Spouse or partner getting on your nerves? Here are four ways mentalizing can help!
A while back, a mom told me how furious she was at her husband. He was getting the kids riled up before bedtime, making it next to impossible for her to get them to sleep and rested for school the next day. She asked my advice from a mentalizing point of view.
1. Oxygen masks
First, I said, decide if you simply want to take your anger out on your husband, or if you want to find a way to change the situation. If you want change, mentalizing tells us to follow the airplane rul
e: put your oxygen mask on first, that is, don't start the conversation until you can be calm and quiet, bringing your mentalizing back "on-line." (Better yet, plan with him when is a good time to talk about how you guys can work together on bedtime.)
2. Questions first
Second, I told her to start with a question. In the worst-case scenario, he's defensive before the conversation even starts, but you can help ease that by mentalizing him - ask him about his mind. For example, does he even see any problem getting the kids to bed?
If he doesn't see the problem you see, the conversation will never get off the ground. In that case, hear him out and then describe what you notice as neutrally as possible. Follow that with more questions to see if he gets it. If he's still in the dark, telling him he's wrong or getting angry aren't likely to get you the change you seek (see paragraph 1!) - to be effective, you might need to ask more questions, to understand how it is that he doesn't see what you see.
3. Destructive mentalizing
Mentalizing, like other relationship tools, can be used for good or for ill; to make others feel connected, or pushed away. I emphasized that research suggests you avoid telling your husband what is in his mind, e.g.,"You're doing this to get back at me for something else!" Other less-than-useful strategies include telling your husband what not to do, rather than telling him what you want him to do, and being defensive or stubborn, rather than taking responsibility for any contribution you might have made.
4. Road blocks
Sometimes, the basic approach isn't enough. I asked this mom to consider the possibility that both her and her husband's points of view are correct, in different ways.
If people look at a ballpoint pen from 90 degrees apart, they can argue until they're blue in the face because one sees a cylinder and the other will only ever see a circle. In this case, I said, you might need to agree with your husband - in whatever way genuinely might be correct - before he can be open to a new perspective. People usually like hearing that they are right; you can follow that with asserting your perspective that something remains that frustrates you. If he could at least agree that the current approach isn't effective, the couple can aim for agreement on trying a new approach, even if the husband sees the problem in a different way. If nothing seems to get traction, our best tool is curiosity: what is keeping you two from working together on this? Is he stretched too thin in other areas to put effort into this? Is there an underlying conflict? Can he tell you what gets in the way of collaboration?
Eventually, this mom reached the point where she and her husband both had the same problem in view - from there they were able to work out a solution that was a fit for both of them. I congratulated her on her good mentalizing work! When two people are locked in disagreement, making sure both of them retain mentalizing is usually a fine place to start.
Keep calm and mentalize!