While 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!