He’s always getting upset. But his gripes are legitimate. So who’s in the wrong?
I hate my mother.
She’s always yelling at me. “You didn’t make your bed. You didn’t clean your room. You’ve left your plate on the table. You didn’t call to tell me you’d be late. You didn’t say hello. You didn’t say goodbye. ” She just never stops!
Wow! Is your mother making all that stuff up?
No — it’s all true. But that doesn’t give her the right to yell at me!
I’m really depressed.
Why? What’s happening?
My marriage is terrible. It seems I can’t do anything right as far as my husband is concerned. He’s got nothing nice to say to me. It’s always, “I just asked you to do one little thing for me today and you couldn’t do even that!” or, “Why is the house a disaster when I come home at night?” or, “Is there some reason why you can’t make a proper dinner even once a week?” He’s never happy.
That’s awful — no wonder you’re depressed. But don’t you explain to him why things don’t get done?
Of course not — there is no real reason. I just don’t get around to it. But you know, if he would just say something nice once in awhile, maybe I would try a little harder.
Whose Fault Is It?
Human beings react to one another. If A doesn’t treat B nicely, then B doesn’t want to be nice to A. Of course, A may not even realize that he or she mistreated B in the first place, and as far as A is concerned, the mistreatment begins with B’s behavior!
No matter how it starts, the end result is that two family members can find themselves in a negative cycle of interactions. Yelling, excessive criticism, constant disappointment, and disapproval are impossible to tolerate. But so is unacceptable behavior.
Who should repair the dysfunctional cycle — the one who has poor communication techniques, or the one who behaves poorly? There’s an obvious answer. We’re not put in this world to watch other people improve their characters! Hashem clearly puts us here to work on ourselves.
Once we understand the assignment, it no longer matters what the other person is doing wrong. In fact, their behavior is irrelevant. Our task is to improve our own. As we do so, we will often discover that the problem person or problem situation disappears. This is for “natural” reasons like the fact that we have interrupted a negative cycle, injecting good will and positive energy into the communication. However, it is also for supernatural reasons: Hashem provokes us only until we’ve learned our lesson, done teshuvah, and are ready for the next level of growth.
Doing the Right Thing
Even though a family member such as a child, spouse, or parent might communicate improperly, his or her message can still contain a kernel of truth. This kernel can point us in the right direction. If Mom is screaming that Daughter’s room is a mess, the true part of the sentence is that the room is a mess. Daughter can choose to ignore the screaming and just do what she’s supposed to do — clean up her room.
If Wife is asking relentlessly for that bill to be paid, Husband can ignore the relentless part and just do what he’s supposed to do — pay that bill promptly. If Husband is always complaining and negative, Wife can ignore his style and simply address the main point of his message: there are tasks that she should be doing for the household. She should do what she’s supposed to do — make dinner.
When one has begun to address one’s own behavior, one can then address the messenger and ask for more respectful, sensitive, or kind communications. “You know, I’ve been making dinner more nights than not for several weeks now, and you still only point out what I’m doing wrong. It would mean a lot to me if you could give me some positive feedback too.”
When family members see that we are taking their concerns seriously, they are usually much more responsive to our requests as well. If you don’t notice an improvement in their style immediately, be patient and continue to work on your own behavior. It’s hard for normal people to resist the pleasant, caring, respectful, and loving behaviors of those around them, but sometimes further help is required (such as professional intervention). In most cases, however, all that is needed is for a person to take responsibility for his or her own part of the problem and everything improves from there.