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August 9, 2014

Follow Up Words With Action

“Never repeat a command. Most dogs are not deaf; they just choose not to listen.” –Connie Jankowski, Dog trainer

If Nelson doesn’t heel upon command, I pull on the leash to get his attention. If he continues to jump up after I’ve said “off,” turning my back to him sends a strong message. If he is not listening to me well enough, ignoring him, putting him outside for a “time out,” or spending time retraining him are all possible plans of action.

Similarly, when our partner becomes angry or defensive about an issue, and nothing we say makes a difference, taking action can be helpful. Sally had been married to Don for over thirty years. Their children were grown and living on their own. In recent years, Sally had reduced her hours working as an architect to three days a week. She was eager to spend more time sharing interests and travels with Don. She asked him if he would be willing to spend more time with her in the evenings and on weekends, and he agreed. However, Don, an attorney, continued to work late many evenings, and also continued to sign up for various professional seminars and volunteer projects. Sally felt lonely and discouraged as she waited for Don to make time for her.

The couple had many arguments and shouting matches while Sally tried to convince Don to be sensitive to her needs and desires. Finally, in exasperation, she thought of a creative solution to the problem.  She decided to rent a room, on a month-to-month basis, in a nearby house of single professionals. Sally reasoned that if Don was unwilling to provide companionship, she would surround herself with other people who could provide her with interaction. Sally also decided that when Don wanted to see her, he would need to visit her in her new quarters or suggest plans to go out together.

It is important to note that Sally took this action in a calm, non-angry manner. It was a natural outgrowth of her need for companionship, but she didn’t want to alienate Don; rather, she wanted him to miss her and appreciate her more. During the months Sally rented the room, she enjoyed talks and occasional dinners with her roommates. She made plans with other friends, and Don initiated contact several times a week. Sally enjoyed her time with Don and felt like they were dating again. She no longer felt unappreciated and taken for granted as she looked for ways to take more control over her life.

Not surprisingly, Don developed a new appreciation for Sally when he realized she wasn’t at home and available when he wanted. He took her more seriously. After several months, Sally and Don worked out a mutually agreeable arrangement to spend time together, and she moved back home. Sally’s decision to take action, instead of continuing to complain, led to a satisfying outcome.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from couples is on the issue of nagging. Typically, the male casts the female in the role of being an excessive nag. But often neither partner realizes that the male usually nags about certain things too; only his nagging comes out more in the form of complaints or criticisms.

The good news is that you can teach an old dog new tricks after all. Fifi, for example, will learn to tune you out if you repeat yourself over and over. Why bother listening the first time if she knows she’ll hear the message again? There is no incentive to pay close attention. But you can work on training her to listen the first time.

For example, if you first get Fifi’s attention, set down her dinner, and tell her it’s time to eat, you don’t need to repeat yourself. If she doesn’t begin eating her food within five minutes or so, remove it, and then try again later. She’ll realize at some point that she’s better off grabbing the opportunity when it presents itself the first time. (I know that certain dogs will devour food whenever it is offered to them, but others, like Fifi and Nelson, may be a bit fussier).

If you find yourself nagging frequently (or complaining or criticizing), think about what you can do instead. Of course, first you need to try the communication techniques we discussed in previous chapters. However, if your partner is highly resistant to verbal messages of any kind, no matter how endearing you make them, it is time for a different approach.

Here are a few examples of what you can do, rather than repeat yourself over and over:

Problem:

Cindy is constantly upset that Evan leaves piles of paperwork and magazines on the floor in the bedroom. He becomes enraged if she threatens to move anything, and he constantly checks to make sure all of his papers are “in order.” Cindy hates confrontation, and continues to try to persuade him to clean up his mess. She has tried all possible verbal strategies to address the problem with him.

Solution:

Cindy buys a large basket that can accommodate all of Evan’s papers and magazines. One day she puts everything into the basket. Evan, of course, is furious when he discovers this, but let’s not forget that Cindy has also been furious for quite some time. When Evan sees that Cindy is determined to have her reasonable wishes respected, and that she is willing to back up her words with action, he grudgingly concedes. He is not happy about the new arrangement, but Cindy needs to remember that she wasn’t happy for a long time either. Happily, it turned out that Evan’s “bark was worse than his bite,” and he eventually adapted to the concept of a clutter-free bedroom floor.

Problem:

Bob was raised to be on time, and he even tried to be early as often as possible. His girlfriend, Susan, however, didn’t share his attitude about time. She frequently arrived between ten to thirty minutes late for their get-togethers, including dinners out, movies, and hikes. She always called him to say she was running late, but that wasn’t the point; Bob wanted her to be punctual like he was. Bob and Susan lived thirty minutes away from each other, so sometimes it was necessary to meet when they wanted to see each other. Bob was frustrated and angry that Susan persisted in her habit of being late, no matter what he said.

Solution:

Bob was clear that he loved Susan and wanted to make their relationship work. Susan agreed that she wanted to try to be more prompt, and that it wasn’t fair to keep Bob waiting so often. She admitted that her lack of punctuality was a longtime bad habit.

With the help of their couples therapist, Bob let Susan know that if she wasn’t on time, whenever possible he was going to start without her. This meant that he would leave her movie ticket at the box office and go sit down by himself. It would be up to Susan to find him inside the movie theater. Or he would go sit and start watching the ballgame instead of waiting outside the stadium for her. If they were meeting for dinner, he would order for himself before she arrived, and then start eating if the food arrived. This wasn’t optimal, of course, but at least he wouldn’t feel quite so resentful.

Some activities, like walks or hikes, couldn’t be modified in this way. Bob would bring something to read, or use the time to contact people or go online on his Blackberry. The important change for Bob was that he would be prepared, either by starting an activity without Susan, or by planning something to do while he waited for her.

Although Susan wanted to change, Bob realized he couldn’t make that happen; only she could. And his complaints and criticisms when Susan was late only put them both in a bad mood. Now Susan would have the opportunity to work on changing her behavior without nagging and pressure from Bob.

Problem:

Jenny and Steve, a couple in their forties, had two elementary-school age children. Jenny’s problem was that Steve’s cousin, Phil, invited himself to stay with them for several days every few months. Phil lived in another state, and he owned a business that required him to make sales calls in their area four or five times a year. In order to save expenses, rather than stay at a hotel, Phil would call Jenny and Steve the day before he was due to arrive and announce that he was coming. If they had plans or other house guests, he would put a sleeping bag down on their living room floor. He took advantage of their hospitality, never bringing a gift or contributing to a meal. He never offered to help. In addition, Jenny objected to his foul language in front of the children and his cynical attitude toward life. All in all, the visits quickly became an ordeal for her.

Jenny had long ago asked Steve to set some limits with Phil about the frequency and length of his visits, as well as what was expected of him as a guest. She wanted Steve to say “no” sometimes, that it wasn’t convenient for Phil to stay with them. Steve refused to speak up, however, and argued since Phil was family, he should be made to feel welcome and comfortable whenever he visited. Steve would then get angry at Jenny for having a “bad attitude.” Jenny felt that Steve cared more about Phil and his needs than hers. Over the years, Jenny and Steve had spent a great deal of time and frustration arguing about this situation, and Jenny grew increasingly furious.

Solution:

Jenny finally decided to take action since talking to Steve hadn’t accomplished anything. The next time Phil announced he was coming to stay, Jenny made plans with friends to go out to dinner the first two nights he was visiting. She fed the kids dinner, and left Steve in charge to help with homework and bedtime, and to fix dinner for Phil and himself. Phil stayed one more night, and Jenny asked Steve to pick up Chinese carry-out for dinner. She left the dishes in the sink after dinner.

In addition, Jenny told Steve that he would need to make up the spare bed for Phil, and that he was in charge of laundering the sheets and towels. In other words, Jenny refused to participate in any of the extra work required for Phil’s visits. Since she hadn’t been consulted beforehand, she decided it wasn’t her responsibility. As she detached herself from the situation, Jenny felt less like a victim and more in control; it was a huge relief to her.

Not surprisingly, Steve got a clearer picture of his cousin when he was the one directly responsible for him. Now that he had to deal on his own with Phil’s selfish and inconsiderate behavior, he realized that Jenny’s feelings were justified. Eventually, Steve initiated a discussion with Jenny to determine how to handle the issue of Phil’s visits. They decided to limit them to once a year for two days only, telling Phil that having him come to stay more often required too much extra work for them along with their jobs and children.

It is important to learn to trust your instincts to determine if your partner is treating you fairly. Many people question themselves and their feelings so much that they wind up denying there is a problem in their relationship. They dislike conflict and negativity, so they convince themselves that they are expecting too much from their partner. They manage to suppress their frustration until the next problematic situation arises.

This article is a section from Margie Ryerson’s book: Treat Your Partner Like a Dog: How to Breed a Better Relationship

About Margie Ryerson

Margie Ryerson

Margie Ryerson, MFT, is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area with over 22 years of experience. In addition, she is the author of two books: Treat Your Partner Like a Dog: How to Breed a Better Relationship, and Appetite for Life: Inspiring Stories of Recovery from Anorexia, Bulimia, and Compulsive Overeating. Both are available on Amazon.com.  She also writes a family and parenting column for a local newspaper.

To know more about Margie, visit her website, www.margieryerson.com.




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