Linda: Mira and Joel had a problem, or as she put it, an opportunity. It seemed that Joel was afflicted with that not-so-rare disease the many men (and a fair number of women) are possessed by, sometimes known as “here’s what you need to do-itis”.
This is that syndrome in which one partner begins expressing some distress, usually out of a need to express feelings such as frustration, confusion, anxiety, or disappointment. Before they finish expressing the first sentence, their partner has interrupted them with some advice that they believe to be a solution to the problem. If you have been on the receiving end of this pattern, you probably know where this is going, and it ain’t pretty.
Mira and Joel found themselves in this situation frequently. Each time that they were in it, Joel would offer his words of wisdom within seconds of Mira initiating the conversation. Mira would then stop talking, allowing him to finish telling her what she needed to do to “fix” the situation. Joel would wait for her to thank him for his wisdom and to reassure him that she would do what he had suggested.
Mira resented being told what she needed to do. When asked why she got quiet, Mira said that Joel didn’t like it when his advice wasn’t accepted. When she had been more honest with him, telling him that she had no intention of accepting his advice, he would get hurt, angry, or sullen, leaving her feeling guilty and upset.
“This is how it used to be. When I would decide to share my concerns with Joel, I would be hoping to download them to lighten my load. It quickly got turned around so that I ended up feeling like I had to take care of him so that he didn’t get upset. I didn’t get what I really wanted. Still, I keep my mouth shut, telling myself ‘Be a good girl’, like I learned to be as a kid. One day, I exploded in the middle of one of Joel’s long-winded directives. ‘Will you just shut up?’ I screamed, shocking Joel and myself as well. To my surprise, Joel went silent. There was a long pause, and then he finally said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘I’m sorry’, I said, apologizing like a good girl should when she loses her temper. But immediately after that, feelings of frustration over all of the times I should have said something came pouring out. I had reached my limit and all my pent-up frustration, not only at Joel, but at myself as well, came out. If I had been honest at all those previous times when I stuffed my feelings, there would have been some milder interactions rather than one major explosion. I’m glad that it did come to a head because Joel and I had a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting that broke the cycle.”
From that meeting, and those that followed, Joel and Mira took some necessary steps in breaking the pattern.
Mira: “I usually didn’t want your advice; I just wanted you to listen to me. When you rush in telling me what you think I need to do, it makes me feel small and inferior to you. I just decided that it wasn’t worth it to let you know how I really felt. I decided to pretend to go along with you, but inside I knew that I wouldn’t. I’m sorry for not being honest with you.”
Joel: “I appreciate your apology and I would rather hear the truth from you than to have you pretend that you are listening to me when it you really aren’t.”
Mira: “That’s what I want too; for you to just listen to me and let me get things off of my chest. It seemed like you wanted me to do what you wanted me to do.”
Joel: “I guess we both wanted the same thing: to be heard, to feel connected, and to feel each other’s respectful support. I often do want you to take my advice because I hate to see you suffer. I do think that if you would only accept my guidance, that you would feel better. And, full disclosure here, it does make me feel good when you find my advice helpful.”
Mira: “Sometimes I do value your perspective. But what I want more than that is just for you to give me the time to express my feelings, even if taking your advice could help me to feel better.”
Joel: “Well, how am supposed to know whether you want my advice or just for me to listen to you?”
Mira: ” I’ll tell you when I want advice, and if don’t request it, just assume that I don’t want it.”
Joel: “Okay. But you know this habit of offering you my brilliant wisdom is pretty ingrained in me so I might slip and give it sometimes even if you don’t ask. Then what?”
Mira: “Is it okay for me to tell you that I just want you to listen?”
Joel: “Yeah. I think that I can handle that without feeling crushed. And if I do, I’ll get over it.”
Mira: “I know you will, and I’ll feel a lot better and more appreciative of your input if you give me a chance to ask for it.”
Joel: “Then it’s a deal.”
They kiss. And oh yes, those ten magic words? “If I want your advice, I’ll ask you for it.”