I stub my toe I give a little yelp, or a big yelp depending on the stub. It’s my natural reaction and there’s not much space to reasoning about that. Or is there? In a lecture hall where a hundred attendees are listening to a speaker and I stub my toe, I’m probably not going to yelp! Somehow, the situation interrupts my natural reaction and I can choose a more appropriate response.
Many relationship interactions are the same. We react to discomfort and fail to censor our reactions. My husband tells me he doesn’t like my haircut and I snap at him followed up by the cold shoulder all because I can’t handle the discomfort his “criticism” caused me.
The problem with reactions is they rarely make a situation better and in most cases, really mess it up. It represents the paradox of emotions in that what we want, we make less likely because of how our emotions drive our behavior. It can be really worthwhile to spend some time in discomfort learning about yourself and responding in more effective ways.
Take my example: my husband says he doesn’t like my haircut. I feel upset, uncomfortable, but I catch myself and rather than reacting, I explore why I’m having such a strong feeling.
So, my thoughts might run like this: Who does he think he is? I like this haircut! His haircut really sucks. (You might agree, this isn’t helpful) You might employ the Five Whys here. Why am I feeling so upset? Because his comment feels like criticism. Why do I have a problem with his criticism? Because I want him to think I look nice. Why do I want him to think I look nice? Because I want him to love and accept me. Why do I want him to love and accept me? Because if he doesn’t, he might not want to stay together. That’s only four whys, but I’m starting to get a much clearer idea of why his comment bothers me. My insecurity is triggered a bit and that fear fuels my anger. Of course the rational part of my brain understands this is ridiculous. Armed with that understanding I can now respond very differently. This process requires spending a time in discomfort (that’s how growth occurs). How much discomfort is there when you snap and withdraw? I’m betting MORE than my way!
So Practice Time! Think about the last time you had a strong reaction to something. Can you allow yourself to sit with that memory and analyze where it came from? Spend some time with the Five Whys to lead you to a deeper sense of where your fear or pain lies. This is excellent material to share with your partner if you can.
Let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear from you. Comment or email me privately at Allison@allisonvelez.com
Q-I think of myself as an optimist, but my wife seems to be a pessimist. I love my wife, but it feels like she is always complaining about something, and it’s starting to bother me. In a way, I think she is trying to express her feelings. I want to support her, but I’m not sure how.
A-You’re right, she’s trying to express herself. John Gottman says a complaint is an unmet desire expressed.
That being said, complaining is a habitual behavior most of the time. Try having a compassionate, supportive conversation with her about how it bothers you. It probably bothers you because you want to help correct whatever’s going on. Don’t start off telling her how wrong she is to communicate in that way. Try to make her feel understood and she won’t be defensive.
She may also have realized this is a problem and be open to changing this about herself. If she isn’t, don’t waste your time coercing her. Don’t respond to the complaining behavior, but fully engage when she’s being positive.
I, too, sometimes complain, and my husband just abruptly changes the subject! I’ll be going on about something and he’ll say, “Man, look how pretty the sky is today!” It’s kind of a joke between us now and we’ll just both laugh.
I assume from your question that she is not complaining about YOU specifically. If she is, there’s an opportunity for you to decide if there’s something you need to work on. If not, approach this as a team in trying to reduce a bad habit.
f she is depressed, seek professional help.
Best of luck, hope this helps!