I know what you're thinking, "Of course I have to complain, my spouse never listens." If that sounds familiar, you may have been asking to have your needs met in the wrong way. In fact, lots of times people think that they are requesting a change from their partners when they are doing nothing more than complaining. Complaints turn people off and build resistance. They don't spark a spirit of cooperation. I learned this firsthand in my own marriage.
My husband, Jim, works very hard and often likes to "veg out" on weekends and relax. I, on the other hand, am a fairly active person who likes going places and doing things. This has always been a major difference between us. Early in our marriage, I sat Jim down and told him I wanted to talk to him about something. I said, "You never want to do anything on weekends. It seems that all you enjoy doing is sitting around, watching TV and hanging around the house. Yes, you'll go out to dinner occasionally, but that's it. It's not terribly exciting."
Sure enough, Jim got defensive and told me that I should do whatever I wanted but that I should stop bugging him. I got really upset; after all, I was just trying to make our marriage more enjoyable for both of us. Therefore, I defended my actions and wondered why he was being so defensive. The more I defended myself, the more he attacked.
Out of pure frustration, I finally said in a loud voice, "I don't know why you're getting so upset! All I really want us to do is to go into the city once every four to six weeks and do something out of the ordinary!" To which he replied, "Well, that's fine! Why don't you just say that then?" He caught me by surprise. Why, I wondered, if he's so willing to go into the city with me, did he put up such a fight when I approached him about it? The answer was simple. It was how I approached him that made all the difference.
In the beginning of our conversation, although my intention was simply to state the facts in an attempt to justify my asking him to change, I was actually condemning him for being who he is. Naturally, this strategy bombed. When I simply asked for what I wanted without complaining, he was much more ready to oblige. Funny how that works! From that point forward in our marriage, I worked hard at simply asking for what I wanted rather than telling Jim about all the reasons I was miserable.
Are You Complaining or Asking For What You Want?
Although you may feel convinced that you've already asked for what you want without good results, you may have inadvertently been doing what I had been doing - complaining. I was certain that I was being clear and concrete about my wishes when, in fact, the only thing I was being clear and concrete about was how Jim was disappointing me.
Keep Your Goal Setting Rules in Mind
If you read this blog, you should already know how important it is to have your goals be positively stated. It's equally important to remember that your goals need to be action-oriented as well.
If you need an example, let me tell you specifically how we resolved our differences in how we spend our time on weekends. Instead of saying that I wanted him to be more adventurous or more involved in our relationship, I told him that I would like him to go with me into the city once every four weeks and try a new restaurant or go to a show. I also told him that I would appreciate it if he would take a hike with me or go to a movie on Friday or Saturday evening. Stating my requests in action-oriented terms helped enormously.
And finally, maybe you failed to break your goals down into small steps and you frustrated yourself or your partner by expecting too much too soon. For example, if, after having being separated for three months and not seeing very much of each other, your reluctant spouse returns home and you think, "Since she's decided to come home, I need to hear her say, 'I love you,' right away" you're bound to be disappointed. Look for smaller, more realistic signs of progress.
For example, if your spouse has returned home after a three month separation, a smaller sign of progress might be your spouse's interest in initiating conversation or asking about your day. Another small sign might be sleeping in the same bedroom instead of sleeping in separate bedrooms. You spouse might not be interested in being sexual, but the fact that he or she is willing to be in the same room with you at night might be a huge sign of progress.
There are other factors to consider before you approach your partner with your requests for change.
Timing is VERY important. Although choosing a good time of day or week won't necessarily guarantee success, choosing a bad time will guarantee failure. If I want to guarantee that Jim will respond negatively, I know exactly when to ask him:
- Just before he leaves for work
- When he is preoccupied or doing something
- When he is at work
- When he is very tired and wants to go to sleep
As you read the above list, you're probably thinking that Jim has a very long list of times that he is unapproachable. I'd have to agree. But there are lots of other times when he is more receptive:
- On the weekends
- Over dinner when we go out together
- On his phone on the way back from work
If you sit down and really think about it, you know exactly when your spouse is approachable and when s/he isn't. In fact, that's what I'm going to ask you to do right now. Even if you can't think of times you feel confident that your spouse is going to be responsive, I know you can think of times when she or her won't be. Take the time to answer the following questions:
- When is my spouse least likely to pay attention, be conciliatory, or be patient with my requests?
- When is my spouse most likely to pay attention, be conciliatory, or be patient with my requests? (Think back to a time when you got a positive reaction from your partner when you asked for something, Identify what was going on then.)
- Now, commit to writing when, in the next few days, you will tell your partner what you want to improve about your marriage.
Asking for What You Want May Make All the Difference in the World
You may be pleasantly surprised to find that setting solution-oriented goals and then asking for what you want in a more constructive way are extremely productive. But even though you've moved in a positive direction, you are only beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to keeping your marriage on track.
Asking May Not Matter At All
Sometimes, no matter how well you make or time a request, your partner may not respond the way you had hoped. There are lots of reasons this might be so. There may be so much tension between you that your partner is not about to do anything you ask. Or, your spouse may be so uncertain about staying married, she or he may not be receptive to requests for change right now. You may have talked so much about your marriage that everything you say at this point goes in one ear and out the other.
If your marriage is dangling by a thread and your spouse has made it perfectly clear that she or he is not interested in working on your marriage, don't ask him or her for anything right now. You have very little bargaining power at the moment. Your first task is to get your spouse to realize what a good thing your spouse would be missing out on if she or he were to leave your marriage. Chances are, there have been times when you have asked your reluctant spouse for things that pushed hi or her farther away. So, don't ask your partner to change a thing right now if your marriage is extremely shaky. Instead, focus on not going down cheeseless tunnels.
Remember, if you've told yourself, "I talk until I'm blue in the face," or "It's in one ear and out the other," or "If I've told you once, I've told you a million times," you might just need to change what you're doing!!!
Michele Weiner Davis is the creator of the Divorce Busting Centers, learn more on how you can solve marriage problems and stop divorce. Follow me on Twitter @divorcebusting, add my Divorce Busting Facebook Page, and subscribe to the Divorce Busting YouTube Videos for more advice and upcoming marriage saving events.