he’s feeling unsafe or he may counterattack and let me know just how much I too am not measuring up in the relationship! So we may still jump into the negative cycle if my husband is sensitive to anything that may trigger his shame. This could be because he had extremely critical parents or perhaps when he was a child and he needed something, his parents shamed him for it or he has just been exposed to many repeated experiences in which he felt bad or defective. Now when another person has needs, he gets angry and thinks they are weak. He obviously won’t be able to respond well if that’s been his experience with relationship needs. Either way, I can say as sweet as pie that I am not feeling cared about and he may still get defensive or cut off connection all together. Either way intimacy in the relationship will suffer.

3) If many instances like the one above keep happening without repair, I may feel like the situation is hopeless and stop reaching out at all. I will try to distract myself from the unsafety in the relationship by throwing myself into hobbies of my own, or focusing on my friends, or by responding to that flirty guy at work because he’s giving me the attention I’m craving.

We aren’t critical because we are bad people. We do it because it feels safer to blame than to let ourselves be vulnerable and talk about our emotional needs (and also because talking like this was probably never modeled for us). And we don’t get defensive because we are bad people. But we hear our partner’s criticisms as an attack on our person and we will do whatever we can to not feel the sense of inadequacy and shame our partner triggers in us. And it’s not only words we need to worry about. We send messages about how we feel about our loved ones through our tone of voice, body language, rolling our eyes etc.

Hopefully I will never get to scenario number 3, because I will realize that I am a good person, my husband is a good person, and that we have a pretty good relationship that is worth saving. So I will find a good couples counselor and work on getting out of this negative pattern. This will likely consist of both of us addressing any self-esteem issues we may be bringing into the relationship, and identifying any triggers or sensitivities that we have. Often these sensitivities come from childhood so if we can explore what we are carrying from the past then we can help our partner really understand and empathize with us. Without understanding some of our partner’s behaviors and responses, it’s extremely easy for him to see me as a nag and it’s very easy for me to think he just doesn’t care.

It’s our job to identify and manage our own triggers, but it’s our partners job to help us with that job. But we can’t help each other if we don’t know what we are really fighting about. It’s also our job to work on our self-esteem, but our partner can also help us with that job. Even if we come into the relationship with a shaky sense of self, our relationship has the opportunity to become a safe and healing place where we feel loved and cared about and completely whole, perhaps for the first time. Unfortunately, many couples get into a negative cycle which can last for years, which damages the relationship and fills it with resentment. This sort of relationship is an unsafe place for the majority of the time.

If this is happening to you in your relationship, and you can’t get out of the negative cycle on your own, a good couples counselor can help you make your relationship a safe and secure place.

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.

How to Self Soothe

February 5, 2009

girl-looking-out-window2After a fight with our partner, it’s nice when we can come back together and process the argument, take responsibility for our parts, comfort each other and move on. Often, however, that is not what happens. Instead, couples fight, go their separate ways, and rile themselves up about how wrong their partner is. And when they finally do come back together they usually 1) apologize without really understanding what happened or 2) don’t apologize or process the fight and just try to move on, all the while holding onto resentment.

When you and your partner fight without resolution and you don’t have the chance to comfort each other due to the anger and resentment keeping you apart, the best thing you can do for yourself is to self-soothe. Self-soothing consists of giving yourself care and comfort that calms you down and helps you regulate your emotions. It doesn’t help you or your relationship to go to your own corner and dwell on what a jerk your partner can be. It’s better to remind yourself that both you and your partner are good people and that everyone has conflict.

Here are some more suggestions for self-soothing:

1) Take responsibility for your part. Did you attack your partner? Did you get defensive? Did you name call? Think about the piece that you contributed to the argument. This will give you more of a sense of control. Don’t keep thinking about your partner’s piece or what he/she did wrong. Focus on yourself only.

2) Take care of yourself physically. Be sure to take slow, deep breaths. Often when we are upset, we breath very shallowly, almost holding our breath. This increases anxiety. Take even and slow breaths for several minutes.

3) Do what makes you feel a little bit better. Fighting with loved ones is stressful. I realize that it’s not realistic to expect you to feel good while fighting with your partner. But there is always something you can do to feel a little better. This something is different for everyone. For some it’s listening to music, or even playing music like the guitar or piano. For others it’s going for a walk or jog. Some of my clients say that praying is comforting to them. Also, it’s been proven that petting an animal is soothing, so if you have a pet, cuddle up! Yoga or meditation may help you calm down. Additionally, talking to a close friend or family member can be soothing. Just be sure to reach out to those who will be of comfort to you and not someone who will make you feel worse. Lastly, don’t resort to abusing drugs or alcohol, as that will most likely rile you up or numb you out, instead of actually soothing you.

4) When you come back with your partner, talk about your part and how you contributed to the conflict. Without anger or criticism, your partner will likely be more responsive. Be willing to apologize for your piece and be forgiving of both your behaviors and your partner. Nobody is perfect.

5) Ask your partner for what you need. Focus more on what you want from him/her and not what you don’t want. We all respond better to positives (“Please put your phone down and talk to me,”) than negatives (“I hate when you text while we are out to dinner.”)

If your partner really IS being a “jerk”, see my blogs about how to stand up for yourself or how to take an uncompromising stand. Also, you can still use some of these self soothing techniques if you are recovering from a break up or even if you do not have a partner at all, but just need help managing your own emotions.

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.