Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How to Decrease Misunderstanding and Anger in Relationships.

As a family therapist I deal with angry and frustrated parents and children on a regular basis. Often I have found that at the core of the anger or frustration is a belief that the other person has hurt them. Almost universally, family members are not out to hurt each other and when confronted with this belief that they have caused harm, defensiveness takes hold and more misunderstandings occur. This downward spiral of mis-communication and anger can happen in all families. One thing I have found to be helpful to interrupt this cycle is clarifying your expectations. A statement I heard once boiled this all down for me, it goes: "unstated expectations are pre-planned resentments". I like how this statement simplifies the idea and returns the responsibility onto the individual. The way I read it, if I don't clarify my expectations about an issue in any relationship, I am planning resentment (anger/frustration/hurt) in that relationship. Let me now expound this concept out in terms of the two most important relationships you may have; your spouse and children.

  • The Spousal Relationship: Let's say a wife invites her husband to go shopping with her (she's thinking it will be a fun 2-3 hour venture) and he is happy to accompany her (he's thinking it will be a quick 15-30 minute pit-stop). He likes being with his wife, especially when she is doing things she enjoys. However, at about the 35 minute mark he start feeling anxious. He has a few things he would like to get done, and she is only on her second pair of pants. He starts casually commenting on how much work he has to do after telling her how great she looks in the pants. The wife is enjoying herself, especially since her husband just complimented her on her choice of pants. She heard his comment of how much work he has to get done and she is grateful he is willing to sacrifice his time to be with her. If you haven't guessed where this may be going (or you haven't experienced it yourself), it usually ends with the husband being really stressed and hurt that his wife is not looking out for his needs, resulting in him getting angry about going with her in the first place. He may say something that shows his anger, resulting in the wife being confused and angry that he gave her mixed signals. The whole thing gets out of hand resulting in resentment. Had he told her that he was up for a quick 15-30 minute shopping trip or she told him that she was expecting a 2-3 hour experience, the whole resentment could have been avoided. 
  • The Parent-Child Relationship: Picture a child who loves riding her bike. She really enjoys the freedom the bike provides to explore the neighborhood and the ability to travel between her friends' houses. Her father tells her she is okay to ride the bike most anywhere and most anytime. However, her father makes it clear that she needs to be home "before dark" so she doesn't get hit by a car. The first few days there are no problems. The daughter comes home in enough time to satisfy the safety concerns of the father. However, one day the daughter comes home during that 'twilight' hour when the sun has set, but it is still light out. Her father is very upset, because to him, it was "too dark". An argument ensues about what it means to be "dark" and neither can agree on a definition. While this example deals with a child and bike riding, it very well could be a child doing chores, or a child doing homework or any other expectation parents may have of children. Had the father set a clear time for the child to be home by, this whole resentful interaction could have been avoided. 
Setting Clear Expectations
When having unstated expectations creates that resentment, it is important to set clear expectations to interrupt the cycle. A clear expectation is one that any outside observer would be able to understand. Usually, it is best to set clear time, place, and outcome definitions when making expectations clear. For instance, with the spousal example the husband could say, "While it would be fun to have a leisurely shopping trip with you I only have 15-30 minutes free that I can commit to. One way to make it quick so that I can go with you is to go to Old Navy for one pair of pants." The father could say, "I know you have fun with your friends on your bike, and sometimes lose track of time. To make sure you are home in time I want you to start coming home by 8:15pm regardless of how bright it is outside. If you are not home by 8:30pm you will not be able to ride your bike tomorrow." Both examples are clear and set time, place and outcome definitions. 

How do you think clarifying expectations will help your relationships?
Can you think of any other examples specific to parenting, where clear expectations might reduce the conflict?



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