by Maureen McKane, LCSW
Communication is not just speaking up. It is also compassion. Use the art of coaxing to keep the communication door open.
What would happen if we handled marriage the way a successful mother copes? A mother I know does this at bedtime. Her toddler sees all the signs that the end is coming. At his bath he says, “No night-night.” In his PJ’s, “No night-night.” At the final hour, “No night-night.” His mother says, “You don’t want to go night-night?” shaking her head with a frown. Then she says, “You want to go night-night?” brows up and smiling; then, “You don’t want night-night?” then “You do want night-night?” Back and forth she makes his own ambivalence a game. In the end he accepts his stuffed bear and a bottle and gives in to fatigue.
So much of what couples fight over is as certain as bedtime. Chuck scatters socks, shirt, coat, bath towel and various food scraps like so much pollen about the house. It makes Margie’s skin itch and her voice go shrill. Just as the boy knows bedtime is inevitable, both partners know this is not how the place should look. It wasn’t in the plan when they picked wall color or sofa. Margie is in charge of noticing. It is her dismal job to point it out.
Automatically, most of us in her shoes would respond with disgust, deep sighs, loud proclamations and maybe a key moment where the dirtiest travesty is thrust into the face of the miscreant. I hope we have all learned by now that rubbing a nose in it is not the way to train a dog.
Let’s assume the husband in question (in another couple it is a wife or girlfriend) has some instinct that likes being in a pleasant, orderly room. Not having been trained to think about it does not mean he would not prefer it. Many people grew up assuming someone else puts things in order. Their thoughts are on other matters. They have a learning curve ahead.
Do you want to get their attention or is it more fun to gloat in exasperated superiority? Coaxing is one route to their attention.
As therapists we have taught people to communicate directly. We don’t want anyone to assume mind-reading, so we teach them to speak up for their own agendas. The result can be overkill, where everything is a confrontation. They need to learn also that communication must include compassion. Give your partner the goodwill and the space to think things through with you.
Key elements of coaxing:
- You appeal to their better nature.
- You are compassionate in delivery.
- You ask questions so they are encouraged to think.
- You admit two sides to the issue.
- You assume goodwill.
Jonathan had a habit of saying no automatically when Amanda would make a suggestion. It usually struck him that there was work involved when all he wanted was a quiet refuge from work. Paint the living room? No. Get up off the couch and go to to a movie? No. Her habit was to chastise him. She thought he was against her ideas because they were hers. That made things worse and they’d end up arguing.
Then she thought maybe the No was not always his real answer, just an automatic tic. Maybe his better nature would be interested in at least some of her ideas. She changed her approach. Now she would let a little time pass after his automatic No, then bring the subject up in another light.
She showed him the dirty smudges on the living room walls, then suggested that for now they could just live with them since painting would cost money or hard work. Another day she would talk about a sale on paints and show him a terrific color, then add, “I wonder if this is the time to spend the money.” Pretty soon they were both thinking about the project as if it were actually going to happen. He was not confronted with a yes/no question. She was not reading her husband as a mean guy.
Even though the couples I see are as different as eagles are from canaries, there is one thing most share. They come in with animosity and hurt, yet each partner turns out to have good intentions behind their behavior. Try assuming those good intentions on the other side of your relationship and act accordingly. Use the gentle art of coaxing your partner into useful conversations and you just might find that bad relational habits can change.