A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request … so just make the request. ~Diane Sawyer
There’s a great deal of wisdom in that quote from journalist Diane Sawyer. And I’m betting that wisdom played a role in her happy, 26-year marriage with director Mike Nichols.
As a psychologist, I’ve seen many relationships where the opposite is going on. Couples get stuck in a frustrating — and stereotypical — pattern. The wife points out something that’s wrong, hoping her husband will address it. He doesn’t. So, she complains some more. He withdraws, telling her to back off. Met such a reaction, her initial complaints sometimes escalate into full-blown criticism: “I don’t know why I’m even married to you.You never do anything around here!”
If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up. The fact that you’re being upfront and asking for what you need in your marriage is great. Keep talking about what’s on your mind, but try the communications tweak I’m about to show you. I think you’ll see better results.
How Men Process Complaints
Before we talk about how to be more effective in your communication with your husband, I think it would be helpful to understand why you’re getting a negative reaction from your spouse in the first place.
For the most part with men, pointing out what’s wrong usually will not get you anywhere, no matter how often or loudly you say it. (Women may not be so receptive either!)
Think about your goal when you complain to your husband about something he’s doing (or not doing!). You probably just want him to change a certain behavior or deal with a particular situation, right?
But because of the way most men are raised, chances are he’s interpreting what you say in ways you don’t intend. Men grow up hearing they must be competent, independent, and do a good job of taking care of their loved ones. They’re taught not to ask for help, so they may not understand why you keep asking them for little things. Because of these messages, men will often react to complaints with irritation or defensiveness, jumping to the incorrect conclusion that you’re just trying to tell them they’re inadequate or failing.
An example: You say, “I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?” In your mind, this remark is about meal-planning — nothing more. But what he might hear is, “You let me down. You’re failing as a husband.”
Another aspect of how men often get socialized in the U.S. comes into play in how they react to complaints. Renowned communication expert Dr. Deborah Tannen’s research shows that in general women communicate to connect, while men typically talk to establish their status. Speaking broadly, men tend to pay much more attention to hierarchy than we do as women.
For example, you tell your spouse, “Honey, the trash can is overflowing again!” You just want him to take care of the trash. That’s it. You’re not trying to establish yourself as the dominant one in the relationship, right? In fact, you usually assume that the two of you are co-equal members of the same team, and that nothing you say changes that. However, he may be very sensitive to any phrasing that could seem like you’re trying to “boss” him around or convey that you’re better than him. If he thinks that’s what’s happening, he’s much more likely to be defensive and will get to the trash when he feels like it, not necessarily when you ask.
Turn Complaints Into Requests
Like Diane Sawyer, I believe that a direct request beats pointing out what’s not working any day. And there’s a way to make requests that spurs your husband to action and builds positive feelings in your marriage.
What’s important is how you phrase the request.
Right now, you might be feeling a little frustrated. Maybe you’re wondering why you have to do all this work to be heard. Or you’re questioning why he doesn’t just address your complaints so you can both quit worrying about them.
I understand. Things would be a whole lot easier if he just “got it.” But waiting for that to happen isn’t the best way to get your needs met, so focus on how you can be most effective in your relationship.
I suggest that you make a direct request for what you need, but make sure you include the following information:
- What you need from your husband and
- How his action will benefit you.
Instead of feeling like he’s failing you, or that you’re bossing him around, he’ll feel that he’s succeeding at his favorite role: the competent guy who makes your life better.
Let’s go back to the earlier example of a typical complaint:
“I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?”
You could voice the same need in a very different way:
“Honey, I know it’s worked for us for a long time to have me be the one who takes care of dinner. But since I changed jobs, this has gotten a lot harder for me. You’d really be helping to get my stress level down if we came up with a plan to share dinner duty.”
Do you see how your husband might be more receptive to the request vs. the complaint? Don’t forget to voice appreciation if your husband responds positively to your request, as you would with anyone else.
This week, think about something that you frequently complain about in your marriage and try this communication technique instead. Let me know how it goes!
If you and your husband are interested in learning more about gender and communication, check out Deborah Tannen’s books, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Communication or That’s Not What I Meant, You’ll also find many more ideas about understanding and connecting with your husband in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Do you remember how upset you got the last time you felt your husband was ignoring you or didn’t seem to care about your needs? Did you calmly ask for what you needed? Or, did you scream at him or give him the cold shoulder?
When someone we love isn’t there for us, it can be very distressing. And when it’s the person we’ve chosen to spend our lives with, it can feel downright scary. Like it or not, we are all hardwired for connection. We literally cannot survive on our own. This means depending on each other is not a choice, even if our society incorrectly convinces us we’re weak if we need anyone.
I recently attended a fabulous conference about Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a type of marriage therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson. Sue is one of the leading marriage researchers in the world and says we should accept our need for each other and learn how to get closer in our most important relationships. She uses the science on love and attachment to help people become warmer, more genuine, and present with their partner.
If you think you might be interested in learning more about EFT, I would recommend reading Sue Johnson’s wonderful book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love or her checking out her website: DrSueJohnson.com. If you’d prefer a summary of some of the core ideas, keep reading.
Importance of Close Relationships
EFT draws on the large body of research on human attachment and recognizes that close relationship are essential to our well being. Think about some of these interesting facts research has already discovered about love:
- We are hardwired to connect. We are bonding mammals, so we literally die without connection to others. Love is a force that keeps us close to each other, thereby supporting our very survival.
- For our physical and mental health, we need to feel secure, not just know it. We know when we have emotional security because we feel it at a gut level.
- Secure connections with our loved one are linked to lower rates of heart disease, increased immune system functioning, and decreased depression.
- When we truly feel secure and safe in our relationship(s), we are also naturally calmer, clearer in our thinking, and much more empathetic, curious, and open.
- The single largest threat to us emotionally is anything that jeopardizes our sense of belonging. We use each other to stay calm and steady, so when something significant goes wrong in an important relationship, we will go into a state of panic at a very deep level.
- Being alone is the scariest and most dangerous thing that can happen to a person. Because we’re wired to keep others close to us, our bodies literally experience pain when are isolated, left out, or lose an important relationship. Heartbreak is a real thing.
- Research shows that criticism and other hurtful words actually cause us physical harm. The same areas in the brain light up on a brain scan in response to physical or emotional pain.
Strategies for Connection
So what does all this have to do with you and your husband? In a society where people have fewer and fewer connections, a marriage becomes a very important part of your well being. How your husband responds when you need him carries a great deal of weight. When you reach out to your partner, sometimes he will respond, and sometimes he won’t. By reaching out, Sue Johnson says, what we’re really asking our partner is:
- Can I count on you?
- Are you here for me?
- Will you respond when I need, when I call?
- Do I matter to you?
- Am I valued and accepted by you?
- Do you need me, rely on me?
If you have a husband that is usually responsive, an occasional lapse may annoy you, but not much more. If, however, you’re truly afraid that the answer to these questions is “no,” you’ll feel insecure and will probably do one of the following:
1. Protest. You react to his disconnection by freaking out, demanding, or pushing. You may also complain, criticize or blame. Unfortunately, these behaviors tend to push any person even further away.
2. Withdraw. You tell yourself that you don’t need him anyway. Inside, you’re not at all at peace or happy about this. In fact, you feel resigned and hopeless. You might find other ways of numbing or escaping these painful feelings, such as staying incredibly busy, spending all your time with the kids, surfing the net, eating or exercising too much, or using alcohol or drugs.
EFT has identified three common relationship patterns that couples get stuck in when they feel disconnected:
1. Protest Polka. I protest your disconnection, and you withdraw. (“I know you don’t care about me any more!”) Your withdrawal makes me more insecure, so I protest louder (“You’re never going to change!) and you withdraw further. This pattern is the most common one leading to divorce.
2. Find the Bad Guy. I protest your distance (“You don’t even kiss me when you get home!”), and you protest mine (“When was the last time you actually asked me how I’m doing?”). We try to pin the blame for the disconnection on each other and end up driving each other further away.
3. Freeze and Flea. We both give up on fighting for the connection and retreat because we think it’s safer. This is nothing but a recipe for tremendous loneliness.
The hard thing to see in these relationship dances is that couples are actually wanting emotional connection, but creating more distance. We all need our partner to see us, tune into how we’re really doing, and love us through hard times. We just may not be so great at asking for connection in ways that work very well.
So, what can you do to increase the odds of keeping your partner close? Here are a few tips out of the EFT approach to try:
• Be emotionally present. Emotional presence is the key to connection. Direct face-to-face contact without electronic devices, interruptions, or distractions is essential. You must show up in both body and mind. You don’t have to always make huge amounts of time for each other, but when you are interacting, make sure you’re really genuinely present and doing your best to connect. Otherwise, the connection with you will be no different from connection with a stranger. But since you’re not a stranger, being disconnected from you will probably upset your partner.
• Make your relationship a priority. You have to be very intentional and make your relationship a priority if you want to keep your marriage strong. Our society does little to support relationships, so you have to decide yours is important and work on staying connected emotionally.
• Move toward each other. When either of you are struggling, try to reach out, rather than being hurtful or pulling away. Talk about what’s really going on with you without casting blame. If you value your partner, he’s much more likely to listen to you.
• Be positive. Consistently acknowledge, support, and appreciate your partner, remembering how bad you feel when you’re not receiving these things yourself.
We’re excited to announce that the audio book version of Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage is now available on Audible.com, Amazon, and the iTunes store. If you’re someone who doesn’t really like to read, or doesn’t haven’t time to, download the audio version of the book professionally narrated by Amy Smolinkski. You can get a free copy when you try Audible for 30 days:
Are you looking for books with ideas and strategies to strengthen your marriage?
Of course, if you haven’t read it yet, I’d like to first point you toward my own book, Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage. I’m very honored that Strong Women, Strong Love won a 2014 Indie Excellence Award in the Marriage category.
In my book, I reveal the information most therapists use to help people improve their marriages. I show you how to build a great marriage without compromising your self-confidence and strength as a woman. You also discover specific ways you can reduce the very real risks that stress and recent changes in gender roles bring to your marriage.
To help you continue learning about what it takes to have an incredible marriage, I’d like to share my personal list of favorite marriage books, many of which you will find referenced in Strong Women, Strong Love. I believe so much in the importance of regular care and maintenance of your relationship. These particular books will add to your knowledge of the most vital ways to nurture the bond between you and your husband.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman
In the field of marriage research, Dr. John Gottman’s work has been seminal in helping us understand exactly what makes a marriage succeed or falter. Gottman is well known for being able to predict with fairly high accuracy which couples will divorce. He observes that when the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) take residence in a marriage, it’s a strong signal that the marriage is failing. Gottman states that whether you have conflict in a relationship is far less important than how you manage it. If you want to get a handle on the key research findings about marriage, you must read this book.
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson
Dr. Sue Johnson is the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) which emphasizes the importance of creating a marriage that is an emotional safe haven. Johnson teaches how to step out of common relationship dances (such as desperately chasing your partner or avoiding him) so that the two of you can meet each other’s needs for connection, comfort, and caring. This book will help you understand your partner’s emotional needs at a much deeper level.
Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix
Getting the Love You Want is a classic in the field of couples therapy. Dr. Harville Hendrix is well known as the creator of Imago Relationship Therapy. He believes that you subconsciously choose your partner because he is the right person to help you heal from the emotional hurts you carry from childhood (and vice versa). Hendrix suggests that once the glow of romance wears off, it’s important for a couple to deal with whatever emotional baggage shows up. This book teaches you how to deal with each other’s emotional hot buttons so you can eventually have a deeply satisfying relationship.
Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and Coupled Up by Harriet Lerner
You may be familiar with Dr. Harriet Lerner’s classic book The Dance of Anger. Lerner is a distinguished psychologist who has an amazing ability to translate her many years of clinical experience into wise, practical, helpful advice. In Marriage Rules, she gives readers 100 insightful “rules” for improving your marriage. I think you’ll find this book useful no matter how long you’ve been married.
The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work by Terrence Real
As I do in my book, Terrence Real (a family therapist with a focus on men’s issues and couples therapy) gets into the issue of how gender roles have changed and how that affects marriage. One of his most useful pieces of advice to women is to avoid “losing strategies” with men, such as needing to be right, controlling your partner, and withdrawal. If you are looking for a better understanding of the male perspective, this book can be tremendously helpful.
We Love Each Other, But … Simple Secrets to Strengthen Your Relationship and Make Love Last By Ellen Wachtel
This book is a little under the radar, but it has lots of smart advice about the trouble spots that marriages can hit. Dr. Ellen Wachtel, a marriage and family therapist, knows what works, whether your issue is disagreements about parenting or a sex life that’s gone cold. Her core message is that you can keep love, warmth and good feelings alive in your marriage for the long haul.
These are a few of the best books about marriage out there. Please check back periodically as we add reviews of other books that can help you keep your relationship solid.