I’m having one of those days—okay, weeks—where the same topic keeps popping up in emails, tweets, newsletters, articles.
What’s the theme? The things we can’t stand in our spouses.
I’m especially curious about this topic because, when we become parents, it’s as if those very traits we’re least fond of in our mates—the same ones that, perhaps, we hadn’t really noticed before, or hoped would disappear over time, or thought were cute when we met, but not-so-much anymore—get amplified.
As challenging as we might find some of our spouses’ behaviors, I wonder:
What if the things that bug us most are opportunities to get closer?
What if every time they acted (or we worried they might act) in a way that makes us uncomfortable, we tried to understand them a little more, not less (instead of, say, avoiding or criticizing or silently judging them)?
I know, I know, some of you are thinking: What if pigs could fly? Bear with me.
Take Mike and Tina*, for example: When they got together, Tina thought Mike’s habit of greeting his closest friends, and eventually her too, with a special handshake he’d designed just for them was adorable. But adorable turned into irritating once Mike started doing his handshake routine with their 4 year-old son, Max.
What bothers Tina about Mike’s behavior? By insisting that he and Max do what Tina calls her husband’s “silly hand moves” when Mike gets home from work, before they say anything to each other—“That’s part of the fun,” Mike explains—Tina believes he’s sending the message that Mike’s needs trump Max’s needs.
Let’s say, for the moment, that Mike is hard-wired to do his handshakes and he’ll never change. Unless Tina is intent on being perpetually bothered, she has an opportunity to alter her experience of her husband’s behavior.
How can she do so? She can: (1) Reflect; (2) Understand; and (3) Appreciate.
(1) Reflect: As Tina’s response to Mike’s handshake-habit suggests, when we co-parent, some of our spouses’ qualities or behaviors sometimes become (more) challenging for us when we think that they affect our kids.
I don’t propose that we ignore behaviors that are detrimental to our children—such as verbal or physical abuse, which warrant immediate intervention—but I do believe that, oftentimes, what bugs us in others, especially our spouses, says far more about what we don’t like or refuse to embrace in ourselves than it does about them.**
When Tina looked more closely at Mike’s behavior from this perspective, she realized that she was terrified of being a mom who puts her own needs before those of her child. Mike’s handshake-habit triggered and mirrored a fear she has about herself.
Once Tina acknowledged that fear—and, further, admitted there might be times when, despite being a devoted mom, she will choose to put herself first—her husband’s habit lost a lot of its charge.
(2) Understand: There’s a useful concept from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that goes something like this:
Behind each of our behaviors, we often find a “positive intention” that serves us in one way or another.
Whether or not we’re conscious of it and whether or not they garner the results we want, our behaviors are usually motivated by a desire to care for ourselves. Common examples of positive intentions include: self-protection, being liked, garnering respect, maintaining independence, or eliciting affection.
So if your spouse (or pretty much anyone else) does something that drives you batty, consider asking:
What positive intention might be behind their behavior?
By asking the question of ourselves, by imagining what positive intention propels our spouses’ behaviors, we take a step towards understanding them better; we don’t necessarily agree with their behaviors but at least we understand them more (and no, I don’t believe you can’t come up with at least one positive intention and, yes, it’s okay if you’re not sure that what you come up with is accurate).
When we ramp up our understanding of our spouses’ behaviors, we begin to soften our perception of their impact on us and find ways to substitute compassion for criticism.
(3) Appreciate: The third technique to better navigate what drives us crazy in our mates, is doing our best to figure out what gifts might be embedded in their behavior.
In the case of Mike and Tina, when she considered this possibility, Tina discovered that there’s something comforting about the predictability of Mike’s handshakes. She also realized she appreciates being married to a man who literally touches the people he loves. Finally, she acknowledged that while handshakes aren’t her thing, she too might benefit from being more demonstrative with others.
The more we reflect, understand and appreciate, the more we can embrace our mates and ourselves. When we do so, not only can we strengthen our relationships, not only can we make a good relationship better, we also expand our bandwidth for understanding and appreciating our kids. Plus, we model one of the most enduring truths about relationships:
If we change, we can shift our connection with others.
**A lot has been written about this concept, which is often referred to as our “shadow.” I highly recommend Debbie’s Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers and the anthology, The Shadow Effect.