My boyfriend and I have been together for about four years—I love him, he loves me, blah, blah, blah. However, we have a lot of trouble communicating. For example, he becomes defensive if I say something like, “You shouldn’t wear baggy jeans to a job interview.” He would say that means I’m being unsupportive. How can I help him and voice my opinion in a way that he won’t take as a criticism?
—Not Critical, Simply Correct
I can’t believe someone whose letter includes the phrase “blah, blah, blah” is reporting communication difficulties!
Here’s what’s happening: When you tell your boyfriend something along the lines of “You shouldn’t wear a banana hammock to the country club,” he’s not hearing you, his adorable girlfriend offering wise counsel. Instead, he hears his mom nagging him to pull up his pants, clean his room, or quit touching himself “there.” As a result, his reaction is pure knee-jerk rebellion.
Of course he shouldn’t wear baggy jeans to a job interview. He knows that, or at least he should. But you shouldn’t be telling him what to do, either. It’s all a matter of phrasing. Instead of scoffing at his outfit and assuring him he’ll never get a job wearing Justin Bieber jeans, look him up and down and say something like, “You know what would look really great—those blue sharkskin pants we found at the Salvation Army and had tailored. They make your ass look incredible and there’s no way you won’t get hired looking like that.”
Turn a negative into a positive. Though most would never admit it, men love compliments just as much as women. And they don’t hear them nearly as often, so maybe you should up the number you offer. Instead of thinking about all the things he does wrong, focus on all the things he does right and vocalize your appreciation. When you say things out loud, it makes them more real—to both you and the person who’s hearing you.
Which doesn’t mean you have to go full-on leg-humping cheeseball; even one “You look/smell/taste/fuck great” can make someone forget how pissed-off they are because you drank the last beer, and may even get you a sweet word in return.
It’s easy to fall into crappy relationship patterns, especially when you’ve accumulated a few years’ worth of baggage. I’m a big fan of sporadic couples’ counseling for just this reason. The Large Greek and I have been together for nearly nine years, and I can hold a grudge like it’s got a handle. Sitting in front of a paid professional who doesn’t know that he never does the fucking dishes and I’ve never met a book I’m willing to part with gives us a chance to pull our heads out of our own assholes and gain a little perspective. It’s like having a translator, because when our foxy shrink says “Judy, maybe you don’t need 10 bookshelves in your tiny apartment,” my first reaction isn’t to snap back “When was the last time you cleaned the goddamned litter box?” Instead I think maybe she has a point.
See what I mean? Compliments first, and if that doesn’t work, counseling. E