It’s Never Enough!

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 213 · Duration: 00:17:40

It’s Never Enough!

Here’s an interesting dilemma. 

You’re told you never do enough to support your spouse, but no matter what you do, no matter the facts, it’s never “enough”.Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, It’s Never Enough!

Today we’re hearing from Ron of Decatur, Georgia and Ron writes:

Dear Neil,

My wife and I are in a rut.  She’s been increasingly upset with me over the past couple of years.  She tells me I don’t support her enough and I don’t really know what more I’m supposed to do.  Most of the time when she tells me what she needs, I do it without complaining about it.  Once in a while, I’m in the middle of something else and I simply can’t, and she holds that against me and uses it in arguments to prove her case.    

We both have stressful jobs and managing kids, who have their own challenges, makes this a challenging time of life, but it’s what we signed up for. 

I do love and support my wife but being accused of not supporting her all the time is wearing me out. How can I get my wife to realize that I do support her and back off of her negativity?

Ron of Decatur, Georgia

Now to Ron’s question: 

Thanks for your question Ron it’s an important one and one I think a lot of folks will relate to.  Here you are doing your best to be a good partner and father, and you can’t seem to get your spouse to realize and appreciate that.  Instead, you are in a pattern of being accused of not being supportive enough and no matter what you do, it’s never good enough.  Sounds mighty frustrating. 

Here is the trap we easily fall into.  Someone lodges a complaint to us, a spouse, a child, and we respond to the complaint in any number of ways: 

  1. I’ll do better.
  2. You don’t see how much I do.
  3. You’re being unreasonable.
  4. If I do this, will you be happy?  

Makes perfect sense, and yet, it leaves both the complainer and the complained unfulfilled.  Why?

A few reasons: 

Responding to the complaint as the issue, does not address the feelings of the complainer.Click To Tweet Their feelings may be related to the thing they’re complaining about, and maybe not, or maybe not entirely.  Ron, when your wife told you that you're not doing enough or that she wants you to do something, was she upset? Or, was it a calm rational statement? If she was upset, it's coming from the emotional side of her brain and then the issue is that she is feeling something emotional. Is she overloaded? Is she overwhelmed? Is she frustrated? Are long unexpressed feelings coming out, or does this represent a moment? Ron, I am not trying to diminish the validity of what your wife is saying. What I'm saying is that what she says represents her, her feelings and her needs. And if you don't respond in a way that relates to her emotional needs then anything you say will be unsatisfying. Does that make sense to you?

Probably not. Let's try this. You are one person, and your wife is an entirely different person. When she tells you something, even something about you, she is expressing herself, her thoughts, her feelings, her point of view. She's expressing her narrative and it all belongs entirely to her. Your wife is the protagonist in her own movie.

And of course, Ron the same applies to you. You are the protagonist in your own movie and your thoughts and feelings, your point of view, your narrative all belong to you. What you want more than anything and what your wife wants more than anything is to be seen and responded to with empathy. To feel safe, accepted and supported by each other.  

Here is a metaphor I often use. You and your wife go down to the cinema 9 complex and your wife goes into cinema 6 you go into cinema 7. Then you both come out and want to talk about the movie. That conversation would be a bit of a train wreck. You will understandably have very different points of view about what you just saw. And if we can extend the metaphor, and you are the protagonist in your movie and your wife is the protagonist in hers and we can accept that; if we can accept the difference between the two of your experiences, then you're getting someplace. Then there is room for both of you in the same relationship.

Ron staying with this metaphor, we can only watch one movie at a time and of course we are most skilled at watching our own and not the other person’s. In fact, our own movie almost never stops playing. But if we can put it in the background and focus on the other person's movie and bring some empathy to the protagonist in that movie, in your case Ron that would be your wife, then you're getting someplace. 

OK now we've established that we need to respond to each other in a way that is relevant to each other's emotional needs. Great! How do you do that? Validation and support is a short answer.

Validation means that we can see the reasonableness of the person's feelings.Click To TweetYou may not agree with their statement in your case, Ron, that you're not doing enough. But you can validate her experience of being overloaded and needing some help for instance, and support means I see you have needs and I care. Pretty simple right?  An example might be that your wife says something like, “where did you go, why aren't you helping? And instead of getting defensive and explaining the reasonableness of what you’re doing and why she’s out of line, you say something like, “I see you need some help” What would be most helpful right now.”  Or another example, if she says, for instance, “I’m upset because it feels to me like I’m the only one keeping track of the kid’s needs”,  instead of getting defensive you might say.  “That’s a drag, you shouldn’t have to shoulder that alone.  I’m glad you’re telling me how you’re feeling though.”  Of course, you might see things very differently, but that’s the next part of the conversation.  First we do validation and support.

And while this is great advice I'm giving you Ron, it may not be enough because you've told me this has been going on for a couple of years and that you’re in a rut. That means that the two of you are in a pattern that has its own legs, its own momentum and even if you do some things better or differently, the pattern inclines both of you to read the situation as it was before and to respond to it that way. Patterns are like that; they're enduring and it's hard to change patterns. They can of course be changed, but in order to do that, you have to know what you're dealing with because if you change your behavior and do things differently and the pattern doesn't change, you could easily get frustrated and give up; perhaps blame the other person as the unreasonable one.  If this has been going on a long time Ron, then you and your wife have become at least somewhat disconnected. And that means you need to get reconnected. Responding with validation and support is one way.

The other way Ron, is to listen more closely, look more closely, and respond more often and more positively to what is going on with your wife. The Gottmans, John and Julie Gottman, have done extensive research and written extensively on the subject of healthy and less healthy couples. Healthy couples connect in many small positive ways.  There are lots of small overtures that they call bids, and those overtures or bids, are responded to warmly, they are not ignored or responded to with negativity. 

A smile, a warm touch, a nod or a positive word or sentence can do the trick. Click To Tweet The trick is that there are lots of them, a lot of small positive, even micro-interactions. 

Ron if you want to shift the narrative in your relationship, the idea is that you create a warm positive place for your wife to communicate into. It's not about doing more, although that can help I'm sure. It's about connecting and caring more. If you keep simply trying to do more, or what I call hoop jumping, you'll never be able to jump through enough hoops to have a happy marriage. But if you can have the confidence that you actually do a lot and care a lot, and can express that caring in lots of small positive ways, you will be able to pull out of your rut and create something very different and very meaningful to both of you.  Yes indeed, Ron, this is a very busy time of life for your family and it ain't easy.  So the more positivity you can show up with, the better off you and everyone else in your family will be. Ron, I call that emotional leadership. And since you took the initiative to email me and ask your question, I consider you a leader; and now you have the tools to execute that leadership with. 

So parents, therapists and folks who work with families, in order to create change, we have to look for that negative pattern that the problem lives in. We will never be able to solve a problem if we try to solve it in the pattern that supports it. The opportunity for real change lives in changing the pattern. Once we have a healthy pattern, then any problem can be solved.

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and special thanks to you Ron for your question.  Before we end today, continue to do a little something to relax our minds and bodies. Have you been remembering to do some slow deep breathing throughout the day? I hope so; it makes a big difference.  Let’s take a slow deep breath right now.  (inhale…exhale…..) How’s that feel? Good. Let’s do the exercise we did last week again.  Let your arms and hands flop comfortably to your sides.  Now let your arms stay limp, roll your shoulders back, then-up then forward and back down, so you’re making a circle with your shoulders.  Try that slowly, say five times and then rest.  1,2,3,4,5.  Now do the same thing in reverse so that you’re rolling your shoulders front to back.  Try that slowly five times.  How does that feel?  Do you notice the tension release?  Try five more back to front and then front to back.  Once again, a small thing makes a noticeable difference.  And these small things are important because as I’ve said many times and I’ll say it again, this parenting business ain’t easy so self-care is essential; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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