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CAROLYN HAX
Tell Me About It

By Carolyn Hax
Monday, October 8, 2007

Adapted from a recent live discussion.

Carolyn:

I've been going through some tough times lately, mostly work- and money-related. I'm stressed, headachy and cry easily. I'm normally very upbeat.

I feel like my boyfriend could step up to the plate. When I'm upset, I need to feel like somebody cares. I want him to bring flowers, or cook dinner, or surprise me somehow.

But he's same old same old, and also a bit unreliable lately. I've decided to tell him I'm feeling down and would like him to cheer me up. I just want him to make an effort. I'm sick of his coasting through the relationship in general, and the stress has exacerbated the problem.

So how do I explain that he needs to try a bit harder, without coming across as accusatory and demanding? I don't want to be in a relationship where I'm doing most of the work.

Taken for Granted?

All fine thoughts, but you're right to worry they'll come out as accusatory and demanding -- because they're accusations and demands.

"He needs to try harder" and "I feel like my boyfriend could step up to the plate" are both demands, even when padded with "I feel"; "coasting" is an accusation. On the other hand, "I would really like your support" is a request. "I feel overwhelmed," or lonely, or resentful -- these are feelings.

If you can frame your concerns as feelings and requests, even if you get a bit emotional, then you're doing your part to express yourself without cornering him. If you get the desired result from your boyfriend, that's a bonus; the objective is to give him a chance to understand how you feel, and to give yourself a chance to see how he responds.

A lot of people just don't know how to handle someone who's stressed and weepy, so they withdraw. Before you chuck Boyfriend out as hopeless, give him a chance to learn how to handle it. Maybe he'll be relieved to get the operator's manual.

Carolyn:

It shouldn't be that hard. No one can read your mind, so why not just share with the person you're supposed to trust to have your best interests at heart? "I feel X and need Y, so could you please help me with that?"

If that trust is lacking, that is another problem entirely. But jeez, aren't we supposed to be able to share joys and sorrows with the people we love?

D.C.

I agree, it shouldn't be that hard. But some people mistake accusations for feelings -- or silence for courage, or whatever -- because that's what they learned from their parents.

So it can take some spelling out when people say, "I feel you could step up to the plate," and then are understandably mystified that they just "expressed their feelings" but started a fight. They don't realize they've put the other person on the defensive. The sharing of joys and sorrows is a learned skill.

Carolyn:

Also, if you're feeling defensive, admit it. It stops the escalation.

Anonymous

Excellent point. In general, admitting your awkward emotions is disarming, where just acting on them can be inflammatory. Even if you've already acted out, you can still back up and admit the emotion behind it.

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