Asking for What You Need
Shut the Fuck Up
The cat’s litter box is stinky, and she’s sick of it. She’d asked her boyfriend to clean the thing, but he just didn’t do it enough. Plus when he did do it, he didn’t do it with soap and water or anything, so it continued to smell.
So the argument started when she told him the litter box was making the room smell because he wasn’t cleaning it right. It escalated when he said that he does clean it, just not to her standards, and that if she wanted it done a certain way, she should do it herself.
She told him it wasn’t her responsibility, and it devolved into a litany about the things that she doesn’t do. For example, she doesn’t do the dishes every day like she’s supposed to. But that doesn’t matter, she says, because the dishes don’t stink up the room. It’s not the same. She said it was stupid to turn everything around on her, to which he replied:
“Shut the fuck Up!“
The Wrong Game
First, his reaction was obviously crossing a line between lovers and partners that should not have been crossed for any reason. But the more interesting question is, why did the conversation escalate to such a base level in which two people who apparently love each other are yelling and angry and crossing boundaries?
It’s because they started playing the “Oh yeah? Well you’re wrong!” game.
He’s wrong for not taking care of the litter. She’s wrong for not doing the dishes. He’s wrong because the dishes don’t smell, and plus he’s stupid. Etc.
It’s not really their fault though.
Most people in the world are socialized to make everyone around them wrong. Someone wears perfume that’s too strong, they are wrong, you don’t like it, and they should stop doing that. Your wife is too clingy and you feel suffocated, she’s wrong, she should get a life and leave you alone.
But what if that perfume is the one your mom used when she was alive, and it brings back all the great memories you have of her, so you love it when that woman walks by wearing it? It’s the same stimulus, but now you feel something different about it. What if you feel special and secure when your wife wants to be around you and you feel loved when she checks up on you? The stimulus is the same, but your feel good about it.
What’s different in these situations? Only one thing is different: You.
So obviously your displeasure isn’t really caused by the other person, even though the other person stimulates it. Your displeasure is a fact about you, not a fact about them. In other words, they can’t possibly be wrong for what they are doing, since it’s you who is choosing the reaction. And beside that, no one likes to be made wrong for living their life how they see fit.
But this isn’t an essay about just “choosing” to feel good about people being shitty to you, that would just be abusive. This is an essay about how to get what you want and help everyone feel good about it in the process.
The Right Game
If she wants to convince him to do it her way, she cannot make him wrong for doing things his way. He’s perfectly satisfied with the way he does it, and doesn’t notice or mind the smell. If she were like him, she’d agree with him, and there wouldn’t be any problem at all.
But in this case, they do have clashing opinions on the matter. To come to an agreement, they need to learn a new game. The game is called Nonviolent Communication, or NVC.
The core of NVC is simple: everyone has feelings and they have needs based on those feelings. No one but the person who has them is responsible for someone’s feelings, but anyone can get help with their feelings by asking other people to help meet their needs. Feelings are never caused by other people, only by observations or experiences.
In other words, when you observe something, you might have a feeling about it. That feeling could give rise to a need, and to meet that need you might make a request of someone else.
For example, she could approach her boyfriend with that pattern:
Observation, Feeling, Need, Request
- Observation: Sweetheart, the smell of the cat litter is becoming overwhelming to me. [It’s not a judgement, it’s just an observation.]
- Feeling: When I smell it I feel disgusted, and I feel worried that that smell is going to seep into our things and our place will smell like cat poop forever. I’m also afraid that no one will want to come over to our house because it stinks, and we might not even realize because we’ll be so used to it. [Again, no judgement, just feelings about the observation.]
- Need: What I’d really like is for that litter to smell better, so I don’t feel disgusted and I can be sure our things don’t start stinking.
- Request: Would you be willing to help me with that? Maybe we could move the box somewhere less central, and maybe get a self cleaning box, and make sure it gets cleaned more often? I know how hard you work, so I’d really appreciate you helping me with this.
I promise you, just like I promised her, approaching it like that would not have led to “Shut the fuck up.”
I recommend this book frequently to people like her, and it’s called (surprise) Nonviolent Communication. It has nothing to do with anger or anything, it’s just a weird title. It really expands on the core concept I wrote about here, and talks at length about needs, and different strategies for communicating with everyone from your child to your boss. It’s really thorough. For about $11, this book is likely to send you on a dramatically different and better trajectory in your relationship and in your future love life. I believe anyone would be happier for their whole life if they read this book, so I really hope everyone does:
(By the way, that link is an affiliate link, so if you buy the book the price you pay will be the same, but I’ll make like $0.25. Fiji here I come!)
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