Safety breeds presence and presence breeds safety.
— Harville Hendrix author of Getting the Love You Want
I’ve come to realize, in my efforts to be helpful and efficient, I’ve put off my fiancé Mark a little. I’ve worked hard to build a repertoire of knowledge in several areas such as physical health, relationship dynamics, household maintenance, etc. In the past, I was rewarded for being proficient in those and other areas. I also hold a lot of responsibility in those areas, so if anything goes wrong, I am in charge of the cleanup. I have had many reasons to keep things running smoothly, including my need to feel in control.
The trouble is, now I like to nudge, or some might say, nag, my loved ones to improve in the areas I consider myself knowledgable. It is extremely difficult to ignore those urges to correct or advise.
Interestingly, I feel I have complained about these same traits in others. Good old projection, it is real.
Stop nitpicking and do this
Fortunately, Harville and Helen Hendrix (spouses and co-authors of the longtime classic, Getting the Love You Want) were on one of my favorite podcasts, The Smart Couple Podcast. It was a relief to hear Helen say she was once just like me. She had suggestions for her husband’s social etiquette, wardrobe and many other things.
How did she grow past the criticizing and nitpicking? She learned to stop condemning and shaming and simply ask for what she wants.
When we criticize, we take the safety out of the environment and our relationship. We make our partner feel inadequate. No safety means no freedom to fully be ourselves or express vulnerability. Partners tend to get defensive or shut down when they feel like they are under scrutiny. I know. I’ve been on the receiving end of the judging. We all have.
What’s good for the goose…
One crucial point Harville and Helen made is that what we do to our partners affects us as well. If our partner feels threatened or unsafe, we feel this too. If we judge our partner as inadequate, we feel their unease with that. We also feel uneasy because we are with a partner we don’t believe can meet our needs.
Most of the time, our partners want to please us and make us feel good. They are waiting to know how they can do that. We have to tell them what we want.
What do we really want?
What do we want? We want someone to be present with us. Someone to see us and witness experiences with us. The Hendrixes said this affirms our existence. When our partner works late, is always buried in their phone or makes little eye-contact with us, they are not present. This echoes the ache we felt when our parents were preoccupied and did not notice us. Everyone felt this at some time. It hurts.
Here are examples of how to ask for what we want: “I have a lot going on at work today and will be home a little late. Could you start dinner for me?” or “I would like to hold hands with you on the couch and watch one of our favorite shows tonight.”
Curiosity doesn’t just kill cats
If we truly have concerns about a partner (or child or friend’s) behavior, we can ask for what we want as mentioned above or we can ask questions born out of curiosity. If we use curiosity and not criticism to gain understanding, we have a lot higher chance of having our questions answered and concerns resolved.
Here are examples of curious versus confrontational questions: “What you are doing is new to me. Could you explain why you used that method?” or “I am used to doing it this way. When I see you doing it differently, I don’t understand. Could you help me understand your choice?”
Ultimately, Harville said we want predictability. We want to know our loved one is there for us. They are going to have coffee with us in the morning. They are going to hold our hand at night. They are going to meet us at the hospital if we suddenly have to have an MRI. Our brain loves predictability. It feels safe. Safety breeds presence. The more safe any of us feel, the easier it is to be present with someone. The more presence we experience with someone, the safer we feel.
Asking for what we want instead of belittling our partner and coming from a place of curiosity versus superiority, both aid us in our quest for safety and presence.
Are you sabotaging the safety in your relationship? Could you be a little more forthright and a little less judgey? Do you ever let curiosity lead you in your relationships?
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