March 25

How to Speak Up Without Controlling

March 25, 2016


Melissa called and told me that her husband, Scott, often laughed at things she did and criticized what she said. “How do I get him to stop it?” she asked.

“Oh, you don’t GET him to stop anything,” I said.

“So you’re saying that his behavior is all right?” She was dumbfounded and possibly offended.

I laughed. “Not at all. His behavior is horrifying. He’s controlling you, mocking you, and selfishly undermining your marriage—which is far from behaving like a partner.”

“So he should stop it, right?”

“The problem is not with identifying his behavior—no denying how bad it is—but with the word ‘should’ and the phrase ‘get him to stop.’”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“It’s only natural that if something is wrong, we would want to make it right—preferably as quickly as possible. That approach works great if the mistake is 2 + 2 = 5, but it turns out that people don’t like to be corrected like a math mistake.”

“So what can I do?”

“A lot. People don’t like to be told what to do or not to do—even if they’re wrong. I’m sure you’ve tried to get him to stop this before, yes?”


“Has that ever gone well?”


“Exactly. People don’t like it, and—with rare exceptions—you don’t have the RIGHT to tell people what to do or not to do. It’s in violation of the single most important principle in the universe: the Law of Choice. But you CAN always make choices about what YOU say and do.”

“How will that make a difference here?”

“It will make a difference to YOU. As things are now, you’re reduced to complaining and feeling stupid and helpless. Do you like that?”


“So change it. You have an opportunity here to BE YOURSELF. This is no small thing, since you’ve had very little experience doing it all your life.”

“How?” she asked through tears.

“You can speak up about what YOU see, how you feel, and what you’ll do.”

“Again, how?”

“I’m not suggesting that you memorize these words, but you could say something like this: ‘Scott, what you just said was unkind and snotty. It wasn’t respectful, not at all what you’d say to someone you actually loved, like your wife. And I want you to be clear that I don’t like it and never will.’”

“He’ll argue that he didn’t MEAN to be critical or whatever.”

“Oh, I’m sure he will. The MOMENT he begins to argue with you, you raise your hand and say this: ‘Scott, I wasn’t ASKING you if you were being unkind. I’m TELLING you that you were. You can keep doing it if you want to, but I don’t like it, and it’s hurting our marriage.”

“What if he keeps arguing?”

“You repeat what I just said about TELLING him what he’s doing and that you don’t like it. You do NOT address his arguments, or it will end up in a fight.”

“It always does.”

“That’s why you won’t argue, and you won’t tell him what to do. You’ll just tell him what he’s doing, and that you don’t like it.”

“He’ll keep arguing.”

“Very likely. So after two attempts at telling him what he’s doing and how you feel, then you tell him what YOU will do—again not telling him what to do at all. You say, ‘Scott, if you want to keep arguing, you’re just proving again that you don’t respect me or listen to me, and I will leave the room.’ Got it?”

“Yeah. It’s so clear. I’ve never known how to handle this.”

“Of course not. You never had anybody teach you how.”

A few days later Melissa called to say that she did almost exactly what I had suggested, and Scott argued, as she had predicted. But then he apologized. And he didn’t say a critical or mocking word for the next two days.

There is a lesson here for all of us. Generally speaking, we don’t have a right to control other people—even when they’re unkind to us—but we always have a right to make our own choices. It empowers us, and it makes us much happier.

Real Love in Marriage

Find genuine happiness now and forever.


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