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How to keep your partner (and yourself) happy

Updated on May 25, 2012

Turn off the "self" to turn on the "love"

I'm fortunate to be married to a licensed therapist who has taught me a great deal about how to navigate the stormy seas of a relationship; she tells me I have taught her a few skills, too.

Here's a lesson you already know: men generally think logically and look for pay-off; women often think with emotions and strive for community. At the center of both world views, though, is a gentle narcissism: we each want what we want (and often when we want it, right now!). How do we find that shaded area of the Venn diagram of a relationship where she gets what she wants and he gets what he wants?

Today, let's take the male perspective. First, be calm and be patient. Most men get in to trouble with their significant others, and then can't get out of the quagmire, because they react and respond too quickly to what their partner says--neglecting a key component: people often don't "mean" what they say (over 90% of what we say is spontaneous), people are often "trying out a thought" to see what will stick or cause a reaction, and what is being said might be disconnected from what the speaker really wants ("I hate you" might very well mean "what you just said hurt my feelings because it was close to a truth I'm not ready to acknowledge").

So, take a deep breath before you speak. When the conversation seems to be veering toward the uncomfortable, throttle back. She will, eventually, follow you to a calmer place if you don't set the hook and start the line flying off the reel. Then do a little thinking. What does she want? What do I want? And, as the most important question, What middle ground exists that i can offer?

Your goal is to steer the conversation (and, consequently, the relationship: you're in the car together) back to a safe parking place. Try exploratory questions (in a calm voice): Darling, why are you attached to green curtains--I thought you had settled on purple? Sweetheart, I know you think I'm lazy, but is there something else behind your hurtful comments--did something happen today?

Women are investigators, spies some would say--certainly, they want to understand you (how long ago did she hack into your email account?). And, given opportunity, they want to understand themselves, too, so directing questions back to them satisfies two desires: to understand you and to understand themselves. Also, asking questions--rather than refuting a point or lashing out with your own angry language--allows her to feel in control and to see that you are there to have a conversation and build the community, not tear it down or leave it.

Of course, such maneuverings require a solid portion of patience (a learned skill, frankly, but the most valuable I possess), but more significantly, they require you to relinquish some of your ego. Yes, yes, yes--everything is about you! Every movie was made for your viewing, every dessert for your consumption, every argument started for you to demonstrate your verbal skill and potent reasoning! But not the ones with your significant other, the person with whom you want to snuggle later.

After you take your deep breath, scratch behind the ears of your ego and send it after a stick so you can concentrate on what really matters: the substance of the disagreement and how to reach a comfortable place where you both get an equal share of feeling good about each other because, for sure, you'll have to give up something (it's not called a disagreement because you agree) but so will she--and finding the dry patch of ground in the swamp of hurt feelings, the rising tidal water of bad days or surging hormones or somebody calling somebody else "fat," will require you to look around, calmly, survey the territory, and then ask questions that will get you to more promising environments.

I'm suggesting men must do what men often do best: set goals and create a plan to achieve them. Goal: snuggle later. Situation: angry girlfriend. Path to resolution: deep breath, remove ego, become calm, and invite her into a discussion about the situation and how both of you might resolve the crisis. No real crisis might exist (Oh, you're just emotional!), but a real crisis will manifest if you say "Oh, you're just emotional!" instead of taking a deep breath and calmly asking a question: "My sweet petunia, I understand there isn't enough ice in the tea, and I'm sorry your drink doesn't taste cold. I'll call the waiter over and get a cup of ice. Is there something else on your mind? Is there something else I might help you with?"


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