As a couples therapist, I hear a lot about the frustrations young parents face—you may want to sleep late on the weekend like you used to or take vacations that aren’t trips to see your in-laws. Parenthood can feel like one demand after another, and you often have to delay your own gratification. At the same time, if you run yourself ragged, you won’t be much good to anyone. Resentment can creep in when you’re doing too much or receiving too little.
Mindy and Jack had a good relationship, but like so many couples, they juggled a lot. They had two girls under age 2, and Jack’s 11-year-old son from his first marriage lived with them part-time. Although they were lucky to have flexibility in their work hours, they also dealt with financial stress as they tried to pay for child care, save for the future, and make a nice life for their family.
When Mindy’s sister Jana invited her to fly across the country to celebrate Jana’s 40th birthday, Mindy worried about telling Jack. She knew that it was an extravagance, and Jack had canceled his own yearly fishing trip because of work demands. But honoring her sister’s milestone meant a lot to Mindy. Like many of us, she found it hard to ask in a trusting and positive way because she feared a negative response.
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Deep down, all of us want to be seen as loving and lovable people who are trying our best.
“What are you scared of?” I asked her as the facilitator of a moms’ group she was attending.
“I think I’m scared he’ll get stressed before he even hears me out, and he’ll hint that I should deny myself like he did,” she told me.
“From what you’ve told me about Jack, he really seems to care about being a helpful partner,” I said. “I think the more you avoid asking, the more likely you’ll end up asking in a counterproductive way or suppressing your feelings and becoming irritable instead.”
It was important for her to realize that how we ask for what we want affects our partner’s reaction. You may not always get the response you want right away, but if you follow these hints, they will help you work toward a more satisfying give-and-take.
We often make requests on the fly, when our partner is heading out the door or paying bills. Then we feel rejected or become frustrated that our partner “never listens.” Asking whether now is a good time to talk is a simple yet extremely powerful gesture. It signals your awareness that your partner is a separate person who’s taking time and energy to participate in a potentially challenging and rewarding conversation.
Before you ask for what you want, remind yourself of something that your partner already gives you and acknowledge it. Mindy said, “Jack, I really appreciate how much you listen to me and help me think through problems.” By starting off with something positive, she created a safer emotional climate, which led to more engaged listening and a more productive conversation.
Asking for what we want involves revealing our vulnerable feelings, such as yearning, hope, or desire. It takes courage to expose our tenderest needs—especially to our partners, as their understanding matters so much. Perhaps you want to cut back on your work hours or explore more adventurous sex. Whatever the issue, you can learn to express yourself in a way that’s direct and tactful at the same time.
I encouraged Mindy to both explain where she was coming from and acknowledge her vulnerability: “Jack, I’ve been thinking a lot about this trip, and it’s really important to me. But I’m worried you’ll see me as irresponsible or selfish for wanting to spend the money.” She asserted her true feelings and showed that she understood how he might feel. If your relationship is tough right now, it can take guts to be that open, but the best way to get out of a bad cycle is to be the one to take the first step. When you own your reactions and describe your state of mind, you’ll invite understanding rather than criticism.
There’s no such thing as expressing too much appreciation or gratitude. Every time you thank your partner, you acknowledge that he’s making the choice to be responsive to you. Thank him for trying to give you what you want, even if success is hit or miss. One couple I saw in therapy struggled with the wife’s being chronically late. When her husband asked her to make more of an attempt to be on time, she honestly said, “I’m not sure I can, but I’m really going to try.” Rather than questioning if she was trying hard enough, he thanked her for her effort, and it kept the channel of warmth open between them.
After you’ve been able to discuss what’s on your mind, a gesture of reciprocity completes the circle of care. Sometimes it’s a touchy situation if one partner asks for something and the other quickly asks for something in return. It feels a bit tit-for-tat. (“I’ll apologize for this, but then you should apologize for that.”) But love is a two-way street. Rather than insisting on what you are “owed,” ask for what you want with sensitivity, then invite your partner to ask for something too. Even if you can’t fulfill his wishes right away, your spirit of generosity will be a gift to your relationship. And for Mindy and Jack, their conversation resulted in finding a way for her to take the trip and for Jack to go fishing after all.
Daphne de Marneffe, Ph.D., is a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together. Follow her on Twitter @DaphnedeMarneff.