Carolyn Hax: Asking isn’t always the best way to communicate with loved ones

Carolyn Hax
Columnist December 3, 2013

Hi, Carolyn:

I wanted to check this disagreement I’m having with my fiance against a neutral third party. Every once in a while, I notice a situation in which his preferences or perspectives might be different from mine, and when those come up I like to communicate with him about those preferences and how strong they are respectively, to figure out the optimal course of action.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

For example, we had planned an evening together for a certain day, but a close friend with an extremely busy schedule wanted to have a short (under an hour) phone call to catch up that night. So I asked my fiance, “So-and-so would like to talk Thursday for a little while, but I know we had planned to spend that whole night with each other. Would it be okay to talk with her, or should I try to reschedule that for the future?”

He said that was fine, but later expressed that he didn’t understand why I didn’t just assume he’d rather I spend the time with him, and that in general he’d prefer I sometimes try to anticipate his desires rather than always asking about them. I feel like this kind of communication is an integral part of a healthy relationship, and I’m not really inclined to do less of it and more guessing. What do you think?

Communicating


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

I think there are times when I want to apologize to everyone for advising so much talk.

Your fiance is right that there’s merit in treating some things as obvious. You have plans, so you can assume he wants to see you, right?

But there’s more to it than that. By running your conflict by him as you did, you basically assigned the Thursday night decision to him without taking any position of your own. That can seem respectful on its face — a la, “I want your perspective” — but notice that you’re not actually saying, and owning, what you would prefer. You’re just asking him to do that, thereby making his preference the deciding vote: messing up his own plans with a yes or being the bad guy with a no.

If you instead had come clean — “I know we have plans, but, unless you feel strongly, I’d really like to catch up with this friend, since it might be weeks till our next opportunity” — then you’d have given your fiance a chance to weigh in without crossing the boundary into making your decision for you.

And it is a boundary issue, if a subtle one. Communication isn’t just about asking questions and seeking input. It’s also about knowing yourself, making clear and consistent choices, and being transparent about them with others. It’s when you make your decisions and he makes his and each trusts the other to say so when plans or dreams or feelings get stepped on.

To use your example: You know you wanted to talk to your friend that night, your fiance knows you wanted that, I know you did, and now all the Readers in Readerville know, too. But you didn’t come out and say it.

So, do keep recognizing your fiance’s stake in your choices, big and small — but also stop yourself before asking for his preference becomes a way out of owning yours.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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