Recently, as I spoke with a couple, Sarah said that her husband, Todd, was not helping her with the recycling.
"I AM helping," Todd said. "She just doesn't like the way I do it."
They argued back and forth about who did what and when—as well as who did not do what and when--for a couple of minutes. Finally, I interrupted. "You two have had this argument before?"
They nodded, so I continued. "Has it ever ended in a way you both liked? Even once?"
"Not really, no," Sarah said.
"Would you like it to go differently? Would you like to be happy instead of miserable?"
They both nodded again.
"We could talk forever about what you both don't like. But you've already tried that. Instead how about if we talk about what would actually work? You're both trying to convince each other what should be happening. In a loving relationship, though—which you claim you want—each person freely offers what he or she is willing to do. Otherwise, there's endless manipulating, expectations, disappointment, and anger. Sarah, most of the contention seems to be around what you want Todd to do, so let's begin with that. Todd, what part of the recycling are you freely willing to do? What tasks, for example? Or how much time are you willing to spend?"
"Maybe five minutes a week," Todd said.
"Sarah, is that enough?" I asked.
"No. If he only does five minutes, he won't be doing his share."
"See what I mean?" Todd said. "Whatever I do, it's not enough."
"As I said, you two have had this argument enough times," I said. "There's no more need to talk about what you don't like. Let's talk about what you're both willing to give freely."
"You know," Todd said, "come to think of it, I don't want to have anything at all to do with the recycling. No matter what I do, it's wrong or not enough. She even yells at me for putting trash in the wrong container. It's not worth it. I don't want to spend any time at all recycling, but when you first asked I was afraid to say that."
"So, am I just supposed to give up on recycling?" asked Sarah. "Then Todd will be getting exactly what he wants. What about what I want?"
"Sarah, tell me exactly what you really want here."
"I want Todd to do his share of the recycling."
"And THAT is where you're making your mistake. You believe that you want Todd to share in the recycling, but the truth is that it's not really a desire. You're actually demanding that he do the recycling with you. You're trying to control him, which you prove with the enormous disappointment and anger you feel when he doesn't do what you want."
"So how is the recycling supposed to get done?"
"Oh, this is very easy once you let go of controlling Todd. He doesn't want to do any of the recycling—which he has a right to decide—so if you want recycling to happen, I can only see two possibilities: First, you could do it all yourself."
"What?! Why should I do it all?"
"I'm not suggesting that you should. I'm just saying that your doing it all is one choice."
"And what's the other one?"
"You can choose to do as much of the recycling as you wish. You just said you didn't want to do all of it, so you could choose to do part of it. You could do all the recycling for the containers that only you open, for example, or you could do more. You could go through the trash and recycle whatever part of Todd's trash you feel like doing from day to day. In short, you get to do whatever you want."
"But then he doesn't have to do anything."
"Yep, and he doesn't have to."
"But aren't there some things people should do? I mean, recycling helps the planet, so why shouldn't Todd have to do it?"
"Recycling probably is beneficial, but only Todd can decide whether he wants to participate in it. Otherwise, you could force him to do anything you wanted, just because you labeled something good or helpful. That's how dictatorships run. Do you want a relationship or a dictatorship?"
"So he gets to do whatever he wants?"
"Sure, that's what makes us who we are. He doesn't get to make decisions that affect you without consulting you, but otherwise yes, he does get to do what he wants."
"But this recycling thing does affect me."
"Only because you make it affect you. You're not being forced to do anything. You can recycle however much you want and just ignore whatever is left. If you don't allow him to be himself, you won't have a relationship with him at all. If his failure to recycle is enough to end your relationship, fine, that's your choice, but if you want to keep this relationship, the only reasonable choice is to let him do what he wants."
We don't have the right to determine what other people should do. Sure, there are occasional exceptions, as with parents and law enforcement officers, for example, but on the whole, we have to allow people to be who they are. If we do that, our relationships with them are greatly enhanced.
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