If we ever want to destroy a relationship, the following formula is a great guide:
If you cared about x, you would have done y.
Assuming intention, action, values, cares, and the like from facial expressions, choices, actions, body language, and so on — no need to look any further! It’s a great way to make life miserable (and seems so justified too).
We come home, and the house is a mess: if our husband cared about the house, it would be clean. Ironclad logic, right? Sure, our husband has the kids to look after and yard to mow, but the fact he watched a movie with the kids instead of cleaned the house means either he wanted to watch a movie instead of work, or he’s a bad multitasker (and needs us to show him how to do it). And didn’t he ride his bicycle for an hour yesterday? He could have spent that time cleaning the house! And the fact he didn’t tells us all we need to know…
Our wife walks into the kitchen and looks angry. If she cared about us, she would make a point not to walk in looking that way — right? After all, even if she did have a bad day, someone who loves us wouldn’t spill that emotion over onto us; rather, they’d shield us from that difficulty, not suck us into their drama. She’s not acting like a good person. We should tell her the errors of her ways…
It’s hard to think of anything that destroys relationships quicker than assuming that x means y (other than hatred, anger — things like that). To think that if our wife doesn’t clean the house, it means she doesn’t care about it; that if our husband doesn’t take time off from work, he cares more about work more than us; that if our husband comes home with an upset look on his face, it means he doesn’t want to be home — example abound.
Do note that this point is not critiquing descriptions that are similar to “the formula of disaster,” only assertions. If I say, “My wife and I go to the park because we are married,” I am not asserting a moral premise or making a value judgment; instead, I’m just describing what my wife and I in fact do. In this example, I am not saying what someone else “ought” to do, and it is that assertion of “oughtness” that causes all the trouble.
A reason assuming intention from action is so dangerous is precisely because it feels so reasonable. I mean, the house isn’t clean; our husband could look around and see it wasn’t clean; he was home all day; the house is still dirty. Either our husband is blind or doesn’t care — right? And what kind of man doesn’t care about a clean house, especially if he knows that we value a clean house. We told him we do, after all, and so for him not to clean means he doesn’t care about what we value. He’s attacking us, and yet we work all day so that he can stay home with the kids.
And so, the drama starts…
Gradually, slowly, partners feel hurt because of how they interpret the meaning of the actions of the other, and, at the same time, those others feel hurt by how they interpret the meaning of what is happening to them. And we shouldn’t forget that interpretation is what other people do: we just “see” what’s happening, and what’s happening in front of us is that our husband doesn’t value what we value. Instead, he values watching movies and playing outside.
But is it so simple?
(Note, by the way, how when we’re hurt we tend to emphasize the most “frivolous” stuff our partner does.)
Maybe our wife didn’t clean the house because she’s taking care of the kids? Maybe our husband doesn’t take time off from work because if he does he’ll be fired? And so on. We don’t live in a linear world, and the reason people do x and not y is often far more complex than what we make it out to be (especially when we’re upset). We live in a world where there is only so much time in the day — we often must make trade-offs.
Ah, but our husband still had to make a choice, and he chose to watch a movie with the kids when he could have been folding: he must value “playing around” when he should be working.
Well, thinking like that is going to make everyone feel like they are walking on eggshells very quickly…
You see, we exist in time and so have to do things in an order, and just because we do the dishes before we cut the grass doesn’t necessarily mean we care about the grass less than the dishes. But it seems like we do. Why? Because we tend to associate “first with best” and with assuming priorities occur in order of priorities, and stuff like that (we don’t tend to think that “morning might be the best time to water the garden because the sun isn’t too hot,” for example, but rather “she prefers gardening to having breakfast with me”).
Existing in time forces us to create appearances of hierarchies. Worse yet, it seems to be human nature to generate hierarchies, to associate valuing x more than y if x is done first. If the house isn’t clean but our husband rode on his bike, then it’s natural to assume that he lives according to a hierarchy that places riding a bike above cleaning the house. But thinking is way is dangerous.
But our wife was on the phone with her friends while we did the laundry.
But our husband went to the gym while we watched the kids.
Doesn’t that mean something?
Well, first, spending our days determining what the actions of the people around us mean is a quick way to make ourselves and everyone around us miserable.
If we asked your husband to clean the house and he didn’t, there might be grounds for being upset that he’s off playing. However, if we asked our husband to clean the house three times a week, then perhaps he’s justified to do it once well and believe we’re going overboard with wanting the house cleaned twice more. And maybe our husband did clean the house, just not as much as we would have liked or not how we would have done it. It’s tempting for us to think that if someone didn’t do something like we would have done it, then they didn’t do it at all, but that’s dangerous thinking. If we think that way, we’ll criticize someone for doing something that they’ll feel like they did do, and that will hurt them.
If our wife says she took care of the kids and in our mind all she did was sit them down in front of a television, it’s dangerous to assume that we have evidence she didn’t take care of the kids and instead let the TV do the work. You ever try watching children? Even with help from a television, we need to watch to make sure they don’t try to eat something they can choke on.
Life is not simply a matter of getting everything done, but getting the same stuff done over and over again while simultaneously managing to still have a life. If we value cleaning the house, our spouse probably does too, but while we might value it over riding a bike, our spouse might not (and that might save him/her from a costly heart attack in the future, mind you). However, this doesn’t mean our spouse doesn’t value cleaning the house at all; rather, it means our spouse might dedicate six hours of time to it versus eight. And sure, we still might not like this, especially because we suddenly might not seem so reasonable to be upset about our spouse only cleaning the house for six hours instead of eight — we seem much more the victim to think “he/she doesn’t value cleaning the house at all!”.
(We have to watch that brain of ours…it’s out to get us…)
Sure, action can mean something, but we should do everything in our power not to think too hard about it. Generally, a good rule of thumb is that everyone feels like a victim, and if we think too much about what other people are doing, it’s only a matter of time before it comes back around to being evidence that nobody appreciates us, that nobody knows what we’re going through, that nobody gets how horrible work is — and so on.
Just about everyone feels like a victim, unheard, and unappreciated, and not controlling our “meaning finding”-brain is a quick way to make us and others feel extremely victimized, extremely unheard, and extremely unappreciated.
This will not make our life better.
This will not make the lives of the people around us better either.
A few guidelines might prove helpful:
1. Never assume that x means y. We can ask if x means y, but we shouldn’t assume it. That said, since it’s arguably impossible not to think x means anything at all, we should assume that x means “the best possible thing’ (given the circumstances), especially if we don’t talk about it.
If our husband comes home from work looking upset, we shouldn’t assume he is upset with us; instead, we should assume he is upset because of something that happened with work. Yes, this requires being vulnerable, which is perhaps why we don’t do it, but if we don’t do this, then we might get upset at our husband for being upset at us, and then he might be really upset, because he just came home from a crazy day at work, and now he we’re angry at him — things can spiral downhill from there
2. If we choose to value x, it is our responsibility to do x. Furthermore, the person doing x gets to make decisions about how x is done.
If it matters to us that the house is always clean (to a certain standard), it is our responsibility to make the house always clean to that standard. This doesn’t mean our wife can’t help us, but if things have to be clean in a certain way, that’s up to us to make happen. The moment we become particular and specific about something, whether it be cooking or cleaning or gardening or what have you, it is now our responsibility to take care of it. Likewise, if we want our wife only working her job x number of hours a week, it is our responsibility to provide money so that she can do that (assuming she wants to work less; if not, we may have to get over ourselves and examine/discuss our motivations).
All couples must share responsibilities, and we cannot help but notice and see how our partner is doing his or her responsibilities in comparison to us. But it’s good to know that the moment we want things to be done in a specific way, those responsibilities become ours. This might not seem fair, because we’re already responsible for x, y, and z, but our partner is also responsible for m, n, and o, and having to do things like we want them to be done can break down the efficiency, making it harder for our partner to do the other things.
If we don’t have skin in the game, we should not be in the game. If we are not cooking, we can make requests for what is eaten, but the decisions is ultimately not ours.
3. Do not assume that because someone did x before they did y, or because they spent more time on x than y, it means they don’t care about y.
Maybe our spouse only cares about cleaning the house 80% as much as we do, which means there is 20% of time for our spouse to do something else. Maybe that’s learning the stock market to help us get out of college debt? Thinking someone doesn’t care about something at all because they don’t care about it like us is a dangerous fallacy. It’s also hurtful.
4. Assume we are being critical when we voice a complaint.
Maybe we’re justified to voice our complaints, but if we assume we are being critical until proven otherwise, knowing it’s bad to be critical, we’ll be more self-skeptical, which will help us avoid creating unnecessary tension.
5. Assume the people around us feel unappreciated, unvalued, and like victims too.
In closing, we all know relationships are hard; the trick is learning how not to make them harder. Nobody plans to, and yet it seems like nearly everyone does. Why? Well, it’s perhaps because we feel justified and like we’ve been wronged. Ultimately, we feel like not doing what would make the relationships harder would betray truth, fairness, and what’s right. We take a stand for our hearts and find ourselves cracking them under our feet.
It’s ethics that propels us into drama, and if we are to avoid drama, we must learn the right ethics. Life is not made hard because we lack guidelines entirely, but because we lack the right guidelines. Hopefully what has been offered here will help.