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State Your Case

June 14, 2020

Quarantining at home these days, it’s easy to get on each other’s nerves. We’re not at our best under the strain of grief and sadness over so much loss, fear for our health and the health of loved ones, perhaps the stress of children’s presence 24/7, unwelcome financial hardship and crises as a nation. If at times we “act out” our pain with impatience, short tempers, dark moods and unkind words, it should surprise no one.

As a partner on the receiving end, we can strive to let small stuff roll off our backs or we can state our case: you’ve mistreated me. Perhaps some combination of the two is best — maintaining harmony on the one hand by wisely letting certain things go, while on the other hand gently opening the valve on hurt, upset and frustration so as to not build up a toxic reservoir of relationship pain.

When we know how to effectively state our case, odds increase that we might receive a positive response, maybe even an apology. The following five tips can be your guidei:

  1. Don’t blame or shame. Avoid judging, lecturing, or scolding. These tend to trigger a partner’s defensiveness, which closes the mind to accurately hearing and receiving your message.
  2. Focus on your emotions. Emphasize how you felt (upset/ sad/ hurt/ irritated/ afraid/ ashamed) and recount non-judgmentally and objectively (facts only) what your partner did to trigger your emotion.
  3. Shorter is better than longer. It’s easy to over-talk (or over-write, if we’re sending a note) when we’re feeling distressed. Don’t let your point get lost among a sea of words.
  4. Never ask for an apology. People don’t like to be told how to think or what to do. And an apology delivered on demand leaves us questioning whether it’s truly sincere.
  5. Take the high ground. State your case only when you notice that your emotional brain has settled down and your logical brain is steering the ship (see Two Brains). It increases the likelihood that you’ll express yourself with thoughtfulness and integrity. And assume good intentions in your partner. Taking the high road is about honoring ourselves and affirming our self-worth — regardless of the response we get (which we have no control over).

Notice how the five tips show up in this example:

[After a soft start-upI’d like to clear the air about something that’s bothering me, so I don’t accumulate hurt and resentment. When you joked in front of our friends yesterday about the size of my credit card bill, I felt embarrassed and humiliated. I know you don’t intend to cause me pain, but it was a painful experience for me.