Often in couple therapy, partners will enter my office with a long list of ways the other has hurt them or let them down. Of course they do—why would they be coming to therapy otherwise? Unfortunately, hearing a long list of their faults—usually animated by irritation or impatience or some such emotion—rarely compels anyone to make positive change. So I listen to the list, and meanwhile the subject thereof dissents quietly or prepares to dissent loudly, or both. They roll their eyes, or stare off into the distance, or they shake their head, or interrupt to set the story straight, or launch into their own list of grievances.
Almost without exception, I can understand where the list reciters are coming from. I can understand why they are hurt by their partner’s words and actions, why they made the choices they made, why they express themselves the way that they do. Sometimes my compassion and validation is meaningful for them—and I am happy to give it—but that is not sufficient. What they really want, again almost without exception, is for their partner to validate them, their partner to change their behavior, and for them both to feel satisfied, safe, connected etc. in the relationship as a result.
Sometimes I sense clients do not believe I will understand the scope of the problem, or what to do about it, without the list. Sometimes they have been so starved for validation that they simply need me, or anyone, to know how bad it really is. I get it. And at the same time, I know reciting the list will not get them the results they want. After submitting their list of grievances, these clients are even further from their desired outcome. Rather than listening with interest and intentionality, their partner has assumed a defensive stance, which—at least temporarily—prevents any forward movement into mutual understanding or problem-solving.
And I can understand the defensiveness as well. Maybe the other partner feels blindsided, or unlovable, or afraid that I as their therapist will neglect them and their needs if they do not defend themselves. To be fair, some people can listen to a list of their shortcomings and avoid reacting defensively—and bless them—but that is both an uncommon trait and still not a good reason to for their partner to address grievances in this way. [Plus, my cynical side wonders if these folks do not argue with their partner’s complaints because they know from experience that arguing would prolong the interaction. Ultimately, they may not be listening to make things better, they are just employing a more sophisticated tactic to tune out of the conversation.]
That is why I will often dispense the advice that partners communicate their desires for change in terms of REQUESTS rather than complaints. For example, rather than “you never put your socks in the hamper—our room is a mess and I cannot stand it,” I would recommend saying “it would mean a lot to me for you to put your socks directly into the hamper—I feel much better when our room looks neat.”
A well rendered Request will have each of the following elements:
It is Future-Oriented. It feels far more hopeful to say “this is what I want for the future” than “this is what was terrible about the past.” A future-oriented request is more likely to engender interest and enthusiasm because it suggests the possibility of a new and better outcome for both parties.
It is Concrete and Specific. Often clients who are new to requests will ask their partner to “be helpful” or “be patient” or something similarly abstract. There is nothing wrong with wanting these qualities in a partner, but everyone has different interpretations about what it means to demonstrate them; moreover, requesting someone be kind, for example, can feel like an implied criticism—as if the other partner has never been kind—and undermine the purpose of making a request.
Therefore, a good request will be specific and concrete. It will sound like “I want you to do this thing,” and maybe also include details about how to do it, when to do it, or why it is important. So “be helpful” becomes “empty the dishwasher before I get home,” and “be kind” becomes “offer me words of encouragement when I am tired at the end of the day,” and “be patient” becomes “speak slowly and calmly when we are trying to get out the door in the morning.”
It Reflects the Speaker’s Vulnerability. A request should reflect the idea “I need your help, please help me” instead of “you must do this because it is morally or technically correct.” (And certainly not “I am doing you a favor by telling you what is wrong with you.”) I will often ask clients to complete the sentence “it would mean a lot to me if you would ____________.”
Maybe I believe my request is something my partner should do automatically—e.g. give me attention or affection—or something every human should do automatically—e.g. chew with their mouth closed and pick up after themselves. However, I should still treat the request as my asking for help rather than my correcting their deficiency: the speaker’s vulnerability invites collaboration, and helps the partner receiving the request to feel more empowered to help. And ultimately, this is a more accurate stance: maybe I am convinced my way is correct, but whether or not I get what I want still hinges on my partner’s affection for me and commitment to our relationship.
Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office and virtually to clients located in Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Janine!