Dealing with Conflict Over Typical Home Neatness/Cleanliness Issues: The Houzz Interview and Some Other Thoughts

I was recently interviewed for the site Houzz, which is a web site and online community about architecture, interior design and decorating, landscape design and home improvement. In an article, A Therapist’s Guide to Dealing With Conflict at HomeI was interviewed by Mitchell Parker, a writer for Houzz.

He asked me to comment on that age-old problem when people live together of neatness/sloppiness and cleanliness/messiness. How can people get along?

I suggest you read his article which really quite nicely captures my thinking about these issues. In a nutshell, it’s all about communication. It’s not the dirty dishes that create conflict, it’s the failure to communicate about the dirty dishes in ways that resolve the problem.

Most importantly, I discussed the fallacy of the moral high ground in neatness and cleanliness. I admit I might be a bit biased on this issue, living closer to the moral low ground, but the argument is that there is no moral high ground in terms of these issues. Because our culture often values neatness and cleanliness, in arguments the neat person always takes the moral high ground, “I am the one who’s right therefore you should change.” Needless to say this doesn’t usually result in any positive progress on the issue.

I prefer to think of these issues as aesthetic preferences. Just as one person might prefer abstract art on the wall, while another person might prefer realistic paintings, messiness versus neatness is really an aesthetic preference. Handling it this way usually leads to better outcomes in conflicts over these issues. If two people come at the neat/messy conflict from a position of having differing preferences as opposed to “shoulds”, it is more likely that they can come to some sort of negotiated compromise which will be workable.

And treating these differences as preferences has another advantage as well. It usually leads to much more respectful communication about these issues. If a neat person recognizes that their need for neatness is simply a preference, they will not demonize their partner who is messy, calling them a “slob” or a “pig”. In a similar way, if the messy person recognizes that their disorder is a preference, they won’t label their partner as obsessive or a “neat freak.” This makes it much easier to discuss the differences.

The key issue is to apply a sort of flowchart to these issues. The flowchart looks like this:

1.Identify what each of you wants in terms of your home environment. Recognize that these are aesthetic preferences, and not moral shoulds.

2.Identify the ideal state that you would prefer, and also identify a less than ideal but okay state. It’s the latter that you will most likely end up with.

3. Discuss the differences, and see if there is a workable compromise. Sometimes the compromise will not be a simple meeting in the middle, but will instead involve a trade-off. For instance, if one person prefers an impeccably clean house, but the other person is not willing to spend the time and effort to do this, the couple could agree that they will hire someone to come in weekly to clean the house. Or the neater person might clean the house, but the other person agrees to do other life maintenance tasks such as paying the bills, parenting tasks, gardening tasks, or house maintenance tasks. Things don’t have to be perfectly split down the middle, it’s just important that they feel fair.

4. In looking at these differences it’s also useful to see what people are able to do, and what they are willing to do. Willingness and being able to do something are completely different things. As hard as it is to believe, (for the neat person), many messy people actually do not have the ability to be ordered and neat. This seems hard to believe. After all, can’t anybody fold their clothing and put it away? Can’t anybody put a dish in the dishwasher? And of course the answer is yes, technically, but in practice, especially over time, many people lack the skills.

Think of it this way. Technically anybody should be able to exercise every single day of their life and also eat healthy. We all know how to eat healthy and how to exercise. But how many people actually succeed on a daily basis? Very few. We are willing but not very able.

5. Which brings me to my next issue that of willingness. Even if we are technically able to do something, we might not always be willing to spend the time and energy doing it. Time and energy are a zero-sum game. We only have 16 hours of conscious time each day, and actually most of us have far fewer free hours, with work, parenting, relaxation, and other priorities.

Cleaning and organizing takes time and energy, and while some people feel the time and energy is well rewarded others do not. In my interview, I suggested a market-based way of assessing willingness. Although I was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I suggested that if one partner wants the other to do something they offer to pay them. If I want my partner to wash the dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, what am I willing to pay on a daily basis? And what price would they require to be willing to do this?

This is more of a mental exercise than an actual exchange of dollars. But I know for myself if my partner asked me what it would be worth for me to keep every surface in my home perfectly cleared every single day, I would set the price very high, something like $500 a day. That is because it would take a lot of conscious work in order to keep every surface clear. And it would take perhaps an hour or two every day. My price represents my perceived value for the change.

And then my partner could decide if that was worth it. After all, we make these kinds of evaluations all the time. If our not so new car gets scratched in a parking lot, most of us choose not to spend a lot of money to have it fixed. We accept the scratches and live with them.

6. What it comes down to is very simple. If you want your partner to change some house related behavior, first try to assess their ability and willingness to do so. If they are able and willing then you can try to get them to change their behavior. This will require ongoing discussions and work, and will not be easy.

Or you can outsource the problem. If you don’t like cleaning toilets and you can’t get your partner to do that, pay someone to clean your toilets. Most of us do this in other realms without any issues. We pay car mechanics to fix our cars, we pay gardeners to cut down our trees, and we often pay tutors to help our kids learn.

Finally, you can accept the difference. Acceptance is probably the most powerful tool in dealing with these conflicts. Acceptance frees you to stop wasting energy being angry or trying to change your partner. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it frustrates you and annoys the pig.”

I started this post thinking I would just point to the interview that I did on house, but discovered that I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts that I discussed during that interview.

Good luck to all of you, these can be difficult issues, and the key thing is to remember to be gentle, loving, and respectful in your communications about these differences. Nobody gets divorced over dishes in the sink, they get divorced because of the way they interact around dishes in the sink.

I’m off to straighten up, or maybe not?

 

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

12 Techniques for Giving Criticism and Feedback so that People Can Hear It without Getting Defensive

I was recently asked a very interesting question by one of my clients. He asked, “What percentage of people can listen to feedback and criticism without getting defensive?” I responded, not really in jest, “Only the people that have taken my non-defensiveness training!”

The reality is that most people instantly get defensive when criticized or even given mildly negative feedback. Regular readers will recall that I’ve written extensively about how to respond non-defensively: see “Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill.”

But I also wanted to write about the other side of the equation – some techniques for giving feedback and criticism that lower the probability of the other person feeling hurt or getting defensive.

Here are 12 great concepts in giving feedback and criticism.

1. Focus on behavior and not on the person. Never label the person with a pejorative label. Avoid words like “inconsiderate”, “jerk”, “slob”, “lazy”, and all other negative label words especially four letter words.

2. Be specific and concrete when you focus on behavior. Use the journalistic technique of who, what, when, where, and if appropriate, why when you describe a behavior. For instance, consider this feedback from a wife to her husband: “An hour ago, when we were talking to Herb and Lucille, in their garden, you told them about my getting fired from my job. This upset me because I have a lot of shame right now about getting fired.” Notice that this feedback includes all of the specific descriptors.

3. Whenever possible, tell the person what you want instead of what you don’t want. So instead of criticizing your partner for sitting on the couch while you clean the kitchen, instead ask them to help you clean the kitchen. If there is a specific behavior that you would like the person to stop, it’s okay to ask them to stop but usually better to also specify something else that you would prefer. Example: “I’d really like it if you wouldn’t scream at the children. Could you instead talk firmly to them? I’d really appreciate that.”

4. Recognize what people can change and cannot change, and how difficult a specific behavior will be for them to change. This is a difficult lesson, and one that most of us resist. But it’s terribly important.

I’m reminded of the famous parable of the frog and the scorpion. In the story, a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I’ll drown, and I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the sting, knows he is dying, and has just enough time to gasp “Why did you sting me, now we both will die?” Replies the scorpion: “Because I am a scorpion, it’s my nature…”

Another similar saying is, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it will frustrate you and annoy the pig.”

Some things people can change and others are more linked to their basic character and nature, and are extremely difficult if not impossible to change. There is also the issue of what people are willing to invest energy in changing.

Here are some criteria for determining whether a particular criticism even make sense.

  • Has the person had a specific behavior for most of their life? If so, what makes you think it will suddenly change?
  • Is the person genuinely interested in making the desired change? Is it within their value system to change? People can change the things that they strongly wish to change, but if they’re only changing because you asked them to, they will most likely fail.
  • How much energy would it take for the person to change the behavior? Something that takes very little energy is more likely to happen than a request which will take herculean amounts of energy.
  • Is changing this particular behavior the most important thing for you or might there be a different behavior that would yield more satisfaction for you?
  • Does the person have shame attached to the behavior you are criticizing? If so, you should carefully consider whether the criticism is worth the pain you will most likely cause.

The idea here is to avoid asking the scorpion not to sting. If someone’s been messy and disorganized for their whole life, it’s probably not reasonable to ask them to become neat and organized. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t make any requests, but a more reasonable request might be to ask the messy person to keep their mess within a specific room or rooms, and then close the door.

Always evaluate if it’s even worth giving criticism. Remember, criticism is fairly toxic to relationships. Women sometimes criticize men in the hopes that the men will change. Nobody really changes. If you feel a need to criticize your partner constantly than the problem is probably with you and your lack of tolerance and acceptance. Or maybe you need to re-evaluate whether the relationship makes sense to continue.

5. Avoid giving feedback or criticism when you are particularly angry. Very few of us have the skills to give gentle and reasonable criticism when we are really frustrated and angry. If you give criticism when you are pissed off, you will blow it. You won’t be able to follow any of the rules in this article. Your primary goal will be to hurt the other person, which never works out well.

6. Pick your time and place carefully. This should include assessing your partner’s state of mind. If they are hungry, angry, stressed out, or tired then defer your criticism for later. It will never go well if you’re not attentive to time and place and state of mind. And remember, sometimes the right time and place is never and nowhere.

7. Ask for change, don’t demand change. Most of us get really stubborn when someone demands that we change. Besides, who made you the boss?

8. Avoid spending any significant time discussing the past. Mistakes made in the past are over and done with unless you own a time machine. Giving multiple examples of past mistakes will only overwhelm the person and make them defensive. Give only one example at most. Better yet, use an example from the current time. Assume your partner isn’t stupid and can understand the specific behavior you’re asking them to change.

9. Once you’ve asked for a change don’t micromanage that change. Let the person figure out how to do it, and don’t stand over them or constantly monitor them.

10. Be very specific about your feedback and the desired outcome. Your requested outcome should be so clear to the other person that anyone would be able to determine whether the outcome had occurred or not. Use the journalistic model of who, what, when, where, and why. Use accurate language, and avoid extremes of “never” or “always”. Don’t ask your partner to never again throw their clothing on the floor. Instead, specify that you would like it to happen less frequently.

11. Use a soft start up. Give a compliment first and be gentle in the feedback you give. Point out (if true) how the criticized behavior is a departure from the person’s usual terrific behavior. This is a way of giving a compliment while giving criticism. Example: “You are usually so helpful in the kitchen. But last night you left all of the dirty dishes. I’d really appreciate if you’d clean them up this morning.”

12. Never threaten your partner or deliver ultimatums. Even if you are at the end of your rope never threaten the termination of the relationship. When people hear an ultimatum they shut off. Also it triggers resistance since none of us like to be blackmailed into action.

Also, you can only make an ultimatum once. If you make it more than once you lose all credibility. So just avoid them entirely. (Notice this applies to parenting children as well.)

So there you have 12 great techniques for giving feedback and criticism in a healthy way. Remember that it’s essential to balance criticism with lots and lots of compliments and showing appreciation. Good relationships typically have at least a 5 to 1 ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback. If your relationship has a lower ratio than this then it’s time to change. Catch your partner doing things that you like and appreciate, and let them know in a warm and genuine way. This is perhaps the most important secret of giving criticism – let it be in the context of lots of praise.

Now I have to go tell my sweetie that she is awesome!

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Is “Married Sex” an Oxymoron? (and Other Myths of Sexuality)

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about sex. (That sounds bad, doesn’t it?)

It’s not what you think. My own life in that respect is just fine, thank you! But in the couples counseling work I do, sex is a big deal. Most of the couples I work with are married, and most of them are not having much sex. Some are not having any sex. Is “married sex” an oxymoron? And why?

It is remarkable how easy it is for couples to get out of the habit of having sex. As part of my general screening/evaluation interview with new couples, I always ask, “When was the last time you two had sex?” I’m often stunned when they can’t remember, not because they are suffering memory impairment, but rather because it has been that long. It’s not uncommon that it has been more than a year, or even more than several years.

What’s surprising is that most of the couples I see are not coming to therapy for help with sexual issues. You could argue that I don’t see a representative sample of couples, and I would agree. But even amongst my friends who are married, sex is a relatively rare phenomenon.

Recently the New York Times had an interesting article called “Yes Dear. Tonight. Again” about two couples who faced a similar sexual drought in their marriages, and who had an unusual response. One couple, the Muller’s, decided to have sex 365 days in a row. The other couple, the Brown’s, went for the more reasonable 101 days (or nights). The Muller’s book is called “365 Nights”, and the Brown’s book title borrows from the famous Nike line; “Just Do It.”

I haven’t read either book. What I found interesting was that both couples reported that their overall relationship improved by having more sex. It turns out that there is a high correlation between marital satisfaction and the frequency of sex. No one really knows if more sex makes people happier, or happier couples have more sex, or both.But the couples who wrote these books add a data point to the notion that more sex makes people happier.

How often do married people have sex anyway? From the Times article: “According to a 2004 study, “American Sexual Behavior,” by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, married couples have intercourse about 66 times a year. But that number is skewed by young marrieds, as young as 18, who couple, on average, 109 times a year.” So the youngest of couples are having sex about twice a week. And older couples are having sex quite a bit less, perhaps less than once a week. And some couples are having much less sex, such that they could count the number of times per year on two hands, without using toes!

So let’s assume that the causal relationship works in both directions—happy couples want to have more sex, and more sex makes couples happier. What can we do about this? Helping couples to be happier is outside the scope of this article, and is something that often takes couples therapy. But what about the other side of the equation, that of having more sex?

First of all, we need to consider some myths of sexuality. The first myth is that sex shouldn’t be planned and scheduled. I don’t know where people get this idea, because we plan and schedule everything else good in our life. We buy concert tickets months in advance, we make reservations at good restaurants, we plan to attend our children’s school play. We plan to go to work each day.

Imagine if we applied the same model to daily life as we use with sex: “You know, honey, I just don’t feel like driving the kids to school today. I ate too much as breakfast, and I kinda feel fat, and getting behind the wheel will make me feel bad.” “Yeah, I don’t really feel like going to work today. I’m a little tired. I think I’ll just stay home in bed and sleep all day.”

This is what I call the Myth of Spontaneity. We wait for the sun and the stars and the moon to line up for both people in the couple, and then and only then can we consider sex. If anything else then gets in the way like kids or telephone or dogs, forget it. Waiting for everything to be ideal for two people greatly lowers the odds of having sex at all.

Instead, I suggest that couples make sex dates. (Or call them pleasure dates.) Sit down and talk about how much sex you would like to be having. What’s the optimal frequency for each of you? Compromise if you have different answers. Then pull out your calendars, and figure out times when you can plan to have sex. Consider other distractions like children, pets, jobs, etc. Every couple should be able to find at least one time a week where they have some time and some privacy to get intimate.

Then make it happen. As the Browns would say, Just Do it! No excuses. If you find there is always something getting in the way, consider what the issues are. Are there other resentments that are being expressed sexually? Are there sexual issues that need to be talked about and worked on? Are there issues of appearance or hygiene that can be addressed? Sit down and talk about what’s getting in the way, and if you can’t do it alone, then see a therapist to help talk it out.

Another myth is what I call One Size Fits All. This means that couples often think of having sex in terms of a standard sexual script; a little foreplay, maybe a little oral sex, a few minutes of intercourse, and off to sleep afterwards. It is a full course meal or nothing at all. The antidote for this myth is to have a varied repertoire of sexual activities you both enjoy. Perhaps sometimes it is okay to have a quick snack, instead of the full meal, so to speak. If one person is tired, and one is feeling more amorous, maybe the tired person can be pleasured by the amorous one. Again, it helps to talk over these options. What do each of you like to do when you are not that sexually energetic? And sexy cuddling is okay too. Maybe you fool around a little, skin to skin, and no one orgasms, and that’s fine too.

Still another myth is what I call Not Tonight Dear. This is the idea that it’s fine to turn down sex whenever you don’t really feel like it, since after all, you wouldn’t want to have sex if you don’t feel like it. The problems with this belief are multiple. First of all, most people are very sensitive about being rejected sexually. A “not tonight dear” crushes them. And then they are less likely to initiate the next time. Second, if both people say “no” often, it dramatically lowers the chances that the couple will ever have sex. And both people will decrease how often they initiate, further lowering the probability of successful sexual connecting.

What is the antidote? First of all, try to limit saying “no” to the extreme examples. If you are having a massive migraine headache, food poisoning, or something similar, I think it is fine to say no. The “no” response should be rare, less than once in ten times. In the Brown’s book “Just Do It” there is a story of one time that the husband was having a vertigo episode, but they still had sex!

Second, it is okay to say yes in a limited way. For instance, let’s imagine you don’t feel very turned on. I think it is okay to say something like, “You know, I’m not feeling very sexual right now, but I’m willing to play a little and see if that changes. Is that okay with you?”

Finally if you really do need to say no, then offer a specific alternative time and place. For example, “I’m really tired tonight, honey, and I’d really rather make love tomorrow morning, is that okay?”And be affectionate and loving when you say it.

So let’s review. If you want to make sure that “married sex” is not an oxymoron in your life, then follow these guidelines:

1.Plan to have sex. Make dates to have sex, and keep the dates. Decide on your sexual goals, and then figure out the best times to schedule your “pleasure dates”.

2.Be flexible about the kinds of sexual encounters you can have. Sample from a varied menu of sexual options, and don’t be all or nothing about sex. Even sexy cuddling can be a type of sex, and is better than nothing. Not all sex needs to result in orgasm for both or even one partner.

3.Avoid turning down sex more than infrequently. To paraphrase the Brown couple, Just Say Yes. This lowers the probability of hurt in the bedroom, and keeps both partners willing to initiate because they know that rejection is infrequent.

4.Talk about your sex life, what works, and what doesn’t work. This is the only way you can improve things. And if you are too shy or inhibited to talk about it on your own, see a good couples or sex therapist, who can facilitate this dialogue.

And having said all that, now I have to go, as I have a scheduled date with my sweetie!

(Fade to black…)

Copyright © 2008 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

 

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.