And when I say the road to hell, I’m talking about your relationship going down the road to hell. From the honeymoon suite to the bitterness of hell. Who wants that?
It can be, and too often is, as easy as three little words: “Why should I...?” “Why should I x if he did y?”:
“Why should I be nice to him if he’s not nice to me?”
“Why should I go out of my way to get her a nice present if she wasn’t willing to go out of her way to get me a nice present?”
“Why should I give him a massage after he’s cleaned out the garage since he didn’t seem to give a shit about me after I made Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Why should I be quiet in the morning to let her sleep when she wasn’t quiet last Sunday morning so I could sleep?”
Yeah! Why should you, sucker!! Don’t you have any dignity? Any self-respect? What are you, a doormat?
This makes so much sense to so many people. It’s a reflex, really. Why should I go back to that restaurant if they don’t seem to care enough to provide good service? Sure. Why should you indeed?
But in a relationship, here’s why this sets you on the road to hell. Or, too often, the toboggan run to hell.
It can start so subtly. I’m eagerly waiting for you to come home—because I love you and miss you! But you walk in and you’re grumpy and pre-occupied. You give a curt, cold response to my loving greeting. I feel crushed.
Maybe I can brush it off. Hey, you’ve probably had a hard day. But maybe I’ve had a hard day too. Maybe I’m needing a little something from you. And you’ve just treated me like shit.
So...why should I go on being nice to you when you rebuff me like that?
But maybe you were going through a tough time too. Not just a hard day. Maybe things are really shaky for you at work. And now here I am, in my retaliation, being cold to you day after day, aloof, unsupportive.
And so you think, Why should I work at getting my act together and trying to mend things when you clearly aren’t willing to make an effort?
This is exactly how marriages go to hell. It’s not all at once. It’s not a straight line down. People pull out of the downturn. But the memory of the Why should I’s lingers, and the trend is down, because after one Why should I, others are easier. And so the road to hell looks like this:
And it will be like this unless someone stops it.
What’s the it? It’s a mutual withdrawal of energy from the relationship. If you’re not going to do x I won’t to x or even y!
It’s also a power move, of course. You weren’t nice to me, so I’ll be even less nice to you! Take that! What makes these the worst kind of power moves, in a way, is that they’re silent and invisible. Nothing happens, and that nothing happening is the most powerful thing ever.
So how do you get off the road to hell?
Resolve: no more Why should I’s. No more paybacks. Just don’t do that.
Show impact. The other person did something or failed to do something that hurt you. So you say something. Not a big angry harangue. Just: “When you did x it made me feel y.” You can make a tragic opera out of it if you want to, but it’ll bury your message. You want the impact on you, not your anger, to be the point of the whole thing.
Make sure you hear that the other person understands the impact his behavior had. Not as in, Yes, I’m the worst person who ever lived. But as in, I can see how let down you felt. Or, I can see how neglected I made you feel. Or, I can see how disrespectful my behavior was.
And actually, that’s it. If at this point you get into a “what are you going to do differently in future” discussion, it can feel demeaning. This little discussion should make the point quite clearly. And set you on the road to heaven.
If it should turn out that change doesn’t happen, well, that’s what Why Couples Fight is for: how to get your needs met without power struggles.