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I love my boyfriend more than anything, but unfortunately he’s prone to being a thoughtless a-hole at times (as most men are). How do I learn to call him out without being nasty, and still show him how much I appreciate everything he does manage to do right?
In Love and On Edge
I hate to say it, but I’ve been stricken with that terrible, terrible affliction known as love. My girlfriend means everything to me. How do I show her more how much I appreciate her?
In Love and Also Thoughtless
Quite frankly, “communicate” is the best relationship advice anyone can ever give, ever. Yet, it’s also probably the hardest skill to put into practice. It seems like both of you could use a primer in effective (affectionate) communication.
As you probably learned during, like, your pre-verbal phase of childhood, words are powerful things. When you babbled something that sounded nearly coherent, odds are the big people around you got really excited. In a romantic relationship, the same principle pretty much holds. When you do finally manage to release the emotions you’re trying to express in a constructive way, your partner will be—if not always happy, period—happy to hear you out. If they’re not, there’s a bigger problem to address in your relationship.
But how do you go about expressing yourself? You folks both probably know that the best kind of communication doesn’t involve just saying whatever comes to mind, as soon as it comes to mind. We can be fragile, emotionally delicate creatures (even those of us who project an unflappable, firm exterior). Especially in a situation where your partner has said something…ugh…less-than-charming, the urge to immediately and viciously shut them down can be difficult to ignore. These knee-jerk reactions tend to be nastier in tone than 1) you mean and 2) will be helpful to your partner.
Likewise, bottling up your initial reaction and saying ~nothing~ also isn’t helpful, and does nothing to address underlying problems with the way your partner behaves (toward you, or toward others in the future).
A healthy form of critical communication can, in contrast, have lasting positive effects on your partner and on your relationship. Exactly what’s ideal differs significantly depending on the people involved, but here’s a basic template to start with.
As soon as you can, after you note a particular thoughtless behavior, let your partner know that you’d like to have a conversation about it. A good way to do this: “Hey, I felt that what you just did/said wasn’t cool. Let’s chat about it, either now or soon.” You need to point to a specific behavior that you wish to discuss, rather than just saying your partner has been thoughtless as a whole. This will avoid a common pitfall that couples experience, in which any criticism of actions gets transmogrified into a personal attack. If you are clear at the outset that you’re addressing a specific behavior, and not your partner as a whole, the conversation will be much more productive.
The timing of the conversation is important for similar reasons; if you let certain irritations go unaddressed for too long, each successive micro-transgression snowballs your feelings about the first instance. If the behavior you’re identifying to your significant other is a recurring problem, you might devise a quick code word you can use to signal your partner that they’re doing the same thing you guys already talked about curbing.
Switching gears a bit, now. Most people probably assume that “negative” communication, like corrections or difficult conversations, is the hardest kind. I disagree. Giving positive input to your partner can be very tricky, because coming up with compliments and little reminders that don’t sound too trite can be a challenge. Here’s what I suggest to show appreciation.
Think outside your norm. Sure, a “good morning” text can speak volumes—it lets your partner know they’re on your mind right when you wake up—but there are more creative ways to show you care. For instance, consider a nice handwritten note, or another small token that requires a bit of effort on your part. Time the delivery when you know your partner will need a pick-me-up, like between two taxing classes. That way, not only did you put in the effort to make the thing, but you cared enough about your significant other’s schedule to notice when the best delivery time would be. This example highlights a key concept of appreciation: Showing it goes further than saying it.
Genuine appreciation can be really hard to capture linguistically. One good way to go about jumping this hurdle is to vary exactly how you say it. Sure, “I appreciate you” is fine, but try to highlight specific reasons, or get creative with your verbs.
P.S. In all relationships, the best communication methods emerge through trial and error. When you mess up, don’t be afraid to have a conversation together to unpack what did or didn’t work.