If there’s a gene for being blunt, I promise you that my Jersey Italian family got it two-fold.
We’re not crass or mean-spirited per se, but as my mother would put it, we’re “efficient in our honesty.” (Well, that’s one way to put it!) Anyway, growing up in this family—this loving, open, boisterous and brutally honest family– gasps of horror at the honest answers to questions like, “Does this dress make me look fat?” or “What do you think of my new hair cut?” often resulted in the aforementioned statement: Don’t ask the question if you’re not ready to hear the answer.
So you’re probably wondering how this piece of familial “wisdom” relates to fixing troubled relationships.
Allow me to explain: When one partner in a marriage expresses that a need of his or hers feels unmet, such as, “I don’t feel respected at home,” a question we hope the other partner will ask is:
“What can I do to help you feel respected?”
Why is this question so critical?
This question is critical for two reasons:
#1) Notice that the question makes an offer of assistance—not ownership.
The partner does not respond by asking what he or she can do to make the other person feel respected. Assuming you have the power to force a change on someone’s psyche is not only the exact opposite of respect, but also robs the individual of ownership of his or her emotional experiences.
Are you with me so far?
#2) Asking for guidance as to how one may assist is — in itself– an act that conveys respect. You show respect when you assume your spouse is the expert on his or her needs.
So there you go– easy enough, right? WRONG!
You must NEVER ever ask your spouse, “What can I do to help you feel respected?” (or something similar) unless you have already considered this:
How willing are you to give your partner what he or she requests?
How much do you trust that your spouse’s request will be reasonable?
Trust and believe, these are questions worth asking yourself. If my own past experience and the many couples I’ve met over the years are any indicator, I’m guessing there are probably some needs or compromises to which you’re more willing to acquiesce than others.
And hey, that’s okay. You’re allowed to have boundaries too!
The point is to know what those boundaries are, and go into that conversation with honesty.
One of the worst things you could do in this situation is promise to do something and then not do it.
Let me say that again: One of the worst things you can do in this situation is promise to do something, and then not do it.
Do you hear me? Worst!
But E.J., what if my spouse requests something of me that I truly am unwilling to give?
Well that’s certainly possible. Assuming your spouse hasn’t asked you to be an accomplice in some illegal activity, or put your family in physical, mental, emotional or spiritual danger (because I’m assuming you married a reasonable, generally decent person): Ask yourself what about the request feels unreasonable to you.
This inner exploration is wise for two reasons:
1) You’re much more likely to have a rational, respectful discussion (as opposed to an emotion-filled rant) if you’ve done your inner homework around the request.
2) Since compromise is an important component of any marriage or relationship, understanding your stance on the issue will also help you reach a compromise that leaves both parties feeling heard and satisfied.
If all else fails, seek mediation from a neutral, safe, and mutually agreed upon third party together. This might be a chaplain, pastor, or even a counselor. In this scenario, the ideal would be for you to both be present. However, if your partner is unavailable or unwilling to meet, I think its at least important that you go. Get that perspective. Feel heard and be willing to listen.
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and questions. Can you relate?