Am I Really Going to Have to Ask You Again?
Dr. Christine Carter
I asked my daughter to help me make dinner the other night; soon after that, I got caught on the phone. When I finally emerged from my office 40 minutes later, I found that Fiona had already prepared our whole meal—the table was set, and dinner was waiting. I was beside myself with delight.
Few things are more satisfying than having someone exceed our expectations. But around the house, it seems like more often we’re annoyed or disappointed when someone fails to meet those expectations—when, once again, our spouse is late, or the kids didn’t take out the garbage, or someone failed to help clean up, or wasn’t really listening while we were baring our soul, or doesn’t really “get” us. Living with others is, in many ways, living in a constant state of unmet expectations.
Fortunately, we can develop constructive ways of responding when our needs aren’t being met by our spouses and our children—techniques that increase the odds that they will be met in the future. Here are three alternatives to nagging—or harboring resentment—when your expectations aren’t met.
1) Do nothing. Sometimes we just need to acknowledge a disappointment, then let it go without taking further action. When Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist with loads of first-hand experience and scientific knowledge about real-life ecstasy, feels upset or uncomfortable, she just looks at her watch and waits 90 seconds before letting herself think about whatever upset her. Loads of research on “rumination” suggests that people who dwell on some hurt or distress are way more likely to feel depressed or dissatisfied with their lives. Sometimes we make ourselves feel worse—we prolong pain and frustration—by thinking too much about our disappointments.
2) Inspire the person who disappointed you. Even though we sometimes really want to unleash on a spouse who left the house without so much as clearing his or her breakfast dishes, whining and criticizing (or yelling, as the case may be) is not going to make your partner (or teenager, or pre-schooler) really want to help the next time. Negativity rarely inspires others.
The ERN” method , something I devised long ago from piles of academic journal articles to motivate my kids to do boring but necessary tasks, also works well with adults. The gist of it is to use Empathy, Rationale, and Non-controlling language to get what we want, as those are the things that research shows are most motivating to people. It might go something like this:
Empathy: “I know you are anxious about your upcoming review and need to get into work earlier these days.”
Rationale: “I need more help on school days because Max has been late to school three times this week. I won’t be able to shake this cough if I keep getting up so early. I’m doing my best, but I can’t do it all by myself.”
Non-controlling language (or “not-being-so-bossy”): “It would be great if you could help me tomorrow morning. Is that a possibility?”
Admittedly, this is much harder than nagging your spouse and kids. But think about it: Would you rather someone insist you do something (“You HAVE to help me with the lunches in the morning!! I have a cold and a full time job, and I can’t wake up any earlier or I’ll just get SICKER!!!!”) or gently enlist your help?
3) Pick a Fight… but in a constructive way. Again, this is about finding more constructive ways to express what you want. So even though you might want to punish that guy who didn’t get you so much as a card on your birthday, making him feel as bad as you do won’t make you feel better, and it won’t make your next birthday more promising.
Make your disappointment known by starting off on a positive note. Yes, you read that right. In fact, begin with a statement of appreciation.
“I really appreciate how much time you’ve been spending with me in the evenings. I love going for a walk with you at night.”
That gets your cardless-wonder’s attention, and makes him or her open to listening to what you have to say. Then, staying as calm and positive as possible, make your feelings known with a good ol’ “I” statement.
“I felt really lonely and disappointed and actually a little bit abandoned when you decided we didn’t need to celebrate my birthday. It hurt that you didn’t even get me a card.”
Finally, tell that disappointing partner what you need—really clearly and specifically, explain what he or she can do to make it up to you. What exactly are your expectations? I recommend making it an easy win; go for something more ambitious the next time around.
If we must ask for what we need—which clearly we do, since the people we live with tend to have very poor mind reading skills—it behooves us to ask in a way that will get results. Good luck, and report back with what works for you! www.christinecarter.com
Christine Carter, Ph.D.*, is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of “RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” She teaches online happiness classes that help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for *Greater Good (www.greatergoodparents.org).