Dear LetterBalm: I’m the mother of two who constantly battles the urge to control my kids too much and keep them from being independent. I also have to fight against criticizing them needlessly. (“You got second place in the spelling bee? That’s nice, but how come you didn’t come in first?”). I hate myself for these failings. I had a mother who rode me mercilessly, and a father who was only mildly helpful. So, yes, I have family history. How can I break this awful habit?
It’s good that you recognize your failings – a strong first step. Ms. L.B. says you have unfortunate patterns honed over a lifetime of being raised by a judgmental mother and a compliant dad. These are deeply ingrained and difficult to change. They make a child believe that love is contingent on being perfect. A child can also feel that love can be withdrawn. You might schedule private sessions with a cognitive behavior therapist to help you break those patterns. And, you might start a “stop-and-think” exercise in your mind every time you fear that you’re opening your mouth to become over-controlling or overly critical. Try some of these mental mantras:
- Is this what I should be saying?
- Is Amy/Todd making a reasonable request for her/his age?
- Will this hurt my kid’s feelings unnecessarily?
- Is this positive reinforcement?
- How can I say this positively?
- Is it really important that I say this right now?
- Is it really necessary that I say this right now?
- Stop! Think! [When things are on the verge of getting out of hand.]
Dear LetterBalm: My husband and I have been married for five years, mostly happily. But we do have one problem communicating. When I tell him how I feel, he gets defensive or he starts in feeling sorry for himself or he asks sarcastically what I want him to do about it. We tiptoe around each other for the rest of the day. I find myself withdrawing and being extra quiet around him because I don’t want to be blamed for expressing my honest feelings. I don’t say anything to him – I just don’t want him to make me feel uncomfortable. If I can’t express my feelings to my husband, who can I talk to besides a shrink?
Your dilemma may be solved by simply taking a slightly different angle. You may not be aware, but your statements of how you feel may be coming across as blaming your husband for your problems – which is not what you intend at all. You may be inadvertently signaling that he’s to blame, and he’s picking up on this. He thinks he has to make some kind of reparation, and his defensiveness or self-pity is understandable. Ms. L.B. advises that you learn a new way of communicating your feelings to your spouse. First, tell him you’re distressed. Then, tell him your problem, clearly and simply and why it upsets you. Lastly, make it clear that he didn’t cause the problem and thank him for listening. Simply by listening, he’ll be the sympathetic ear you need to work through things. Here’s an example:
Honey, I’m worried about something, and I want to share it with you. If I can talk it out and you can listen, you can really help me work through it. I’m worried about my mother because I think she’s giving money to my brother. As you know, she’s on a tight budget and can’t afford extra expenses. This makes me anxious and not a little annoyed at Harold because I don’t want us to end up being responsible for Mom’s care. I know that you don’t necessarily want to hear about this because it’s an uncomfortable subject. But I know you love me and I want to thank you for listening – I’m not blaming you at all. In fact, just saying the problem out loud and having you listen really helps.
Dear LetterBalm: My boyfriend is a great person – kind, intelligent and fun. But when we argue, he swears something awful, usually directed at me. Sometimes it makes me cry. He says he’s sorry, but he doesn’t stop – when he loses his temper, he unleashes horrible language. I told him his profanity is crude, rude and disrespectful, and he says he knows that. I’ve asked him to go to counseling with me about it. He always promises, but then he says he doesn’t have the time, so we don’t go. I need to know if his bad habit will ever stop and if it is serious enough to threaten our future together.
–Stopping Up My Ears
Only you can know if your beloved’s language takes you to the breaking point. Is he directing his profanity to you as a person? Or, is he using bad language to describe the situation in general? These are two very different things. Ms. L.B. notes that the first is genuine verbal abuse; the second is blowing off steam (albeit in a crude, obnoxious way). If your boyfriend won’t consent to counseling, go yourself. You need to find the root of your distress. Did you witness a family member swearing, your father, perhaps, to your mother? Do the current arguments get loud, which can magnify your angst? Do try one more time to convince your man to go to counseling with you. Say this, calmly and with love:
Ralph, you know how your swearing bothers me. It is so obviously not you – and, it’s a shame because you are the kindest and warmest person. You’ve promised to go to counseling, but you keep putting it off. I think it’s so important to our future together, that I’ve booked an appointment with a counselor for the two of us on Tuesday. It’s an early morning session, before we go to work. If you won’t go, I have to believe you don’t care that much about finding out why you use bad language. I can’t accept that. Please come with me. We love each other, and this for us.