Note: This is a guest post by Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Ashley Arn.
When you’re married, it’s inevitable that some things your partner does, or doesn’t do, will drive you nuts.
It would be great if we could love everything our partner does, but it just won’t happen.
Truthfully, if our partner did every single thing we wanted, it would be great at first, but then even that would become annoying!
I absolutely adore my husband and am simultaneously extremely annoyed by some of the things he does at times. Some things about our partner are bound to get on our nerves, but how we talk about these things makes all the difference.
What do most people do in these types of situations?
Most of us either don’t talk to our partner about what we don’t like and get resentful or we talk to our partner in a very blaming and non-helpful way.
Today, I’ll show you how you can talk to your partner about anything that’s bothering you without starting World War III in your household. Throughout the article, I will use he and she interchangeably because both men and women could benefit from learning these strategies!
Step 1: Separate Your Partner from What He Does
Often, when we don’t like something our partner is doing, we criticize him as a person. Instead of telling him you don’t like that he leaves his dirty dishes on the counter, you tell him he’s selfish and uncaring.
It may sound like this:
“You’re so selfish!”
“You’re a jerk!”
“You don’t care about what I want!”
“You always do that.”
The key to talking to your partner about what you don’t like is to separate your partner’s behavior from who she is as a person.
We all make mistakes and do stupid things. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be categorized based on all of the stupid things I’ve done. Your husband will at times in your marriage act selfish, uncaring, etc. I know I haven’t been a loving saint to my husband every minute of every day. We are all mistake-prone human beings.
The beauty of life is that acting selfish once in awhile doesn’t make us selfish to the core. If your wife is yelling at you it doesn’t make her a “yeller” at heart.
I often counsel parents and one of the biggest things I see is children feeling like a failure because they failed a test or didn’t make the team.
When the parents are able to separate their child from the child’s problematic behavior, it gives the child room to make mistakes and still have a sense of self worth.
In fact, these parents can be more harsh on the unwanted behavior as long as they are still valuing the child overall and the same applies to your marriage.
You can actually voice your concerns more strongly if you focus on what your partner is doing and not who your partner is as a person.
Don’t turn your partner into a bad person for making mistakes or for doing something you don’t like.
Instead, do just the opposite!
Step 2: Give ‘em a Good Reputation
Start the conversation by telling your partner what you like about her as a person or her behaviors in other areas. Give your partner desirable labels and a good reputation to live up to.
“I know you really care about me and our family. You work so hard all day and I am really grateful.”
“You show me love in many ways and I appreciate how you make our children laugh.”
You married this woman remember? What do you love about her? What attracted you to her? What little things does she do that you maybe take for granted?
My husband cleans our cat box every day without fail and I tell him all the time how much that means to me. (I’m sure it means a lot to our cats, Sassy and Buzi too, but they just can’t seem to thank him for it, so I make sure I do.)
So, anytime you’re going to talk with your partner about something you’d like changed, start by reassuring her you’re okay as a couple. Tell her you love her and give her a good reputation overall.
Step 3: State What You Don’t Like by Sharing Your Observations
When something is bothering you, stick to sharing only what you’ve observed your partner DOING. Focus on your partner’s visible, indisputable behaviors. This is not the time to criticize or mind read her insides (intentions, desires, thoughts, feelings).
Stick to talking about what you can see or hear. Beginning this way helps to avoid defensiveness and blaming.
“You’ve been coming home hours later than before.”
“You leave your socks on the floor right where I have to walk over them”
“When I wash the dishes you tell me I don’t clean them right and ask why can’t I remember how to do them in a harsh tone of voice.”
“You’ve been spending more time with your friends during times we would’ve spent together before.”
“When I talk to you after work you look off into the distance and don’t ask about my day.”
“You’re checking your phone frequently during our time together.”
Step 4: Share Your Story Tentatively and Vulnerably
Next, you want to tentatively and vulnerably tell the other person the story that’s been playing in your mind about these observations. Be careful not to become defensive or blame the other person here.
You just want to tell them the assumptions you’ve been making based on your observations. Use “I” statements while expressing how you’ve been feeling about these observations.
Remember, this is your story about what has been happening. It is not a fact! Present your story as one of many possible explanations or stories for what you’ve been observing.
“After noticing you’ve been spending more time with your friends and being on your phone during our alone time, I’ve been feeling sick to my stomach and beginning to wonder if you still love me. I can’t seem to get this out of my head.”
Step 5: Genuinely Seek to Learn Your Partner’s Story
After sharing your observations and feelings about the situation, genuinely ask the other person to express her story or views of the situation.
It’s important to stay curious and want to learn your partner’s point of view rather than be right or win an argument.
“I’d really like to hear your opinion on this. Could you please share it with me?”
“I want to know how you see the situation.”
“Don’t worry about hurting my feelings, I really want to hear your thoughts and feelings.”
“Am I totally off here? Can you help me understand what’s been going on?”
Step 6: Share Doing Wants
“Doing Wants” are what you would specifically like to see your partner doing. Tell your partner what you would like to see them do or say. “Doing Wants” are not used to tell your partner to change his insides (intentions, thoughts, feelings).
This is like the famous line “I want you to WANT to do the dishes”. That won’t work. Just tell him you want him to do the dishes.
Again stick to what you want them to specifically DO that you could see or hear.
So, if you’re thinking “I want my partner to give me more attention” then get specific. What would giving you more attention look like to you? How can your partner DO “more attention”? Then let your partner know these specific actions.
“When I come home from work, I would like it if you would shut off the television, give me a kiss and say something like “any ideas for dinner honey” in a loving tone of voice.”
One important thing to remember is that “Doing Wants” are merely requests. You are telling your partner what you like and what works for you. That doesn’t necessarily mean she will be able to, or even want to, do it. “Doing Wants” are best delivered in with a non-demanding and loving attitude.
Step 7: Catch Your Partner in the Act with Doing Praise
Look for moments when you can catch your partner DOING something you appreciate. Look for mundane, taken for granted actions to praise your partner for.
Tell your partner that you noticed and really liked it that she cleaned the cat box or made a delicious dinner, instead of just expecting it.
Most importantly, if you catch your partner in the act of one of your “Doing Wants”, let him know you noticed and appreciate it, even if it wasn’t perfect.
Wrap-Up: Overcome Relationship Difficulties by focusing on DOING
Remember, when you have relationship difficulties, take your target off your partner’s back and put it on his specific actions that you’d like to see change.
- Separate Your Partner from What he Does
- Give ‘em a Good Reputation
- State What You Don’t Like by Sharing Your Observations
- Share Your Story Tentatively and Vulnerably
- Genuinely Seek to Learn Your Partner’s Story
- Share Doing Wants
- Catch Your Partner in the Act with Doing Praise
Ashley Arn is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and she provides Relationship Advice and Counseling to Professionals. Get Free Relationship Tips and access to “25 Shocking Habits that could be Sabotaging Your Relationships.” at http://crucialhabits.com/