There’s an age-old argument that seems to plague couples the world over. No, we’re not talking about the toothpaste tube or the toilet seat up or down debate. We’re referring to the ‘you’re late!’ issue.
We’ve all been there. When our spouse keeps us waiting, it hurts. There can be good reasons for it, or not-so-good reasons, but either way, it cuts to be left waiting.
It’s just one of many universal debates over which couples argue that include money, childcare, housework, sex, hobbies, and friends.
Married life is challenging! Learning to live with another person who has their own view of how things should be done, can make the newlywed years fraught with tension making it the highest risk period for marital breakdown.
Truth be told, for many of us, the tension can persist well beyond those early years; after 32 years of marriage, we’re still discovering differences and still trying to resolve them peacefully!
If one of us is rude, selfish or disappointing in some way, the desire to inflict a smackdown and humiliate them can be fierce – our sense of hurt can make us reactive – especially if we are tired or already grumpy. But this is never productive and almost always destructive to each other and to our relationship.
A smackdown might deliver us a brief satisfaction, but it is never constructive. It usually escalates the situation as our spouse becomes defensive and similarly reactive, especially the case when the starting offense was out of their control or accidental.
Before we know it, what began as a careless word or miscommunicated expectation has become a major argument.
Moreover, returning offense for offense edifies neither of us; it’s a race to the bottom with no winners. Our marital unity is the inevitable loser.
So, what to do instead?
Here are five things to do that will change the trajectory of your challenging interactions and transform your relationship from a ‘walking on eggshells’ experience to one of supportive unity.
The first is to practice self-restraint. We have to become masters of our reactivity so that the escalation pathway never gets a foothold.
Self-mastery is a skill that comes with maturity. It allows us to gather our thoughts so that when we begin a difficult conversation about a behaviour we don’t like, we can do so with a more considered perspective and a clearer understanding of what we truly need and seek in the relationship.
One very practical way to do this is through a regular habit of meditation or prayer. Meditation, including Catholic mindfulness, helps us maintain perspective and stay connected to a solid source of life-affirming divine acceptance.
Prayer allows us to work through our issues in conversation with God so that when we raise it with our spouse, we come armed with a deeper self-awareness and less impulsivity. Discussions between us tend to be calmer, more considered and more respectful when our spiritual life is in a healthy place.
Another strategy is journaling or counselling – both can be valuable ways to deepen our self-awareness, tame our reactivity and develop self-restraint.
Any of these practices can help us to process our unpleasant emotions and understand the needs that are driving them so that we can be more intentional and less reactive in difficult situations.
2: Soft Start-Up
The second tip is what is called a ‘soft start-up’. Rather than opening a difficult conversation with a judgement about the other’s offending behaviour, begin with a ‘benefit-of-the-doubt’ or ‘affirmation’ statement.
Opening lines like, “We need to talk about your behaviour!” (add scolding tone) is an example of a harsh start-up and is guaranteed to set the conversation off on the wrong trajectory.
“I’m not going to stand for that kind of talk” or “Something has to change” are examples of ultimatum statements and are harsh start-ups, even though they might not be the very first statement we make.
In contrast, a ‘benefit of the doubt’ or ‘affirmation’ statement might be “I know that you would never hurt me intentionally.” Another good example is, “This is really hard for me to raise with you because I know you try so hard to do the best by me”.
Both these examples approach the topic gently and respectfully and will avoid triggering instinctive defensiveness in our spouse.
3: Be factual
Once we have our soft start-up opening, it needs to be followed by a simple and factual statement of the behaviour that offends or harms, without any emotional loading or blame.
For example, “when you make your work more important than me” lacks specificity and is a judgement of the other’s intention, whereas “when you were late yesterday” is clear and factual.
It’s really tempting when we are hurt or annoyed to reinforce our case with examples of historical offenses and exaggeration. Don’t do this – keep the conversation on issues that are current and specific.
Avoid ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ statements. As Byron likes to point out – such statements are patently untrue – none of us are that consistent!
Stick to the issue at hand and be factual.
4: Be Vulnerable
Fourthly, rather than argue your case, share your inner life and emotions. Instead of focussing on the details of the other’s behaviour, be willing to be open and about your needs and vulnerabilities.
Such vulnerability is disarming. It softens the message of dissatisfaction and transforms the other’s defensiveness into an invitation to deeper intimacy and love.
It’s the difference between statements like: “You’re always late. You are so self-absorbed you don’t think about me and how your behaviour is impacting me”, and “When you are late, I feel hurt. Though I know you don’t mean it this way, what I perceive in your behaviour is that I am not valued.”
The first example is loaded with judgement and accusations of intent. The second is gracious and self-revealing. It is more respectful of the other and far more likely to achieve a positive outcome.
5: Respectful Request
Finally, make a clear and respectful request for an alternative behaviour. It’s easy to criticise and blame but this not only triggers the other’s defensiveness, it leaves them guessing about what we really need from them.
A respectful request will be concrete and achievable and won’t ask our spouse to do something they are incapable of doing or requires them to act against their conscience. It won’t make a request for change into an ultimatum – none of these aspects are respectful.
“You need to be on time or else you can sleep on the couch” is too vague, may be impossible for our spouse if they have an unpredictable job or are caring for children and threatens them with punishment if they fail to comply. Ultimatums use fear to force compliance and it undermines the equality and integrity of our union. There’s nothing respectful in this request.
“It would really help me if you would call or text me when you are running late so I can plan around it” is achievable, respects that our spouse may not be able to control factors which make them late, and honours their autonomy.
When one of us behaves in a way that impinges on our values or confounds our expectations in some way, the temptation to hit back is always present. How we chose to respond to this is what makes the all the difference.