Thursday, April 18, 2013

Resolving a Couple's Conflict - What if She's Talkative and He's Not?

Dear Andrew,

We've all heard the Golden Rule before: “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Usually, I find this to be sage advice, however, I'm starting to get the feeling that this behavior is driving a wedge between me and my partner.

I prefer a more verbal communication style. I ask my partner to share his thoughts with me because it makes me feel like my partner trusts me and I feel like it gives me a chance to see a side of him no one else does; therefore, I try to role-model this behavior by talking about my innermost thoughts and desires in the hopes that it will encourage him to open up. My partner, on the other hand, seems to prefer a more silent approach, where hugs and kisses are supposed to communicate these deeper feelings. For example, about 15 minutes after having an argument, my partner pulled me aside, gave me a kiss, and said “I love you.” I later found out that he considered that an apology, but I was looking for an acknowledgement of his role in the argument and a clear-cut apology.

I recognize that my partner probably doesn't want to hear me babble on and would prefer a more reserved approach, but I also feel that if I stop role-modeling the kind of attention I want to receive, I will never get what I want. How do you reconcile differences in how you want to be treated?

Signed, Chatter Box

Dear Talkative One,

I can understand your desire to be with someone who fulfills your needs. We all want that. It seems, however, that the way you’re trying to achieve this isn’t creating the desired outcome. Let’s examine why.

For starters, I could interpret “Do unto others” somewhat differently in your scenario. You interpret it as communicating openly with him in hopes he will communicate openly in return. What you’re actually doing, though, is trying to change him. You’d like him to behave in a way that doesn’t come naturally to him. So if he were to treat you the same way you’re treating him, he would use his natural behavior (which he’s already exhibiting) in an effort to change you. He’d try to get you to adopt his communication style. That would likely result in an unproductive stalemate.

You’d like him to make you feel good, so the golden rule suggests you should find a way to make him feel good. As you’ve described it, however, your babbling is intended to satisfy your needs, not his.

Every person and every relationship evolves over time, so it’s natural – even necessary – to ask for change once in a while from our significant others. It’s generally a recipe for disaster, however, to enter into a relationship knowing you’ll only be happy once you’ve changed something fundamental about your partner. I’m not saying that’s what you’ve done, but you have to be careful about trying to change your partner’s basic personality. I get the sense you’re effusive and he’s more reserved. If so, you might as well accept right now that this will always be his general nature. No amount of asking, modeling, or pressuring will change someone’s core traits.

Here are a couple of questions you should ask yourself. Will you be happy only once you’ve changed his basic nature? Or will it be enough if he can learn a few tricks of the trade so he can fulfill your needs better? If it’s the latter, we can start think about how to teach him ways to accomplish that.

One of you has to break the impasse by taking the first positive step. I suggest you do so, for the simple reason that you can make that happen but you can’t choose for him to do so. One of the most effective ways to begin making changes is to first acknowledge your own role in how things have gone so far.

You mention using role modeling as a way to ask for change. That’s unfair to him, in a sense, because it requires him to guess why you’re acting that way. He could be forgiven for coming to the most obvious conclusion, which is that you’re sharing your inner thoughts because that’s what you naturally like to do. You could admit to him that your explicit objective in doing this was to encourage him to do the same, and then you could apologize for becoming frustrated with him when he didn’t take the hint. This is an example of what I mean by taking the first positive step. You start to ease any existing tensions by offering an apology.

Another well known chestnut is not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He offered you the gift of an apology after your argument. He did so using language that took a while for you to decode, but nonetheless he was sincerely trying to make up. Your response was to be critical of his gift. It would be good if the two of you can come together on how to state apologies so they work best for both of you. Since that hasn’t happened yet, your initial olive branch might include an apology for not being more gracious in accepting his attempt on that occasion.

Finally, I suggest you forget your strategy of hoping he’ll take your hints. Instead, simply flat out ask for what you want … but with a few caveats:

  • Be conscious of putting a positive spin on your requests. Avoid saying things like, “I hate it when you’re quiet all the time.” Instead try this: “It makes me feel special when you share your innermost thoughts and dreams. Will you do that for me sometimes?” Rather than predicting failure if he doesn’t comply, predict great success that will come from the requested change.
  • Don’t ask for more than he can deliver. Like I discussed above, asking him to change his fundamental nature is likely to end in failure.
  • Be as specific as you can. Something like “Will you please be more talkative?” is too general, because it’s difficult for him to know specifically what he should do to make you happier. Instead, ask for something he can do right now: “It would make me feel better if you acknowledged your role in that argument. Will you please do that for me?” And by the way, that one works better if you’ve just finished acknowledging your own role.
  • Avoid the dreaded C words – ‘can’ and ‘could.’ We men can be literal creatures, so a request like, “Can you tell me what you’re thinking?” is often interpreted as, “Do you have the ability to tell me?” You’re not questioning his capabilities; you want him to take action, so state it that way: “Will you tell me?”

I get the sense from your email that you and your partner have plenty of positive things going for you. His giving nature prompted him to proactively offer up an apology after your argument. You obviously care enough about the relationship that you’ve given the issues serious thought and have reached out for help. Hopefully you’ll find my suggestions helpful in reconciling your differences. I wish you the best of luck and I’d love to hear how things turn out.

All the best,

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