Addressing non-dealbreaker behavior in relationships
May 31, 2015 1:27 PM   Subscribe

I've had issues with being assertive about my needs in past relationships, and while I've gotten a lot better, I still have trouble deciding when and how it's best to bring up things that I don't like but are not dealbreakers. I'd like help thinking this through.

I am a woman who dates men. I don't think that I have particularly unreasonable standards, but I know that I have let so much go in past relationships that my needs were not met. I have no problem DTMFAing when called for. But, not every instance of my needs not being met is a DTMFA situation, and I struggle with how to best approach these situations.

Part of me thinks that I should accept partners the way that they are and not try to change them- just take my ball and go home if it's not working for me. The other part thinks that that's too extreme and I should at least give people a chance to adjust or I will be constantly dumpng people. I also value articulating my needs to my partner. I know that I can make requests without it meaning that I am trying to change my partner, and it is up to them whether they adjust.

As a woman, I feel the gender socialization push towards adjusting around men's needs rather than asking them to adjust around mine, thinking that my needs are too much, and feeling as if asserting my needs will be interpreted as demanding. I find it particularly difficult to be assertive about my needs when a relationship is new, as I feel reluctant to rock the boat and I'm not sure that behavior that I don't like will repeat itself. However, by the time it's happened enough to be a problem, I've let it slide so much that it's even harder to bring up.

I don't want the responses to get stuck on a particular example, here's one in case it helps (DISCLAIMER: I am not looking for advice about this particular relationship, whether or not he's worth my time, or how to prevent canceled plans- this is only an example): A person I am casually seeing initiated a Skype date and then never responded after he told me he'd be ready in 10 minutes- I'm almost certain that he unintentionally fell asleep. I was disappointed that it didn't happen and that I didn't get an explicit cancellation. This is the second time that a date has fallen through with him (although the first time was for different reasons). On one hand, I feel as if I shouldn't let myself get so invested in plans that I get let down when they don't happen, and that I shouldn't be frustrated given that I get why he no showed. On the other hand, I want to make sure that I've been clear that I need more follow through with plans, should this relationship move forward.

tl;dr- I'm wondering how others think through:
  • the timing of addressing behavior you don't like (e.g., first time it happens vs. only when a pattern has been established)
  • the types of things they you something about (where on the spectrum between every little thing you don't like and dealbreakers only)
  • your approach to saying something (e.g., express your needs or how you felt about what happened vs. making a direct request for behavior change).
posted by deus ex machina to Human Relations (7 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should address things when they first happen. I mean, don't treat everything that happens as some Great Sign of a Potential Problem, but there's no reason to pretend that you weren't bothered by him flaking on your skype date 10 minutes after he said that he'd be calling you either.

So for this particular example, the next time you talk to him I'd ask what was up and let him know that it wasn't a great feeling to be sitting around waiting and get no call. Then if it ever happens again you can say, "hey, this is the second time you've flaked on me and that's really not cool." And if it happened again after THAT then you've got a pattern that may or may not enter deal breaker territory for you. But either way, you won't be blindsiding him by going from (seemingly) zero to really upset with something he didn't know was a problem.
posted by MsMolly at 1:59 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound like this incident has been brought up so I'm not sure how you ascertain that he fell sleep or what happened, which is really what you need to do. Don't stew on it, the next time you speak or see each other, just lightly ask him what happened the other night, you thought you were going to chat - assuming he doesn't raise it first. It doesn't have to be a big deal.

He will either apologise or tell you what went on and then I would just say something like, hey, if it was too late for you, maybe next time we organise to talk earlier. That way you're suggesting a change that rectifies the situation that works for both of you, without vilifying him for something fairly innocuous. If it becomes a pattern and you think he's just flaking on you, that's another thing altogether but for minor incidents this early on, the fact that you're raising it with him says that it's an issue (albeit minor) without specifically saying 'this is what I need to see from you.' Most people can read between the lines.

If he keeps doing things like this and never even mentions it after the fact and doesn't care that he's disappointing you, that's worth DTMFA over but right now, you're kind of guessing what went on and until you ask, you'll never know.
posted by Jubey at 2:02 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

In my experience, the more open communication in a relationship, the better that relationship will be. Also as a rule of thumb, if your potential partner reacts extrememly negatively (or negatively to any large extent really) to attempts at addressing distressing behaviors, that's a red-flag and you should really reconsider the maturity of your partner and whether you want to be with someone who can't communicate (hint: you don't). That said, communication and addressing issues is a two-way street. You have to consider your partner's perspective and reasons for behaving the way they have, and be prepared for criticism (not putdowns or insults) yourself. People make mistakes and deserve second chances for minor things/annoyances. Communicating explicitlywhat the annoying behavior is and that it distresses you is a prerquisite for change, so you always need to bring an issue up before expecting change. You should, however, be extremely wary and unaccepting of abusive behaviors.

More to the specific point of timing, type, and method:

I would recommend timing as soon as possible while meeting the ability to be:

comfortable with the environment (in private)

Basically address it soon so it doesn't fester, but wait until you can not yell etc.

Type of things to address are things that will grow into relationship strains if they continue. Little quirks like, say, elbows on the table while eating or something might be things to overlook as no big deal, but constantly being late to dates or not letting you know ahead of time that they can't make it sound like things that will strain the relationship. But really, it's up to you, very personal, and again a two-way-street.

Method: speak calmly, explicitly, and frankly, listen as well as talk, and explain the reasons behind your criticisms ("I don't like that, please stop" isn't as good as "I don't like that because it makes me feel x, y, and z, and I feel it is a reasonable request because a, b, c") of course in more informal language than that.
posted by hypercomplexsimplicity at 2:15 PM on May 31, 2015 [11 favorites]

It took me FOREVER to learn this, but 95% of the time, it really is best to bring things up when they happen. Not as a Big Deal, but just to let the other person know it bothered you. Because not everyone is bothered by the same things. And other people are not going to necessarily know what bothers you if you don't tell them.

And don't worry about what you should or shouldn't be bothered by. Like, in your example, I don't think it shows you were "overly invested" in the conversation - I hate it when people bail on plans because it seems inconsiderate and disrespectful. You're allowed to have preferences. Now, that doesn't guarantee that other people will abide by those preferences, but you can at least give them the chance to try to.
posted by lunasol at 4:31 PM on May 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

With something like the Skype date, in my opinion Jubey is right that you need to find what happened. I would ask and then say, "Another time, I'd appreciate it if you would let me know..." Or something like that, more in terms of asking a favor or expressing my preferences than in terms of saying they did something wrong.

I'm wondering how others think through:
the timing of addressing behavior you don't like (e.g., first time it happens vs. only when a pattern has been established)
the types of things they you something about (where on the spectrum between every little thing you don't like and dealbreakers only)
your approach to saying something (e.g., express your needs or how you felt about what happened vs. making a direct request for behavior change).

For me personally, it boils down to that question of "What do you hope to accomplish in this situation?" With me, it takes a while for the penny to drop about a lot of things, so it would come up at a time when it happens, but usually the second or third time. I remember noticing that a guy liked to have three or four phone calls before every date, during which plans would progressively get firmer. I found this too complicated so when he did it, I would say, "Can we just settle on a time now?" This didn't always work perfectly, because our preferences simply differed in that regard, but it did cut down on the number of calls some. It didn't cause any problems in the relationship either. So, to me, that would be the kind of thing that's worth addressing: where you can ask that things be done in a different way and where it would really make a difference to you. In other words, what they are doing is wasting time or complicating your life and you feel it could easily be changed without anyone getting emotional.

If it's something that causes you to question the other person's character, that is a whole different ballpark and mostly I don't think it's worth mentioning. Better to just let the person go. If someone is mean to servers in restaurants or whatever, you may be doing them a favor by letting them know what you think but you probably can't change anything.
posted by BibiRose at 5:08 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

A person I am casually seeing initiated a Skype date and then never responded after he told me he'd be ready in 10 minutes- I'm almost certain that he unintentionally fell asleep.

This must trip alarm bells for you! Shouldn't bare minimum threshold criteria of someone you want to date be at least they are excited enough about you to remain conscious for a few minutes to set the meeting time? That really isn't "behavior" that you can address at all.
posted by incolorinred at 7:37 PM on May 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is an interesting question. I think it's something more people should give thought to. Most of us could probably stand to improve how we communicate on these issues.

Here is some of my approach, and I don't claim to have mastered this skill.

I agree with hypercomplexsimplicity that timing depends on whether you can communicate well in that moment. I find for myself that sometimes I snap about things and it's not because the behavior was particularly frustrating, it'll be because I was upset about something else (overly tired, hormonal, stressed, whatever). If I realize before it comes out of my mouth that that is the case, I'll reconsider in a cooler moment and a lot of times I'm not even mad about it anymore. If it is still a problem I'll compose something more rational and balanced to say about it in my head. "Hey, you know how earlier we were talking, and you kept playing video games during the conversation? It made me feel like you weren't taking me seriously, and it kind of hurt my feelings. I'm over it now, but next time we're trying to talk about something serious, I would appreciate it if we can have the talk without distractions."

Using the example that you gave, I wouldn't have said anything about it after the first time, because it sounds like it was unclear why the date fell through. Generally, if you like the person and think they are to be trusted and so forth, I would give them the benefit of the doubt if they screw up once or maybe even twice. There are a lot of reasons why people may do things, especially in early parts of the relationship, that are quite understandable if you know the details, or are actually an aberration from the norm. I mean, to counter what incolorinred says, there are times when I'm hanging out on the computer in bed and my eyes start closing and I can't stay awake for the life of me - because I do shift work and am chronically sleep deprived.

In any case, I would save the most minor stuff for when you're either living together or married. At this point I've mentioned almost everything that bothers me at all to my husband in the hopes that he might change it (only reason I wouldn't do this is if there's something about their body that might make them self conscious, or if you know it's a sensitive issue for another reason like childhood abuse or a prior traumatic experience or something). Everything down to him leaving the water running while brushing his teeth, or the way he occasionally repeats a favorite quote that I don't like. If it's in between 'serious offense I'm upset about and need to think about/discuss when I'm cooled off' and 'very minor offense that I don't ever need to mention unless we're going to be life partners' then I would bring it up at that moment or soon afterwards. Except if it's about sex. I would never bring up issues about sex during or immediately afterwards.

As for the approach, if it's something pretty small, I'd probably make a joke out of it or mention it lightly. "Hey, please don't throw away my food from the fridge. You know I'm a pack rat/food hoarder and I will eat anything that doesn't physically walk away from me." If there's something more concerning about it, like it's a personality problem, an ethics problem, or a communication problem, I'll get more serious. Oftentimes I will ask for specific time to have a relationship conversation to indicate the level of concern. If I ask for relationship conversation time, I try hard not to make it a nagging session or venting anger/making accusations, because I want us to be able to communicate openly and being hostile or whiny will discourage that. So I'll open and close with something positive, and put "I-statements" in between. "Spouse, I love you very much and I appreciate everything you do to keep our household running. I know that you, and probably most normal people, don't want to have food in the fridge that you feel has gone bad. But I've talked to you before about not throwing out my food from the fridge before asking me, because I know our standards are different in this area. I get frustrated when I go to the fridge looking for something I intended to eat and it's not there, and I see something that to me is 'perfectly good' sitting in the trash. Moreover, it's not just about the issue of throwing away food, it's that this is a pattern, you know it upset me, and yet I'm finding my food in the trash yet again. It makes me feel ignored and like you don't think my feelings are important. Can you tell me what's getting in the way of changing this situation? It's great that you're trying to keep the fridge clean, let's figure out how we can coexist with a shared fridge." (This example is based on a true story! We compromised by him giving me a deadline by which I need to eat stuff in the fridge before he throws it away).

Long winded answer, but I hope at least on some level that is helpful.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:14 PM on May 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

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