By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
You have probably been hearing these words from your mother for years. You probably even say them to your own kids if you are a parent. They are about as common-sensible as basic hygiene and car tune-ups. Two simple words to improve your relationship: Be nice!
I remember many years ago, finishing up a particularly heated therapy session with a couple. My clients were getting ready to head out the door when the husband turned to me and said, “Can you give me a few words to keep in mind this coming week?” I said, “You bet I can… Be nice!”
It sounds so simple, I know. How hard should it be to be nice? Particularly to the people we most love? But unfortunately, many people are plagued with unresolved resentments and wounds, which can make the simple notion of minding our manners, anything but simple.
So how do we stop a pattern of bickering, arguing, fighting and feuding? Well, the first step is always desire. We have to want to stop. We have to be interested in and open to changing. We have to be willing to look at our own part instead of pointing out our partner’s part. We have to pause instead of go on autopilot in our communications. We have to be humble enough to ask for do-over’s when we pounce instead of pause. We have to want to listen and understand instead of just wanting to be heard and understood. We have to want to make peace instead of only wanting to make our point.
Having shared this philosophy with many clients over the last few decades, I have received a lot of really good questions on the matter and I thought I would share a few of these Q and As with you. May these dialogues help you find more peace in your partnership, less disputes in your day and more “carefronting” in your confronting!
Q: Are you saying I’m not supposed to get angry with my husband? It’s not realistic for me to be sweet and nice all the time.
A: Of course it’s not realistic for you to be sweet and nice all the time. The weather is not always sunny with a light breeze and neither are we. However, you can always be respectful and kind, even if you are angry. Your voice might not have the same tone as it would if you were talking about something light, but you can still be kind. And not only will that help you to be a better communicator, it will also help you get more of what I assume you are wanting… a loving relationship.
So even if you are really angry with your husband, if you approach him in a loving, non defensive manner, you are much more likely to be heard and come to a resolution which will then give you less to be angry about and give him less to react to, and so it goes.
Q: I ask my husband all the time to do stuff around the house and he says he will but then he doesn’t. It drives me nuts and it seems like the only way he does things is if I yell at him. I do everything he asks me to do and he still can’t manage to do a few simple chores.
A: While it might seem that yelling is an effective form of communication, what it is likely doing is undermining the tenderness and trust between the two of you. Yelling might even be contributing to some passive/aggressive behaviors on your husband’s part that could lead him to say “yes” but not follow through on his word.
How about sitting down with your husband and saying something like: “I am not sure what to do. You have agreed to (fill in the blank with the chore du jour) and yet you have not done it. I really don’t want to fight or nag but I am not sure what to do when you agree to do something and then you don’t do it. Do you have any suggestions?”
Then see if a respectful and mature dialogue ensues. (If it doesn’t, you might consider seeking some professional help from an individual or couples counselor.)
Also, you say that you do everything your husband asks you to do but my guess is that what he would really want the most from you would be for you to be nice to him. So ask yourself, if in addition to the household chores and other practical things you are doing for him, are you also being nice?
Q: Sometimes my wife and I are in the middle of a really important discussion and she just shuts down. She either gets totally silent and won’t say a word or she gets really mean and brings up a bunch of stuff from the past. I don’t know what to do when this happens.
A: It sounds like there are times when your wife hits what I call an emotional landmine. She may or may not even be aware of what is being triggered inside of her. Hopefully she is open to knowing and exploring her reactions but regardless of whether she is or not, you can still remain calm and kind on your end.
I recommend talking about this pattern when she is not shut down or explosive. (It’s much easier to dismantle a bomb when it is not exploding than when it has already gone off.) See if you can find a time that you are both calm and in agreement that it’s a good time to talk about this pattern. See if she is open to talking about what happens for her and what she thinks would be most helpful to her at those times. For some, it’s a comforting word or statement. For others, it’s a reminder that you are on their side and that you want to know what they are feeling and needing. Some people feel reassured by physical touch when they are triggered. Others want space and time.
See if your wife can get clear on what things might help bring her back to a present and mature state. If she is someone who needs a break from certain charged topics, perhaps you can let her know that would be fine, as long as she can let you know that in a respectful way and come back to it later for resolution.
Many people get flooded with emotions at various times and from various topics. They cannot always think clearly and quickly and sometimes regress to a less than mature state (some more than others, depending on their history and their unresolved wounds). Some people attempt to ignore their emotional wounds, some people act them out on others and some work on healing them. By initiating kind and curious discussions followed by safe and well kept agreements, it is possible to heal our wounds from the past rather than inflict them on others in the present.
If your wife is open to solutions and makes a request for those challenging moments, it’s important to remember that you can experiment and see how something works for a period of time. It doesn’t have to be written in stone. One couple I worked with made an agreement that when the wife raised her voice and became what her husband perceived as critical, he was going to give her a little hand signal that would help bring her back to being respectful. After a while, she realized that the hand signal was feeling contrived and she was ready to have him verbally ask for what he needed when things got heated. The main goal is that you both work as a team to heal your unresolved wounds rather than continually inflict them on each other.
Q: It seems like no matter how nice I am to my husband, he continues to be really mean and insulting. I am not sure what else I can do to make things better?
A: First of all, the practice of being nice is not only about how you treat your partner. It also needs to be applied toward yourself. While we are only responsible for our side of the street in a relationship, we also get to decide what street we want to live on. It is critical to differentiate between someone who has anger issues but is still a safe partner vs. someone whose anger is unsafe and/or abusive.
If your husband is insulting and mean and is unwilling to look at his part, change, or get help, it might not be a safe place for you to be. I would recommend you seek individual counseling to sort that out and/or couples therapy if he is open to it. Safety always comes first. If your husband is abusive, “Be Nice” becomes “Be Gone.”
Q: My wife accuses me of yelling at her all the time but I only yell when she doesn’t listen.
A: This is a very common pattern for many couples. One person doesn’t feel heard and then raises their voice in attempt to get heard. Then the other partner goes into their mode of defense–most commonly yelling back, shutting down, or a combo plate of the two.
I am sure it must be very frustrating to feel like your wife is not listening to you but unless you are willing to speak in a respectful manner, tone and volume, the chances are slim that she ever will.
Instead of trying to change her listening skills, how about changing your delivery and see what happens? The next time you feel like she is not hearing you, see if you can speak very kindly and respectfully; ask her if she would be wiling to really hear your point and tell her that you will then really try to hear hers. Then repeat daily or as needed!