Emily called me and said, “My husband, Mark, comes in from outside and puts his dirty clothes on the kitchen counter. I’ve told him a thousand times not to do this, but he does it anyway. I shouldn’t have to keep telling him.”
“I have ONE question,” I said.
“What tone of voice do you use when you ask him not to put his clothes on the counter?”
“Pretty good. I try to be kind."
“That was actually a trick question, for which I apologize half-heartedly. I’m really TELLING you that your tone of voice is NOT kind. In fact, using your own words, you don’t ask him not to put his clothes on the counter. You TELL him, and he hates it.”
“But I don’t LIKE dirty clothes on my kitchen counter.”
“Kid, you can like or dislike anything you want—we all have our preferences—but the way you communicate those preferences is crucial to your happiness, and to your relationship with Mark.”
I asked Emily if Mark was home right then. He was, and on speakerphone, I talked to him as she listened. It turned out that Emily’s tone about the clothes on the counter was consistently demanding and bitter, and she also complained about a great many other things he did: driving, parking, eating, talking, choice of friends, and much more.
“It sounds,” I said, “like you feel controlled a lot.”
“YES,” he said emphatically.
“And you hate it.”
I thanked Mark for talking to me, and after he left I continued my conversation with Emily.
“So, what did you learn?” I asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Want some help?”
“I’ll help only if you want, kid. I don’t have a need for you to do anything.”
“I don’t know what to do next, so I need help.”
“When you talk to Mark about his dirty clothes, you’re not making a REQUEST.”
But I do ASK him to quit putting his clothes on the counter.”
“Sort of. You might sometimes end your sentence with a question mark, but that doesn’t make it a question—and certainly not a request.”
I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t. You really don’t mean to do what you’re doing, but you do need to understand it, or you’ll keep repeating a behavior that’s hurting Mark, you, and your marriage. When you bring up the subject of the clothes, you are carrying in your mind the irritation and frustration of EVERY SINGLE other time he’s left his clothes on the counter—along with other behaviors you haven’t liked. That’s a BIG burden. It’s a lot of resentment, so when you believe you’re asking him about the clothes, you’re really criticizing him, attacking him, and demanding that he stop ignoring you and hurting your feelings. Is that clear?”
“I wouldn’t put it that harshly.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t, but it IS that harsh, and it feels that harsh to Mark. So the real question is, do you want to be happy and have a healthy marriage, or not?”
“I do, but—”
“That’s a deadly word—but. If you really do want to be happier, then there would be no BUT. There would be only listening and learning. Make a choice.”
“Well . . .”
“Happy or not. It’s a yes or no answer.”
“Then you have to see how attacking and demanding you are.”
“I don’t mean to be.”
“I believe you, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are. All that remains is for you to learn how to STOP being attacking and demanding, and instead be loving.”
“So I have to put up with him putting his filthy, smelly clothes on the counter?”
“Nope, not at all, but your solution—the attacking and anger—isn’t working, is it? You’ve had years to try it your way. Is it working? Yes or no.”
“Not really,” Emily said.
“Mark HATES you attacking him. Hates it a lot. He said so. As long as you attack him, he will feel unloved, so when you speak in that tone, he’ll turn off his ears—and his soul. It’s ironic that you become insistent in order to get him to listen, but the moment you get angry, you make it impossible for him to listen. In fact, your attacking hurts his feelings, so I would imagine that one reason he leaves his clothes on the counter is to get you back—possibly unconsciously. Get it?”
“Not until now, no, I didn’t. But I think I understand now. I’ve really been a witch.” She hung her head and let a tear fall.
“Yes, you have, but as you say, you never meant to. Until now you didn’t know any better. So you can waste time feeling bad about this, or you can learn to do it differently.”
“As I said, every time you talk to him, you’re distracted by all the thousand other times that he’s been inconsiderate. I get it. So what’s the solution? Obviously, the real solution is for you to become perfectly loving, but let’s do something practical while you’re working on that.”
“Thanks. I don’t think I could even consider being perfectly loving at this point.”
“Let the past go. All of it. NEITHER of you has known how to be unconditionally loving, so there’s no way you could have avoided the mistakes you’ve made to this point. When the subject is loving, consider yourself to be an infant. START OVER. In every interaction, carry NOTHING of the past.”
“So how do I get the clothes off the counter?”
“Is there any doubt in your mind that he’s already heard your opinion on the subject?”
“Not really, but he doesn’t seem to care.”
“As I said, he’s just frightened by your attacks and then responds badly to that. So instead of attacking him, each time you talk to him about the clothes, ask him as though it were the very FIRST TIME. Gently, no emotional energy, kindly.”
“But I’ve tried that.”
“I know you believe that, but I doubt it. You have too much anger about it. Start over. Ask for the first time. Casually. Something like this: As you calmly point in the direction of the clothes, say, ‘Mark, clothes please.’ Or ‘Thanks for moving your clothes.’ Or ‘Mark, would you move those for me?’ Just like the first time. Really.”
“He won’t do it.”
“You don’t know that. You haven’t tried.”
“Okay, I’ll try. And if it doesn’t work?”
“If he doesn’t move them right then, move them yourself. He’ll be testing you. He won’t believe that you’ve changed. Then if he leaves them there again, you ask again. Like the first time—again. Love works better than everything else—by far—and you will never know that until you try it.”
Oh, how we carry the past into the present, and as soon as we do, we tend to ruin everything. The past provokes feelings of emptiness, fear, anger, and more, and we really do not benefit from carrying that burden. We can learn to live right now. We can feel the love of right now. We can make requests of people right now, without the poison of the past. It really does work better than everything else.
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