“My Partner doesn’t Support My Interests!”
I am a runner and in order to keep myself motivated, I belong to an online running support group. A lot of times, people vent about their frustrations to get some support. For example: “so and so told me I shouldn’t be running too much”, or “so and so thinks I am running too slow.”
I don’t mind people vent and actually think it is probably needed to get the support to continue to run. However, as a couple’s therapist, I cannot help but want to say something when someone vent about the spouse/partner not being supportive. For example: “my husband thinks that I am running too much. I run X times of the week. Is this too much?”
The pouring support from the other women was touching. However, does this really help this woman/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend resolve the issue?
I try to stay out of it because I don’t want to offer the unsolicited advice just because of my occupation. However, it is actually not uncommon to see this kind of issue escalated into huge fights in the couple relationship. How can we avoid it? More importantly, how can we turn it into something constructive to resolve the issue?
My first response with this complaint is: “There is a need or many needs behind this complaint. What are they?”
Dr. John Gottman found that “criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewall” are four destructive communication styles in the couple’s relationship. When a person criticizes you, the other person tends to get defensive. His antidote for “criticism” is to use complain instead of criticism. The antidote for defensiveness is to own a certain portion of your responsibility from your partner’s complaint.
Let’s take this as an example: “My husband doesn’t support my running. He thinks I run too often.” I don’t really know what this husband actually says but, let’s just come up some scenario.
Criticism: “You do nothing but run.”
==> Defensive response: “ That is so not true. I do plenty even when I run.”
Complaint: “You run a lot and I don’t like it”
==> Own up your responsibility: “Am I?”
However, you can still become defensive from this complaint. For example, a classical defensive response would be: “What do you mean I run too often?”
When you complain, put in your needs. More of than not, when people complain, there is often a need or needs behind the complaint. For example: if I were the wife, my response would be: “What do you need from me when I go for a run?”
So, let’s put a new spin on this conversation and see how this would be different.
Husband: “You run so much and I don’t like that.” (complaint)
Wife: “Am I? What do you need from me when I go for a run?” (own up a portion of your responsibility and ask for the husband’s needs.)
What do you think about this conversation?
Let’s try to add in the needs in the complaint.
Husband: “ You run too often. I don’t like the feeling waking up alone in bed.”
Wife: “Am I? I am not sure running X number of time is a week is too often but I hear that you want to see me the first thing in the morning. That is sweet.”
Husband: “You run too often. I don’t like waking up hearing the baby crying.”
Wife: “Am I? I am not sure running X number of time in a week is too often. However, I hear your concern about the baby waking up crying. Tell me more about your concern on that.”
My point is, there is a need or needs behind a complaint, and there is a complaint or complaints behind every criticism. Before you criticize your partner, be very clear what you need from your partner. Once you figure it out what you need, your can move your conversation into a constructive place.
So, here are some steps you can take:
Step 1: What makes me upset?
Step 2: What are my needs that is not met?
Step 3: What do I need from my partner?
Now, let’s put this into one sentence:
I am __________ (upset, shocked, surprised, angry, etc.) about __________ (situation). I need xxxxxxxxx.
Be careful don’t put “you” in the beginning of the sentence to describe your needs. For example: “I need you to run less” is to ask your partner not to do something, not your needs. “I need us to have a better strategy” is to describe your needs to come up a strategy with your partner to resolve the issue.
Next time, before you criticize your partner, take a deep breath, and ask yourself these three questions: “What makes me upset?” “What are my needs?” and “What do I need from my partner?”
Next time, before you become defensive, take a deep breath, and ask yourself: “what are the needs from my partner?” and “how can I own up my portion of the responsibility?”
I am looking forward to hear from your experiences whether this is useful.