When you're frustrated and angry, it's hard to realize that the way we say things actually gets in the way of getting what we want from our marriage. Here are 5 steps to ask for what we want from your spouse/partner in order to be finally feel heard. These steps are borrowed from the work of master couple's therapist, Terry Real's - founder of Relational Life Therapy approach.
Before you go off and apply these steps, I'd like you to take the mildest and most recent example of a request that was either met with defensiveness and radio silence. Rehearse these steps in your head before giving it a go.
The set up: Jane and Michael are busy parents and professionals. They have a fairly equal division of household responsibilities, although Michael works from home and has more time to take the lead on some of the household duties. Jane has very busy at work lately, and Michael has grown increasingly frustrated that Jane has been forgetting to take out the trash over the last couple of months. Initially, he was understanding but now he feels like she just doesn't care. He tried asking nicely, but she keeps forgetting. Michael is now resentful. Jane is feeling berated and criticized. While she wants to please her husband, she just cannot seem to get it right for him.
It's time to press the reset button! I'm not just talking about shifting your tone (which is also important, of course!) but also how you go about asking.
1. Stick to the facts:
There's a big difference between accusations and noting the facts of the situations. So "you NEVER take out the garbage, what is wrong with you?!" is very different from -- "Jane, I've noticed that you have not been taking the garbage out these last few weeks." State what an outside person would observe about what is actually happening. The facts, and only the facts!
2. Share the story you tell yourself about it:
Brené Brown has a wonderful way of phrasing this part -- "The story I tell myself about this is.... " You see, we all form a story about our partner's actions (or inactions) and what it all means about him/her, about ourselves, and about the relationship. So in this case, the story Michale is telling himself might be: "Jane, I've noticed that you have not been taking the garbage out these last few weeks. The story I tell myself about this is that you don't care about helping me run this household" or "... sharing the load does not matter to you."
3. How does this story you're telling yourself is making you feel:
Sure, you're feeling angry or frustrated or resentful, but those are what we consider in the marriage therapy world, secondary emotions. Take a moment to check in with yourself about how this story about your partner not caring is making you feel about yourself. I imagine this would make Michael feel neglected, sad, alone with the weight of everything. Here again, it's about how you feel and not about "YOU are making me feel."
Back to our scenario -- "Jane, I've noticed that you have not been taking the garbage out these last few weeks. The story I tell myself about this is that you don't care about helping me run this household. This makes me feel very alone and unimportant."
4. Ask for what you need your partner to do:
The key word is to ask and not demand. So many couples make the mistake of demanding and then wonder why the other person is not doing what they want. Remember, what do you need your partner to do in order for you not to tell yourself that "story" and feel so alone and unimportant?
"Jane, I've noticed that you have not been taking the garbage out these last few weeks. The story I tell myself about this is that you don't care about helping me run this household. This makes me feel very alone and unimportant. It's really important to me that you take out the garbage and that we continue to share the household responsibilities."
5. Offer a suggestion to help your partner do what you ask:
There's nothing like feeling supported and guided by our partner when they need something from us. Sure we can or should be able to come up with ways to "fix" the problem, but when we're overwhelmed, we don't always see what's in front of us. So don't just leave your partner with your request, show them that you care about having them succeed.
"Jane, I've noticed that you have not been taking the garbage out these last few weeks. The story I tell myself about this is that you don't care about helping me run this household. This makes me feel very alone and unimportant. I really need you to remember to take out the garbage. Would setting a reminder on your phone help with remembering to take the garbage out every Monday night?"
So how does that sound to you?
I want to encourage you to practice on your own the various scenarios that happen in your daily lives where you could break things down to:
stating only the facts;
sharing the story you tell yourself;
how this story makes you feel about yourself;
and ask (not demand!) your partner to do what you need;
lastly let them know you want to help them succeed.
Shoot me an email to let me know how it goes and if I can help clarify anything for you!
If you'd like to learn new communication skills, book your free consultation with me or read more on my speciality page on connection and communication.