3. Repeat what you have heard in your own words so that your partner can let you know if you heard accurately. (If this doesn't work very well, start by simply repeating a close facsimile of his/her own words.)
4. Don't assume you should do something about it unless they directly ask you to. Instead of acknowledging that we really hear our partners, we usually offer suggestions, criticize, interpret, threaten, analyze, and so forth.
Tool #3: Letting Your Spouse Know What You Like and What You Don't Like
Sharing a free flow of resentments and appreciations is essential for openness and intimacy in a relationship. When we withhold telling our partners about the things we like and appreciate about them, we begin to create a taken-for-granted feeling that is extremely destructive to intimacy. When we withhold our resentments and irritations, we are no longer fully available to our partners. We have to use energy to avoid letting these critical feelings slip out, and there is a constant feeling of discomfort, the feeling that something is not quite right. On the other hand, when we are freely sharing our resentments and appreciations, we are not keeping up a front. There is a feeling of release and relief, and communication on all levels improves.
Of course, the reason that we often don't share our little irritations is that little irritations can cause big hassles. The suggestions below will certainly not eliminate all anger and hurt feelings due to the sharing of resentments, but they should help minimize them.
1 . Keep current. If you are sharing your resentments and appreciations on a regular basis, your partner has clear and current information from which to understand you and to modify his/her behavior. Since what you like and don't like changes over time, this is crucial to keeping your relationship from getting stuck in a rut. It also avoids "gunnysacking," the storing up of a big gunnysack full of complaints which may be dumped on your unsuspecting partner when you get mad enough.
2. Avoid blaming, putting down, proving your partner wrong. These activities simply lower your partner's self-esteem and create defensiveness and resentment. Then you get to hang out with a resentful, depressed person.
3. Use I-messages instead of you-messages. When we begin our statements of irritations with the word "you" instead of "I," the result tends to come out as a blame or put down. For example, "You don't care for me or you'd come home on time," is a you-message. "I feel uncared for when you don't come home on time," is an I-message.
4. Don't overload. Limit yourself to sharing one or at most two gripes per day. In addition, try to share appreciations along with your resentments. Remember, all of our egos are tender and if you can avoid lowering your partner's sense of self-esteem or making him/her defensive, it is to both of your advantages.
Tool #4: Hostility Rituals (Handling Anger)
We all get angry and resentful in the context of our relationships. People who don't express these feelings may end up with relationships with little or no life or fire left in them. The emotional demise of these relationships is often due to suppression of and not dealing with the anger and hostility that come up naturally in intimate relating. Careful use of all the good communication tools listed here and in all the many books about couples and communication will not eliminate hurt, anger, and resentment from your relationship. We must learn to accept these feelings and learn from them.
Psychologist George Bach has made enormous contributions in this area. Bach reasoned that since anger and hostility are here to stay, why not harness these emotions to clear the air, make impact, and retain aliveness and vitality in our relationships. Since these emotions are scary, tricky stuff for most of us, he designed rituals to help us learn to express our anger safely and constructively. The rules of the rituals are like the rules of safety around fire. Fire correctly handled can heat our house and cook our food. Handled carelessly, it can burn down the whole place.
Anger, like sex, has been rather a taboo subject in spite of the fact that there has always been quite a lot of both going on. As a consequence, we really need some guidelines to help us use it productively. Here are a few:
1. Don't ambush your partner with anger or resentment. Let them know you are going to be expressing your resentment and get their agreement to listen.
2. Respect your partner's limitations. Bach suggests time limits so that your partner does not get overloaded. Also try to avoid hitting below the belt in areas in which you know your partner to be sensitive. Do not seek to lower your partner's self-esteem. You will both be sorry.
3. Express your anger only in a context that is supportive of your partnership and only for the purpose of clearing the air, getting your resentment off your chest, and creating space for a renewal of closeness. Avoid trying to hurt, belittle, or prove to the other that you are right and they are wrong. Dr. Bach's books, The Intimate Enemy, Pairing, and Creative Aggression provide a treasure house of effective ways to deal openly with anger.
Tool #5: Working it Out: Negotiating Changes
You know those little or not-so-little irritating things that your partner does over and over again. Even if you express your resentment about them and clear the air, it's hard to really let go of them because you know that it's just going to happen again. For things like that, it is important to be able to negotiate agreements that end these sources of discontent and unhappiness. I'm talking about things like leaving underpants on the floor, not cleaning up after eating, being late, or charging up large bills at the department store that one partner feels can't be afforded.
It probably wouldn't be all that difficult to work out many of these sorts of difficulties if we didn't run into underlying issues like who is right (and who is wrong), who will win (and who will lose), and You can't tell me what to do. However, these things do tend to come up. One of the most valuable things you can do to make your negotiations with your partner work out really well is to notice when the above sorts of attitudes come up for you, acknowledge them internally, and let go of them as quickly as you can. In addition, we have included some suggestions that can help you avoid these pitfalls.
1. Make an appointment to work on any issue which you seem to have difficulty resolving. Make sure you have enough time, no distractions, and are reasonably fresh before you tackle it. Deal with only one issue at a time. If you want to talk about doing dishes and your partner wants to talk about charge accounts, we need to flip a coin or whatever, but we may only talk about one of these issues at a time. Otherwise, we guarantee you will not get anywhere.
2. Give your partner clear information about what bugs you. Keep these communications free from judgment, blame, and insult. Consider the following two statements:
"When you don't clean up after you eat, I gel resentful and feel like you expect me to be your maid!"
"You lazy, inconsiderate slob—you act like a big baby!"
The first statement contains useful information expressed as an I-message. The second statement contains no information about exactly what it is that bugs you—and does contain blame, judgment, and insult.
3. Be sure you listen carefully and be sure your partner has heard you at each step of the negotiation.
4. Make a clear and specific proposal about the new behavior you want from your partner, free from judgment, blame, and insult.
5. When agreement is reached, be scrupulous about keeping it. If your partner only keeps part of the agreement, praise him or her for what they did do and check to see if they want to renegotiate the agreement or if they want some help in sticking to the original deal. These agreements should be renegotiated when they no longer fit the needs of both you and your partner.
The spirit in which these negotiations is carried out is crucial. Remember, the goal is to make an agreement which will support the relationship. It is easy in a negotiating situation to get into bargaining—getting the most and trying to give the least. Avoid this. Make any concessions you comfortably can, without trying to get something in return for each concession. What you get from successful negotiation is a partner who feels loved and supported and a relationship that works. Finally, do not make any agreements that you will not keep, or that you will feel resentful about later.
You may have thought of problems that would come up in trying to negotiate with your partner that have not been dealt with in this brief discussion. Much more detailed information is available in The Intimate Enemy and A Couple's Guide to Communication.
Climate of Abundance
In our research on long-term, zestful marriages, the hallmark of those couples with enduring, exciting, and satisfying relationships turned out to be a particular emotional and attitudinal state that we have come to call a climate of abundance. These couples assumed that their partners loved and supported them, even when they were fighting or depressed or otherwise not seeming to be loving. At these difficult times, they assumed that their partners still loved them, even though they were having trouble showing it. More important, they did not withhold their own love, kindness, and support, because they did not feel as if they needed to conserve it. They did not feel they could only be loving if their partners were being loving in return. For these couples, love and support were like muscles, the more they were exercised the stronger they got.
For couples who do not share a climate of abundance, love and support are like bread and cheese in a starving land. There is never enough, and if you have some, you only give it out if you can be absolutely sure to get an equal or greater amount in return. Both partners may feel starved for a crumb of love or affection, but each feels that he or she has already given more than has been received—and therefore will not give one crumb more until the other does something loving and supportive first.
The problem is that, underneath, each partner feels that there is a basic shortage of love and affection in the world. Therefore, when things are going well, for example at the beginning of a relationship, and they feel generous and are getting a lot of love and support, they think to themselves, "Maybe I was wrong, maybe there will be enough love and support for me." But then, for one reason or another, things get tough (e.g., their partner is withdrawn or angry), and they think, "I knew it, there is never going to be enough love and support for me." Then they begin withholding and wait for their partner to give them enough to justify the expenditure of some loving and supportive behavior on their own part. As their partner is usually feeling pretty much the same way, they end up stuck in a vicious cycle, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Even though they may be materially well off, they are living in an emotional climate of scarcity and deprivation. The belief that there is a scarcity of love and support has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How can you extricate yourself? Here are a couple of suggestions:
1. Cultivate an attitude of abundance. Begin to notice and question the feelings and assumptions of scarcity that surface for you in your daily interaction with your partner. Remind yourself that there is a shortage of love and support in your relationship primarily because your thinking that there is creates the self-fulfilling prophecy described above.
2. Break the cycle. To break the vicious cycle described above, consider that if your partner is withholding, he or she is probably under a good deal of stress and is probably feeling deprived. In some cases, he/she might even blame you. The trick is to support your partner. Stumbling Blocks #3 and #4 may tend to get in your way at this point. It will seem as though you are going more than halfway, as though your partner does not want to help improve your relationship. Don't let your partner's behavior determine yours. The most effective, self-serving thing to do is to continue to express love and support even when your partner is not in a place to reciprocate. We should add that this will not work if it is done in a spirit of martyrdom. It will only work if it is done out of your own desire to have your relationship be the way that you want it to be.