Spouse in a Box

spouse-in-a-boxWhile leading a study recently by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, I had a huge “ah ha” moment. Well, not really that huge because I’ve known this was not a good way of communicating for quite a while, but oh boy does it keep creeping in to conversation even when I’m aware of it! What am I talking about, you ask? The two words you should remove from your vocabulary when talking with your spouse, your children, your friends, or anyone – “Always” and “Never.”

The lesson we were discussing called it “putting your spouse in a box” and we do this more than we probably realize. I know I’ve been guilty of it, and my husband has been guilty of it, and even my children have been guilty of it. The “You never let me do what I want to do” and “You always say no” comments that kids toss around may seem very familiar. Or, “You always <insert your spouses bad habit here>” or “You never <insert what you wish your spouse would do more here>.” However these two words come into play in your daily conversations, they are simply hyperbole. Because, I mean seriously . . . do any of us ALWAYS or NEVER do anything specific? Do we ALWAYS say no to our children or do we NEVER do something nice for our spouse? I honestly doubt it.

So why do we say it? Well, I think we use these terms for several reasons. We use them in the heat of the moment, for instance. When emotions are charged we  think straight to the absolute worst case scenario or the most dramatic thing to say. For instance, after picking up your husbands socks for the millionth time you may say in a fit of frustration, “You NEVER put your socks in the hamper!” Or, we may use these terms because we focus too much on what we aren’t receiving from our spouse and not enough on what we ARE receiving from them. For instance, your spouse takes you to dinner for Valentines Day, but you don’t receive the flowers you were hoping for. Your response could be, “You NEVER give me flowers anymore.”

Drs. Les and Leslie called this putting your spouse in a box. What this means is that by saying to your spouse, or anyone for that matter, that they “always” or “never” do something is like placing a limitation on them or a label. The label could be that they will never pick up their socks, therefore they are a slob. Or, perhaps they will always behave a certain way in a certain situation, therefore they are insensitive and unloving. If we were to genuinely look at what we are frustrated with when it comes to our spouse I bet we’d see that their behavior CAN be changed and most likely WOULD change if we worked on it together. But, if we label them and stuff them in the “always” and “never” box then why would they bother to make changes? Would you make changes if someone had already assumed that you’d “never” or “always” do something? Probably not.

So, friends, let’s get rid of the box and respond differently when frustrated or angry. Address that instance of the situation and work with your spouse to find a solution. Say things like, “It is frustrating when you leave your socks on the floor and it would be helpful if you’d make more of an effort to get them in the hamper.” or “I really enjoyed our Valentine’s dinner. I thought I wanted flowers, but spending quality time with you was much better.” Letting our spouse know our frustrations is important, but lumping one instance into a “never” or “always” phrase is unfair and not productive. And, we all want to be productive when working on communication issues with our spouse so get rid of that box!



Online Book Study Session 4 (Chapters 13-16)

We were eating dinner the other night and my husband asked, “Did you do something different with the chicken this time?” My head flew around and I responded, “Why, do you not like it?” Now, he didn’t say that, did he? He simply asked a question and he could have asked because he liked the new flavor just as much as he could have not liked the flavor. I just assumed it was a negative question and, through my defensive reaction, I all but accused him of not liking my cooking. Happens . . . all . . . the . . . time.

I appreciated the section on defensiveness because I think that is something we all tend to fall into when it comes to communicating with our spouse. I am overly sensitive to things my husband says that would not affect me the same way as if someone else said them. For instance, a photo came on the computer screen (we have one of those photo slide show screen savers) of me in a bathing suit last summer when I was a few pounds lighter than I am now and my husband said “You really looked good last summer.” My response dripped with sarcasm as I said to him, “Oh, but I don’t look good anymore, huh?”  He was trying to compliment me and I got defensive and turned it into a negative thing.

This goes both ways, of course. My husband gets just as defensive with me. It’s almost like we have this filter between us that turns benign comments into a lit fuse. We hear a negative twist on what our spouse is saying even when there is nothing negative intended. On page 142 of the book, Dr. Chapman addresses the way we should respond when defensiveness takes over and I’ve actually put some of this into practice (unfortunately, though, it’s usually after I’ve already let my defensive attitude direct my snippy remarks). For instance, after the bathing suit exchange I actually thought through these questions and determined that my defensiveness came from a place of disappointment in myself for not being as thin as I was last summer. My disappointment in myself led to my defensive response to my husband. So, in essence, it wasn’t him that was the problem, it’s really me. I promptly apologized for my defensive response and thanked him for the compliment.

I bet, when we each scroll through these questions on page 142, we will find that we have our own issues and insecurities we need to work through. Again, tough stuff when we truly look at ourselves in the mirror, but I do believe that the more we know ourselves, the better spouse we can be.

How do you handle defensive attitudes and behaviors in your marriage? What are some healthy practices you’ve put into place?