Go on. Admit it.
You know it’s utterly fruitless, yet deep down, you’re still hoping to get your partner to change.
“Who couldn’t benefit from a bit of improvement?” you say. And who better than you to point out what to improve?
There’s no denying that we all have our rough edges and blind spots— some of us with rougher edges than others. Even so, the “helpful” commentary we offer is neither helpful nor welcome.
What if your spouse tells a story with minor inaccuracies? Or major ones, for that matter? What if she botches the punch line or bores the guests at a dinner party? What if he’s certain it happened in Paris when you know full well that it happened in Rome?
Why is it so hard to resist throwing in our indispensable two-cents about the most efficient way to get to the freeway, the proper way to hold silverware, the number of times one should chew?
Who cares if your husband wears white socks with sandals or your wife laughs in a way that can make an entire restaurant go silent?
Like it or not, we’re married to people who are, well… who they are. They sneeze too loud, swallow too loud, or speak too loud— occasionally about things we wouldn’t dare to mention. They eat foods we wouldn’t touch even if we were starving and they laugh at jokes that only an eight-year-old would find the least bit amusing.
And absolutely none of it is any of our business.
Couples regularly come into therapy complaining about the things they want their partners to change. And while some issues they raise are crucial to address— a partner’s drinking or infidelity or uncontrolled rage— quite often the complaints are less about behaviors and more about their partner’s essence, the dissatisfaction they have with who their partner actually is.
It’s as if what they’re looking to change about Bob isn’t what Bob says or does. It’s his very “Bob-ness” that they find hard to endure.*
Most of the “helpful” comments we make are aimed at modifying the fundamental nature of the person we chose. We may rationalize that we’re commenting for our loved one’s own good, but our unsolicited suggestions for improvement have far less to do with him or her than we wish to believe.
Resisting the pull to be “helpful” calls for some of the same skills that enable us to quiet down in the midst of an argument. (Mastering The Art of Shutting Up) Both take self-awareness and discipline. Both require acknowledging the ways that our behaviors are influenced by anxiety.
Though some of us may be able to tolerate more uncertainty than others, most of us feel unsettled when we’re not in control. It’s no surprise, then, that we spend inordinate amounts of time trying to make our world and those around us line up with how we prefer things to be.
When things don’t go our way, rather than managing the disequilibrium inside us, we aim to manage those around us instead.
Minding our own business and simply letting our partner “be” is then a matter of trust: trust that we can tolerate more discomfort than we’re used to and trust that without our oh-so-crucial intervention things won’t, in fact, go to hell in a hand-basket. And, if they do, trust that we can gain a solid footing and keep a steady enough keel. Quite often, this requires that we let go of thinking we’re right.
An additional challenge is that for many of us, our identity can become entangled with the identity of our partner. Rather than maintaining a needed separateness, we merge into one. The consequence, then, is that we need our partner to look and act as we prefer in order for us to look good to ourselves and to others. Hard as is it, it’s crucial to recognize that our partner is a separate person and his or her behavior is not a reflection of us.
Being less “helpful” means being less judgmental, less critical and less verbal about our disappointments. It means that we be honest enough with ourselves to know the difference between helpful and meddlesome, between lending support and micromanaging.
When we stop controlling each other, the surprising benefit is that we can let down our guard. No longer needing to be vigilant about the next “correction” from our partner, we can make our own needed changes, grow in the ways that would be beneficial to us, instead of adjusting to or reacting to our partner’s opinions.
Better still, we create a marriage of respect and acceptance, a marriage big enough to embrace our strengths and our flaws.
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* Thanks to Bill O’Hanlon for the term “Bob-ness.”