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The following comes from Wallace Goddard’s new series, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. To see the previous article in the series, click here.
I remember riding in the car with a group of teens. One of the less popular members of the group blurted out, “Hey! Guess what happened to me today.”
I knew exactly what a civilized person would do. He would turn toward him and say: “What happened?”
But I didn’t want to say it. My grudging soul did not want to show any interest. I ignored him. The silence must have stung. No one cared what happened to him that day. My friend had invited us into his life and we had slammed the door in his face.
The same happens in our families. In the chaotic traffic of family life, we often honk and zoom past each other. We hardly even notice the people who matter most as we try to navigate our way toward our own goals.
I remember Haim Ginott telling a story about two parents and their daughter at a restaurant. The server came to take their order and asked the little girl what she wanted. “I want a hamburger.” The mother intervened: “She’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich.” The server asked the little girl, “What do you want on your burger?” The girl was startled and turned to her mother: “Mom! She thinks I’m real!” The server might not get a tip from the mother but she got gratitude from the child.
How does it feel when we are heard? How does it feel when we are taken seriously? How does it feel to connect in caring ways?
People are making bids for connection all the time. They are inviting us into their lives. They want to connect with us. Much of the time we fail to respond because we are busy or distracted. John Gottman calls this turning away.
Sometimes we do worse than turning away. Sometimes we turn against them and their bids for connection. Maybe a child asks for help with homework or a spouse asks for a minute of time. It is common for us to snap, “I don’t have time for that.” We may wonder how they could so thoughtlessly impose on our busy lives. Yet we fail to notice the real invitation: “You are important to me. I need your help. I hope I can count on you. Will you join me?”
Imagine a couple relaxing in a room overlooking a bay. The wife is enjoying the view and the husband is reading the paper. The wife, standing at the picture window, declares, “Oh! What a beautiful sailboat!” The husband may turn away—either ignoring her entirely or glancing and shaking his head. Or he may turn against her: “That sailboat is a piece of junk! What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know anything?!”
You know how those responses will impact the relationship. The wife is not very likely to trust or share with her husband when he responds indifferently or harshly. If she is often met with such a response, she may stop trying altogether.
As P. G. Wodehouse ironically said: “If a girl thinks you’re in love with her and says she will marry you, you can’t very well voice a preference for being dead in a ditch.” In a similar spirit, the husband who criticized his wife’s sailboat comment is essentially saying, “You’re stupid. I don’t like being with you.”
A better response requires that we be humans—that we recognize that the wife was almost surely not saying: “Based on years of observation, I would guess that that particular sailboat is in the top 20% of those I’ve seen.” No. She was saying something very different. Maybe she was saying, “It is so nice to have leisure time in a pretty place. I love the view. I love being with you.”
A human response requires that we look beyond the objective truth about sailboats and consider the message about relationships. Most things people say and do are invitations to connect.
Unfortunately, we often develop “a crabby habit of mind.” We respond to invitations to connect with criticism and complaint—especially with family members. We effectively belittle the person who has invited us into his or her life.
Turning toward someone sends a powerful and positive message. It says: “You’re important to me. I’m glad you’re in my life.”
Turning toward does not necessarily mean going along with. Many a time I have invited Nancy to go to Home Depot with me. She might well say, “Why would I go to Home Depot?” But she doesn’t say that. She is the kindest person I know. Even if she can’t go with me, she is likely to say something like, “Thank you for inviting me. I love going places with you. But this evening I am crazy busy. Will you invite me again next time you go?”
When people invite us into their lives, we should at least be gracious in our responses even if the response is to decline. Even a polite and heartfelt raincheck can convey care and affection. And many times we will find that we can join our loved ones in their lives—if we notice the invitations they offer us.
For more about bids for connection, read John Gottman’s Relationship Cure.
For helpful guides for a strong marriage, read my book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.
For ideas on responding to children helpfully, read my book, The Soft-Spoken Parent.