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How to talk about "difficult issues" with your sweetie

by Janet L. Jacobsen
June 1998 issue, part 2 of 2

Last issue we addressed the problem of how to talk to a new love about difficult issues_specifically, information about you that maybe when they know the information, they won't be so interested in knowing you.

We also brought up a different group of difficult issues _ complaints by you about them that you don't think they want to hear _ which we promised to cover another time. That time has arrived.

A complaint by you about them can fall into one of several categories:

1. General whining about the opposite sex, of which they are a representative member.
2. Little irritants in their behavior.
3. Big irritants in their behavior.
4. Things you WILL NOT TOLERATE one minute!

First, let us move all of this out of the definition of "complaints." Irritants are the problem; complaining is just one way to handle them, if, by complaining, we mean the standard, "You never ....!" "You always....!" "What's the matter with you that you ....!" You get the pattern.

These are complaints. For maximum relationship satisfaction, both in early dating, developing relationships, and long term relationships, never let such words pass your lips. You can think them, you probably can't help it. Thinking it doesn't cause problems; it's the saying that causes problems.

This includes the "You ____ are all alike" (enter the gender of the sex about which you are complaining.) Presumably you are seeing this person because you somehow consider them special. Therefore you want to encourage them in their specialness, and lumping them in with every unsavory member of the opposite sex you've ever known, or heard about, is not the way to encourage them to be special. In fact, if they hear enough of it they may think, "I might as well behave badly, since I'm going to be blamed for it anyway." This you do not want.

There are ways to ask for change that get results, and ways that fail dismally, and ways the actually hurt the relationship. Complaining/whining generally doesn't get results and frequently erodes the relationship. You've seen those bumper stickers, "No Sniveling!"? No sniveling, no complaining, no whining. Ever. No matter how justified you think you are. If you want improvement, there are better ways.

On the other hand, if you want them to dump you, go ahead, whine.

Is it worth mentioning?

One of the things we treasure in a relationship is the feeling that we can be ourselves with the other person, that they appreciate us for who we are. So every time we complain about them, we undermine their sense of acceptance in the relationship.

Of course, our intention is not to say, "I don't like you," but only "I would like you better if . . . " But for most of us the emotional reaction is just about the same, because we interpret "I'd like you better" as "I don't like you."

So, because into each relationship a little irritation must fall, the first question becomes, should I say anything at all?  We've all heard over the years that hiding your feelings isn't good, that things come out in the long run, often in worse ways. But I have noticed that a great benefit of not being 21 years old any more is that things that I used to think were a Big Deal in relationships now are nothing at all. This includes things like him noticing other women, not necessarily wanting to spend ever spare moment with me, not giving me a hug every single time I want one without me asking, stuff like that.

I once saw these things as a Threat to the Relationship and complained about them heartily; I have since discovered that the complaining was what actually threatened the relationship, that the behaviors were things that I in fact do myself and consider reasonable.

I like to think these discoveries are about becoming More Mature.  For awhile after my divorce I shared an apartment with my girlfriend Brenda. Later, when I was living with a boyfriend, I realized that I was holding him to a higher standard of household behavior than I expected of a female roommate. So before I got after him about something, I would ask myself, "Would this bother me if Brenda did it?" If I was sure I wouldn't nag her about a few dishes left in the sink, I didn't nag him. That alone was a huge step to a more positive relationship and, actually, more cooperation around the house.

When asking yourself whether this is something worth mentioning, you also have to consider whether in fact you are actually irritated because you haven't had lunch, are short on sleep, are coming down with a cold, or are feeling a lack of self-confidencefor some reason that has nothing to do with the relationship.

In such cases, the best policy is "Let it ride." You're aware that you've had a reaction to something they've done, but you've determined that their behavior is probably reasonable or not the actual cause of the reaction. So you take care of the probable causes and don't let it bother you.

Reward what you want

But having done the self-examination, you'll discover that some things are true irritants. Some things do need to be discussed, but many changes can be made in a relationship by simply praising what you like.

Once when I was guest speaker in a college communication class, a married woman was talking about having asked her husband ("nagged extensively" sounded more like it) for a particular behavior change. But she was not happy, because when he finally did what she wanted, he said, "There, now are you happy?" and she got mad at him for saying that.

Much as she might have wanted him to change magically overnight and not have an "attitude," she did get the behavior she wanted. And at that point the correct response, regardless of his attitude, was lavish praise. Hugs and kisses. Take him to dinner. Whatever would make him feel his effort was appreciate. Because whatever behavior you want, you must reward.

And don't say, "Well, he should be doing that; I shouldn't have to praise him." Listen, there are a zillion other guys out there who also aren't doing what you want, so having one who does is an occasion for celebration. You don't tell the puppy, "Well,you shouldn't have been piddling on the carpet anyway." You praise the puppy when he learns to bark to go out.

Praise the puppy! Criticism and silence do not encourage good behavior. Praise encourages good behavior.

You want him to help with the dishes regularly? Ask occasionally, or ask only for a small part of the process: "Could youdry the silverware for me?" Then be sincere in your appreciation. "When you dry the silver, this gets done so much faster. I really appreciate your help."

It makes you feel good when she suggests a date idea and pays for all or part? When she does, tell her, "You know, lots of women think they're above planning a date or paying for something. When you do it for me, it makes me feel special. Thanks."

Encourage the behavior you want by praising it _ or anything even reasonably close to it _ whenever it happens.

 When you have to ask for change

Some irritants, however, need to be addressed directly. When something "bugs" you, often the best strategy is a simple mention, without blame or accusation, but only as a point of information, because they aren't "make or break" behaviors and you know, and the other person knows it. Then, having made your point, let it go.

For instance, it really bothers one fellow I know if plates are cleared away while other people are still eating, because he thinks it makes the remaining person feel rushed. And he'll mention this. If the hostess agrees, that's nice. If not, it's not the end of the world, but at least she knows his feelings on the matter.

Some small irritants can, over time, grow more annoying. Perhaps you've said, "I understand that sometimes you get a chance to go to a baseball game with one of the guys, and you need to cancel plans we've made. I can handle it, as long as it doesn't happen too often." But now there's been a change, so you need to remind them of the previous conversation before you add, "Cancelling our dates twice a week to go to baseball is what I meant by too often!"

Some irritants, however, need to be addressed not only directly, but immediately. One of mine is the other person being late. GRRRRH! Not good. Some people consider it unreasonable for me to be irritated by lateness; they are certainly free to be late wherever and whenever they want to be. And I am free to not agree to do anything with them where it will matter to me if they are late.

The trick is to have the conversation without making the other person wrong. Own your feelings totally: This is a major issue to me; it's only somewhat negotiable. I realize not everyone feels this way, but I have to live with the way I feel about this, and I like this part of me.

Now the other person can decide if they can reasonably adjust, they can offer a compromise, or they can agree that the relationship isn't workable. No hard feelings.

This means, though, that you have to actually listen when they give their point of view. One fellow with whom I had the "late" discussion explained that neither his wife, nor his primary girlfriend since his divorce had considered his being late a problem, and he thought it would take him a while to adjust. We were able to work out some time priorities that we could both live with.

So it is absolutely essential that when you come across these "absolute" irritants, you have to bring them up immediately.

Two years after the wedding is a little late to suddenly say, "This has always bothered me and I would like you to change." You've cut off their options unfairly by hiding what was irritating you. You've essentially been dishonest about your feelings.

Dating is, after all, getting to know each other, and that includes teaching the other person how to treat you. If you are "tolerating" something in dating that you expect to "lay down the law" about when the relationship takes a more serious turn, you are being fundamentally dishonest. There was the gal who went to football games with her boyfriend for years, but after they got married told him she wasn't going to any more games because she didn't like football. Did he have a right to feel deceived? You bet.

Sure, being honest up front will lose you some relationships. These are relationships you want to lose, you need to lose.

You are doing them a favor too; they are not really keen to be nagged about lateness the rest of their lives, after all, when there are women for whom such things are not an issue. Let them find each other.

Some things are not negotiable

Of course, some things are not negotiable. Abuse, drugs, excessive drinking, infidelity: you need to be clear about what is on your list. And any discussion about such things is nonnegotiable.

Ideally there should be discussion before the fact. As part of dating you should be talking with each other about your "bottom lines" _ your absolute "no tolerance" items. If, however, something happens and there hasn't been a previous discussion, you can have a "two strikes and you're out" policy. But this calls for a very clear and very serious talk between the two of you in a calm and reasonable way. If they show up drunk for the sixth date, screaming at them does not constitute a serious talk. Do not go on the date (there has to be immediate consequences), and as soon as appropriate after the person has sobered up, have The Talk.

If they consider their behavior reasonable, break up then. If they promise to change, or never do it again, or whatever, promise them there will not be a second Talk, and keep your word. They know your feelings and they've violated your trust? End of relationship. There truly are other fish in the sea; throw this one back.

As we said last issue, every relationship will have at least a few difficult problems to discuss over the years. There are dozens, probably even hundreds, of "conflict management" techniques in communication. What we've talked about here are some baseline skills for asking for change from your partner. Take a positive approach for the little things, and even the medium things. For the Big Things, know where you stand and be firm about it.

And in all things, be yourself, and be honest. You are, after all, teaching the other person how to treat you.