I like to think I’m pretty down-to-earth. Of course, as a marriage therapist, I’m definitely more touchy-feely than your average person. But I like to teach people communication tools that hopefully won’t make them sound like a therapist! And won’t make them feel like they have to turn into a therapist in order to have a marriage that’s close and connected.
One great tool is the “one little thing” technique. It’s a way to bring an issue up without things blowing up.
But first, let’s look at what happens without it. Say my husband and I are in the kitchen getting dinner ready and I spear the pork chops with a fork to take them out of the pan.
John: “Don’t do that! Use the coated tongs! How many times do I have to tell you that using metal on non-stick pans ruins them?”
It’s a simple request, but one I have a lot of trouble remembering.
On a good day, I’ll just apologize.
But what if it’s a chaotic day and I’ve been playing catch up and I’m especially tired? Then the thoughts in my head go something like this:
“Really? I worked a full day, then stopped at the store, got you your favorite fresh-ground peanut butter, took out the bins because it’s garbage night even though I got home later than you, and all you can do is get on me about which utensils I use?”
In other words, I’m feeling like he only sees what I don’t do.
But what if John thanks me for shopping and taking out the garbage, and maybe empathizes with my state of mind before he makes the tongs comment. (For the record, this is what happens most of the time.)
Then I would feel wrapped in a blanket of appreciation, and his complaint will be just a pinprick.
I’ll feel like he’s saying, “I see everything you do, I see your good intentions, and I appreciate you and there’s just this one little thing that bothers me.”
I used to feel puzzled when I heard clients protest that a concern of their partner’s was “not fair.” There are some things in marriage that are issues of fairness. If you have $200 in mad money and your partner has $1,000, that’s pretty clearly unfair.
But most issues that come up in a marriage are not anywhere near that clear cut. They’re feelings, they’re desires, they’re opinions. If feelings can’t be right or wrong, how can they be fair or unfair?
The point is, it feels unfair when you feel like your partner cares more about how you’re messing up than how you’re contributing.
Double that if it’s one of those times when you’ve been making a special effort, such as supporting her through a difficult time, picking up extra chores because she has to work late, or handling her difficult parents with good grace.
And families are so busy today that most people feel like they’re making a special effort a lot of the time.
So, if you want to avoid a lot of every day bickering, remember that when your partner says, “That’s unfair,” he’s really saying, “I feel unappreciated.” You’ll spare the two of you a frustrating debate about fairness that is really beside the point.
Even better, make a point of noticing all the ways your partner makes your life better. Speak up about it often, and especially when you have a complaint. Then he’ll feel wrapped in appreciation and you can bring up “one little thing,” and it will have a much softer landing.