The Rules of the Romance

Building a better relationship and getting out of snags with the help of Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.

Fight Fair!

Criticize above the belt.

When we’re angry, we may automatically resort to any number of below-the-belt tactics. We leap from the facts (“You said you’d clean up the kitchen and I need you to do it”) to a damning generalization (“When you say you’ll do something, I can never count on you to follow through”).

Perhaps we throw in a label (“I can’t believe how insensitive you are”) along with a diagnosis (“You have a narcissistic personality”) and bring in another party or two to bolster our case (“My therapist thinks that you’re passive aggressive and my sister agrees”).

While we’re at it, we may slip in an interpretation along the way (“You may think I’m your mother, but I’m not here to serve you like she did”) and remind him that he needs therapy. And we serve all of this up in a condescending, mocking, preaching, and blaming tone.

Wonder of wonders that our partner or family member doesn’t seem to appreciate our feedback.

A constructive complaint looks like this: You calmly ask him not to leave his things flung around the house, not because he’s a big slob (although that may be so) but because neatness is important to you. You “own” the problem (“I’m just not comfortable when you leave your briefcase and coat on the living room couch”) and appreciate that there are other women in the world who would be happy living with someone who didn’t pick up after himself. You mention the attacks you made earlier, at a time of frustration and you apologize for them.

At a relaxed time, you invite a conversation (“Can we make a rule about where briefcases and coats are kept?”) and figure out how to compromise on your different styles. You appreciate that change occurs slowly, in fits and starts, so you praise him for moves in the right direction. After all, you couldn’t transform yourself into a person comfortable with clutter overnight. You might even conclude that it would be simpler to sweep through the house twice a day and dump all his belongings on his big armchair until he decides what to do with them, if anything.

Constructive criticism asks for a specific behavioral adjustment that honors the other person’s capacity to change. It focuses on actions, not character judgments. The “lightly served” part is especially important if you’re talking to someone who responds poorly to anger or intensity in your voice.

People can say very difficult things if they calmly present the facts with no edge in their voice. And silliness helps enormously, as when my son’s wife threatened to charge him rent if he kept putting his clothes on her desk.