The Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples

What it really takes to create and sustain an exceptional and lasting marriage.

How to Ask for Change in Your Marriage

"Mud Sandwiches" Are Healthy For Your Marriage

Ever heard of a "mud sandwich?" Mud sandwiches are dished out regularly by good managers in various business settings. A mud sandwich, dissected, is to provide feedback by leading with a positive statement, giving corrective feedback, and ending with a positive statement, as in—

"Helen, I'm glad you're on my team - you're a hard worker and a team player. (positive)

There were a couple accounting errors in your last two reports. I'd like you to carefully scan your future reports for any errors before submitting them. (feedback statement)

Thanks – I know I can count on you." (positive)

Good managers intuitively understand what Neff and Karney pointed out about marriages* - that every relationship exists on two levels—the level of global perceptions ("G"for short) and the level of specific behaviors ("s" for short). 

The global level of perception (G) refers to an over-arching appraisal of a person (i.e. whether or not someone is perceived to be a valuable employee or a good spouse). The specific level of perception refers to appraisal of specific behavioral patterns (i.e. whether someone is generally tardy or on time, whether someone is generally well-organized or disorganized, whether someone is a "morning person" or an irritable grouch upon waking).

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In the manager feedback example above, this savvy manager reassures his or her employee of a positive global perception (G) while providing corrective feedback on the level of s. There is wisdom inherent in the "mud sandwich" principle when asking for change in a love relationship as well: A healthy love relationship can tolerate plenty of change and mutual correction at the level of specific behaviors if both partners protect each other well on the level of global perception.

Attending to and protecting the relationship at the level of global perceptions (G) becomes especially important during times of conflict or when making requests of your partner. Let's say that you want to ask your partner to check in with you before spending a large sum of money in order to prevent your joint account from going into overdraft.

Here is an example of how you could ask for change in a way that attends to G: 

“We are becoming a wonderful team in so many ways. I really like where things have been going in the area of our finances generally. I trust you and I know that you would never intentionally cause me to feel stress. Our checking account went into overdraft again this morning when you bought that new lawnmower, and I need you to know that this really stressed me out. When I get an overdraft notice from the bank, I can almost feel the ulcers coming on. Can we figure out some way to make sure that we're working together to prevent this from happening in the future?”

Now, is there any healthy spouse on earth who would not be inclined to work with you if you made the request in this way? Again, as in the case of being assertive, this takes more work up front, but the payoff is well worth the effort—your partner will feel loved and respected, and you will be able to work through conflicts without getting stuck in needlessly destructive cycles of attack and counterattack.

*Neff, L. and Karney, B. (2005). “To Know You is to Love You: The Implications of Global Adoration and Specific Accuracy for Marital Relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 480-497.  

Neff, L. and Karney, B. (2002). “Judgments of a Relationship Partner: Specific Accuracy but Global Enhancement.” Journal of Personality, 70, 1079-1112.   

Shauna Springer, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, relationship and lifestyle researcher, and author of Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples. more...

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