Dear Navigator, I am in a relationship with a loving woman. She is very hard working and in my heart I believe her intentions are good. During the dating phase of our relationship she was laid back, but lately, our relationship has become strained. After the dating phase she slowly became very bossy - she nitpicks how well I clean the bathroom, how often I dust the furniture, how I hang my coat on a chair instead of hanging it on a hanger, how I should eat better and work out more . . .
I admit that I am not perfect, but I was happy. Her suggestions are good and her place is spotless so I can't really argue. That being said, I have no desire to live up to the bar she has set for me. What can I do?
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It is often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Many relationship problems fall into this category: One mate convinces him- or herself that a specific outcome is good for the relationship and therefore worth pursuing even if it irritates the other mate. Sometimes it can be hard for your mate *not* to encourage you to change if they believe those changes would only add 5 minutes of work to your day or an hour of work to your week.
These arguments are generally hard to win because you are effectively fighting against making the relationship "better." How do you argue in favor of a "dirty" bathroom, dusty furniture, a house cluttered with clothes, a poor diet, or poor physical fitness?
Okay, let's say that I was in this situation. What would I do?
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Here are some questions I would first ask myself:
* Are we clear about the purpose of our relationship? <div class='answer'>Maybe my mate does not see the relationship the same way I do? Many counterproductive behaviors make sense when viewed from a short-term and individual perspective. It is therefore important that my mate and I get clear about the purpose of the relationship. Throughout Navigating Love, I encourage couples to build a long-term and mutually-fulfilling relationship.</div>
* Is this situation a deal breaker (i.e. does this issue have the power to create Visible Resentment if left unresolved)? <div class='answer'>If this issue is not a deal breaker, is it worth raising? In my experience, many of the serious arguments I've found myself in happened during the conflict resolution process itself -- Someone speaks carelessly, says something they don't mean, expresses a genuine concern the "wrong" way or cracks a clever "joke", triggering a misunderstanding followed by an argument full of words that can't be taken back. If something needs to be said, I will say it, but I think very carefully before doing so.</div>
* Are we clear about what is being requested? <div class='answer'>Are we clear about the goal we are trying to achieve? Are we in agreement about the actual steps required and the time involved? Are we in agreement about how often the steps need to be performed? Has the person proposing the work ever done it?</div>
* Do I have a problem unrelated to the request itself? <div class='answer'>Maybe my problem is how the request was made? Maybe I believe my mate is trying to use her request to control me? Perhaps I am still angry about a previous conflict? I may feel that her request is hypocritical or unfair given the value I perceive her bringing to the relationship?</div>
* If this issue is a Deal Breaker for me, does my mate understand that? <div class='answer'>A Deal Breaker is more than a conflict I believe is "very important" -- A deal breaker is a conflict worth parting ways over if it cannot be resolved in a way that works for me.</div>
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Every conflict is an opportunity to do some self reflection. Am I helping to create an undesirable situation?
* Is my fear of losing my mate so great that I am too afraid to express my expectations in the relationship? <div class='answer'>I would read Navigating Love. In it, I offer techniques designed to help readers determine if they are in a healthy relationship. For example I define the word League as a group of people who can be honest with each other. If you behave as if you and your mate are not in the same league, Navigating Love can help you uncover the beliefs that allow this to occur.</div>
* Am I comfortable with my contribution to the relationship? <div class='answer'>I would get clear about the value I bring to the relationship. Nobody's perfect. No matter how well I do something, it can *always* be done better. If I do 99% of things well, there will be that 1% that can be improved. The best defense against the pressure my mate puts on me is believing that I bring value to the relationship. This is not about deluding myself. This means bringing enough value to the relationship that I have the courage to say no.</div>
* Did I do something to encourage my mate to behave this way? <div class='answer'>I would ask her about recently resolved problems to make sure there are no lingering resentments. Her actions may be in response to something I did in the past -- perhaps something so small that she is not consciously aware of it -- she may be annoyed with me, but not know exactly why. This idea may seem counter intuitive, because the hidden goal in many arguments is to avoid fault. My goal is a long-term mutually-fulfilling relationship, thus the quicker we resolve past problems the better.</div>
* Have I trained my mate to mistreat me? <div class='answer'>I would sweat the small stuff. In the name of "picking my battles" or "keeping the peace" perhaps I neglected myself? We've been taught that some problems are not worth fighting over. This mentality can be counterproductive for several reasons. First, my failure to take some problems seriously makes it likely that those problems will reoccur in the future. Second, if I address some problems half heartedly, I create an incentive for my mate to behave counterproductively (i.e. disregard or belittle my perspective, guilt trip me, play word games, yell, etc). The more often those techniques work, the more likely they will be used. If I enable my mate's bad behavior, I should not be surprised (or even angry) when those behaviors occur.</div>
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If I am happy with my contribution to the relationship, and I believe the additional requests will lead to me feeling resentment, I would say "Can I ask you something? I was thinking about all of the changes you've asked me to make. I was wondering: are these changes deal breakers for you?
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I would try to empathize with my mate -- I might say something like "I think your ideas are good, but I am happy with me the way I am. I totally understand you wanting someone who is better at dusting, someone who works out more and eats better. I want you to be happy -- I will not be mad at you if decide this relationship will not work for you."
If she tries to convince me that the changes she proposes would be simple, I would say "Perhaps it would be, but I have no desire to do those things."
If she asks me "Why not?" I would respond by politely saying "Because I don't want to." In my experience, giving a more concrete sounding reason results in that reason being picked apart, which can lead to an even bigger argument.
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It is very important that our discussion not be perceived as a threat, because feeling threatened can create resentment. I honestly want my mate to be fulfilled with or without me. At the same time, I want to be fulfilled and doing something I don't want to do has the power to create resentment.
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Let's say that I've concluded that my mate wants to see some changes and I don't want to make those changes. What can we do? It might be possible to find a middle ground -- an alternate plan that works for both of us. For example:
* Is it critical that each task happen as frequently as we discussed? Maybe we can adjust the frequency?
* Is it important that I do the task to my mate's standards? Perhaps we could agree that I do the dusting to my standards, then my mate continue the dusting until her standards are met.
* Is it important that each task be done by me? Perhaps I could pay someone to do the house work for example?
* Are there tasks I like to do that I can trade for the tasks I dislike doing?
* Is there a way to simplify our lives that would make the task easier. For example, getting rid of furniture or eliminating nick-knacks could simplify dusting. Eliminating an activity we do together could free up the time needed to do the task.
* Can the task be automated? Robot vacuums are great for example.
* Can we turn the task into a couple's activity? Perhaps we could create an event called "dinner and dusting" where I do my cleaning activities while my mate stops by a local restaurant to pick up a great meal?
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Navigating Love is a powerful tool for exposing the beliefs that hinder our ability to resolve conflict constructively -- Let's examine a few of those beliefs:
* Don't sweat the small stuff <div class='answer'>This makes sense intuitively, but generally fails in practice because we lack a strong definition of the word small. Without this definition, couples end up spending a lot of time in arguments over the size of conflicts -- arguments that often make things worse. In Navigating Love, I define a "small conflict" as one that "will not lead to resentment." With this definition the perceived size of a conflict is irrelevant. With this definition we can focus our attention on the conflict resolution process itself.</div>
* Love requires effort <div class='answer'>Yes, it is true that love requires effort. If that effort causes a person to feel resentment however, that effort is totally counterproductive.</div>
* We all have to do things we don't want to do <div class='answer'>Yes, that is true -- especially when you consider that "things we don't want to do" is so loosely defined. To be clear, I would define "things we don't want to do" as things that would cause resentment, if we are pressured into doing them.</div>
(c) 2016, Malik Spencer. This will be part of a new book "Dear Navigator" -- Please do not distribute."