Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman
Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman PR

How do you bring up feelings of pain, hurt, disappointment and criticism to someone you love?  Follow these five steps to significantly increase your chances of being heard and feeling better:

1.  Respect Timing and Setting

2.  Connect to Your Spouse

3.  Describe Offensive Behavior Neutrally

4.  Share Your Feelings

5.  Make a Direct Positive Request

6.  Keep it Brief

Step One - Respect Timing and Setting

People do not think well under pressure, or when they are tired, angry, sad or stressed.  Being empathic and nurturing is even more difficult.  Therefore, an important factor in determining the success or failure of your communication is the time and setting. 

If you want to be heard, you want your partner to be in the most relaxed and open frame of mind possible. Timing and setting refer both to the environment and the emotional frame of mind: no matter what you say and how you say it, it should be in a time and place that your spouse feels relaxed and able to focus on your concerns. Only after you determine the right time and place can you deliver your message in the least threatening manner. 

The importance of timing and setting is underestimated because we often do not  appreciate the subjective emotions that are experienced in a relationship. Many people are often in a state of mild panic and anxiety. This is particularly true in a high conflict marriage.  Stress, fear and anxiety about being hurt and about hurting the other person are common feelings that are a constant part of the atmosphere. 

Before you bring up a problem, criticism or complaint, it is vital to find a setting that does not make the other person nervous or anxious.  Anxiety will severely impair his ability to process what you are saying, because panic and anxiety disables the thinking part of the brain. The brain is flooded with too many emotions and the person loses his or her capacity to pay attention to anything else except on the most superficial level.

When you actually pay attention to couples and study how they talk, fight and argue, it is almost comical to see how often couples just do not hear each other. Many of these so-called problems in communication are actually problems in emotions.  Each person is spewing emotions and criticisms at high-velocity, but no one is really listening.

Therefore, it is key to first ask your spouse if it is a good time to talk. Let him or her know that you have something important to say, and that he or she needs to be in a composed and relaxed state of mind. No one should be pounced on the minute she walks through the door. The goal is to minimize defensiveness by minimizing the attack. 

It is not good enough to ask if it a good time to talk while your emotions and attitude reveal anger and impatience. Those feelings are contagious, and your spouse will react to them by becoming anxious, defensive and possibly hostile. You must ask yourself first if you are calm enough, and make sure that you ask your spouse in a tone that conveys warmth and concern.

When our clients hear this suggestion, they often object with the following complaint:

“Can we talk real world here? We have a bunch of kids and a highly pressured work schedule. When is it ever a good time to talk?  We won’t feel relaxed until the kids graduate college fifteen years from now!” 

We understand completely.  We come from the same real world as you do.  We had colicky babies, lots of fighting, and plenty of financial stress as well.  (I hope you don’t believe we wrote this book as an act of pure altruism. We gotta work for a living same as everyone else, and writing a book takes hundreds of hours.) 

Finding the time and space in a stressful life is absolutely a problem. Establishing and maintaining a regular time to talk and connect is an essential, non-negotiable requirement for a healthy relationship. But do not despair.  We will devote a whole chapter to this very important process.  You can do it – we have, and so have many others whom we helped with these techniques. 

Meanwhile, let us assume you have found a pleasant and quiet setting to discuss your gripe.  Now you are ready for step two.

Step Two - Connect to Your Spouse

If you want someone to care about you, you must care about him.  Ask your spouse how his day was.  Ask her how she is feeling. Say anything that gives the other person a feeling that you care.  Don't rush this part because you are laying a foundation for a healthy conversation.

Next, no matter how you really feel, talk as if you give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  Your opening sentence should involve some recognition of the other person’s point of view.  Find some way to explain or mitigate how the other person could have inadvertently hurt you or disappointed you without evil intent. 

Here are some examples of mitigating statements.

“I know you were having a hard day and feeling stressed…”

“You must have had a lot on your mind, so you probably did not realize…”

“I know this kind of situation drives you crazy, so you probably were in a bad mood…”

When you first ask how the person is feeling, and then offer an explanation that could justify your spouse’s behavior, it will help put him or her at ease and reduce anxiety. Remember this essential rule: Anxiety is the enemy of marital communication. You must do everything in your power to keep it at a minimum. 

Now you have taken pains to create a calm and supportive setting; you really greased the rails. There is a strong chance your concerns will finally be heard. 

But you're not done yet.  How you phrase your criticism or complaint is still a deal breaker or deal maker.

Step Three -- Describe Offensive Behavior Neutrally

Describe the offensive behavior using neutral, non-judgmental words.  How do you do this?  Pretend you are a reporter or a human video camera.  Your job is to describe the behavior in the most objective, non-critical manner.  This can be done even about behaviors that are quite wrong, as we shall see. 

The basic idea here is to help your spouse recognize what he or she did wrong without perceiving it as an attack or a character assassination. Here are some examples of attacking ways and neutral ways to describe behaviors:

Attacking: You came home late! You don’t care about me!                          

Neutral: You came home at 9pm. I felt sad that we couldn’t spend more time together.

Attacking:  You dress so sloppily! You embarrass me!

Neutral:  Your suit appears wrinkled. I am worried people won’t think well of us.

Attacking:  You scream at the kids too much!  You are out of control!

Neutral:  Your voice sounded loud; I worry this frightens the children.

Attacking:  You are irresponsible!  You left the car on the wrong side of the street and we got a ticket!

Neutral:  The car was on the wrong side of the street and we got a ticket.  This makes me worry about money.

Attacking:  You spend too much money! You are a shopaholic!

Neutral: When I saw the $600 clothing bill, I became very anxious about whether we could afford it.

These different phrases are not just window dressing.  If they are conveyed with genuine respect, warmth and concern, they will be heard in a radically different light.

Step Four -- Share Your Feelings

After you describe the behavior, tell the person what emotions the behavior evoked. This is important to do correctly.  An emotion is a feeling such as anger, shame, sadness, guilt, disgust, and so on.  Many men in particular have difficulty with this point.  Men are not socialized to express their feelings and often relate emotional needs in other indirect ways, such as via criticisms or demands. 

It is not unusual for men to identify criticisms or insults as feelings. Once we asked a fellow to share his feelings with his wife instead of attacking her. His response: “I feel she is wrong!”  Of course, this is not a feeling; it is a judgment about her.  Feelings are emotions and they do not attack or blame anyone. They just are.

It is challenging for people to let go of judgmental language and thoughts. Let's look at some examples of judgments versus feeling statements.  Pay attention to how feelings share the person’s subjective state without attacking anyone.

Judgmental:  You are wrong

Feeling: Your approach makes me anxious

Judgmental:  You are lazy                                          

Feeling: I feel stressed with this burden 

Judgmental:  You are stupid

Feeling: I am worried about your approach; I think it might cause problems for us

Judgmental:  You are mean                                        

Feeling: Your choice of words hurt my feelings

Step Five -- Make a Direct Positive Request

Make a request or a wish that is the positive opposite of the complaint.  Do not demand – just ask nicely.  In one study, parents of oppositional children were able to greatly increase the child’s cooperativeness merely by making a direct request with a “please” attached to it. 

“Dovid’l, please clean up your room.  It would make me very happy.”  No attacks, such as “You lazy kid!”; no demands and no speeches. Amazingly, these simple requests worked.  Did they work 100% of the time?  Of course not! But they did work often, and a lot more than screaming did.

Here too, when making a request from your spouse, translate the hurtful behavior into a positive opposite.  “It would make me so happy if you would…”  “In the future, please…” 

To help the reader learn how to translate complaints and gripes into these steps, here are a few examples.

Your spouse was negligent and left the car on the wrong side of the street. This was the third ticket this year. Enough is enough! You are fuming.

The destructive way to bring this up goes something like this:

“How many times do I have to deal with this? What is the matter with you? Why are you so irresponsible?  Another ticket!”

Is it any wonder that fights go on forever? Who could possibly listen to that tirade and actually respond?  Even if all the criticisms were true, it would take an unusually honest person to “fess up.” The more likely scenario is a defensive remark and an insult lobbed back, for good measure. 

You call me irresponsible?  Well, excuuuuuuse me!  I was just way too tired from staying up all night with a crying infant while you slept soundly without a care in the world! Oh, gee, I forgot to move the car.  Big deal!”

But there is another way.  Here is how you can discuss this same problem in a sane manner, and increase your chances of being heard.

I know you have been very busy lately so I can see how you might forget something important.  When you did not move the car yesterday, we got a parking ticket.  When I see a ticket and think about the expense it makes me anxious and frustrated.  I really would like for you to try hard to remember to move the car.”

The above statement does not judge or blame.  Instead it lets the other person know exactly how you feel while minimizing defensiveness.  It truly is a masterpiece of communication. Let’s analyze each component so you can see how and why it works:

 1.  “I know you have been very busy lately so I can see how you might forget something important.”  That is an emotionally connecting statement.  The person was able to see it from the other person’s point of view and at least offer an explanation for why it could happen.  This reduces defensiveness and puts the listener in a more receptive state. 

2.  “When you did not move the car yesterday, we got a parking ticket.” This is a simple statement of the facts.  No insults or attacks.  The listener may feel a bit anxious or nervous, but that cannot be eliminated entirely.  Be mindful that tone and body language count.  If you speak softly, maintain eye contact and show a general concern and regard for the other person, he or she will more easily tolerate the bad news.

3. “When I see a ticket and think about the expense it makes me anxious and frustrated.” The feelings are described clearly without attacking. This is obviously beneficial to the listener because it provides important feedback.  However, it also helps you, the speaker, because when emotions are shared with another person who listens and cares, you will automatically feel better – even if nothing happens to fix it. 

This is a truism of human nature.  If you calmly share your feelings instead of attacking, the other person will probably listen compassionately. The ticket will not vanish into thin air, but you will feel loved and supported, which will make your predicament easier to bear.

 4.  “I really would like for you to try hard to remember when to move the car.”  A reasonable, polite request was made. Notice how there were not any demands or attacks in this statement. 

Will it work?  You can never be sure.  People do what they want to do and are not easily controlled.  We guarantee one thing, though: this approach will work much better than any other, and it is more likely that you will get what you ask for.

Here is another example:

Malkie was furious that Michael forgot their anniversary. She had dropped endless hints because this is not the first time he forgot something important to her. Malkie is beside herself.  She thinks, “How can he keep doing this to me?  It is so hurtful!”

Malkie may feel like saying,

And you wonder why I am sad all the time? How am I supposed to feel loved when I’m married to an insensitive creep like you? You wouldn‘t forget your mother‘s birthday!”

But if Malkie wants to be heard, here is what she should say:

I know you sometimes don’t realize how important certain small gestures are, and your heart is probably in the right place…” [Emotional connecting] 

When you did not get a card or recognize that it was our anniversary, I felt so sad and lonely.” [Described behavior neutrally without attacking and shared feelings]

Please make it a priority to remember these things.  It is so important to me.”   [Made a simple, direct request]

Step Six - Keep it Brief

One additional rule to keep in mind is that you must make your statements brief.  Most people have limited attention spans.  If you are following these steps, your comments should take about a minute or so and be limited to a few sentences. 

If you are delivering a filibuster, you won’t be heard because the listener's anxiety will grow and grow, rapidly diminishing the other person’s brain processing power. (Think of it as if you are seeing that awful Microsoft hourglass in their eyes: brainlock.)  Also, the more you talk, the more likely it is that your comments will include insults and attacks, which will divert the conversation from its main focus. 

I Tried that Already 

You may be thinking, “I tried that and it doesn’t work.”  “She doesn’t listen.”  “He doesn’t care.  Nothing can make him change.”  “She is wrapped up in herself.” 

Think again.  Are you really sure?  Did you follow all the steps? 

  • •           Did you find a good time and place to talk? 

  • •           Were you careful not to attack? 

  • •           Did you drone on and on? 

  • •           Did you demand instead of ask? 

  • •           Did you speak in a tone of warm compassion and positive regard? 

Be honest with yourself and review your approach, making sure that you do it completely in the manner we have described.

It could be you did all of the above correctly and your spouse may not initially respond.  This is particularly possible when there is a long history filled with years of resentment. 

Do not despair.  Be mindful and accepting that not everything you ask for can be granted immediately, and there is always another side to the story.  Your spouse may be in great pain and suffering from years of hurt feelings. 

This book gives you a small number of easy-to-learn tools that are very likely to turn your marriage around in a relatively short time.  But that does not mean you will experience instant results.  So learn all the steps and keep trying.  You will find an enormous payoff at the end.  Patience and generosity of spirit will be rewarded nearly all the time.

Quick Review

Let us quickly review all the components of the techniques for abstaining from revenge and sharing offenses in the right way.  There are only a few of them which are quite simple to keep in mind:

1.  Always respond to an opportunity to be loving or kind as if there is no past or future.  Do not let past resentments or future expectations interfere.  Remember, it is moral and decent to be kind and loving to another person without any other consideration or thoughts of compensation.  Be true to this and you will become a great spouse, parent and human being.

2.  When you have grievances, find a good time and place to discuss them.  Never mix a pleasant moment when you are being loving and kind with your grievance; that is too close to grudge-bearing and ambushing.  Discuss your grievance in a respectful, calm way.  Use the six steps we discussed: (a) Respect Timing and Setting; (b) Connect to Your Spouse; (c) Describe Offensive Behavior Neutrally; (d) Share Your Feelings; (e) Make a Direct Positive Request; and (f) Make your Statement Brief.

These strategies are almost always enough to bring happiness and closeness into your marriage. But what if you just cannot let go of your resentments?  Read on and be inspired.

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW-R maintiain a psychotherapy practice in Queens and Brooklyn, NY.Simcha specializes in high conflict couples and serves as president of Nefesh International and Director of Operations for OHEL.Chaya specializes in trauma and addiction and is  EMDRIA certified in EMDR and IFS level II trained.They can be reached at simchafeuerman@gmail.com or cyfeuerman@gmail.com

link to publisher website:   https://www.israelbookshoppublications.com/store/pc/Marriage-911-44p788.htm

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