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The Teachable Moment

Marriage is nothing if not an on-going series of negotiations, compromises and the occasional agreement to disagree. It’s no secret that marriages that aren’t moving forward are slowly dying, which means both partners have to wear the simultaneous hats of mentor and supplicant, both with equal vulnerability and love. When someone you love is in a bit of a funk, if they’re demonstrating a testy inner child and an agenda from another planet, the line between right and wrong for both of you can easily blur. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to you is to be justified in your need to call your partner on the carpet, to dress them down and set them straight before they go too far. Because righteousness is not an effective means to an end that seeks behavior modification. If you don’t handle this just right, if your timing is off, even a little, you might find your oh-so-valid observation and critical analysis punted back into your end zone with an emphasis that only makes the problem worse. The smart money waits until the adrenalin rush subsides and the conversation stands a chance.

Then you can let him, or her, have it with both barrels.

Let’s say he’s driving along and someone cuts him off, prompting a sign of his displeasure with the extension of a certain middle digit. His cheeks are red, his grip on the wheel void of blood beneath the skin. Know this: everything you want to say in this moment is justified. He’s absolutely off the mark here, dead wrong. In fact he’s being a jerk. Reversing the gender of the example for a moment, maybe she pouts for the whole evening because you forgot to comment on the new bag that you didn’t know was new, and you’re about to remind her that men can’t read minds and that you haven’t inventoried her closet lately. Both responses are, in the moment – and that’s the critical element here, in the moment – ineffective and unwelcome. Because instead of pulling them up and out of the emotional pit, you’ve dived in after them, destined to wallow together in the muck of ego and defensive instinct. You’ve just wasted your breath. And worse, you’ve just soured the day because of the truth: they were wrong and you were right, and you called it to their attention in the moment.

It rarely works like you thought it would.

Patience is the more prudent strategy in situations like these, because you don’t stand a chance of being heard in the heated moments of emotional passion. Adrenaline subsides, and when it does the offender will still be dead wrong and you’ll still be on the money with whatever feedback you have to give. So wait it out. Let that finger flap in the wind, tolerate the silent treatment – knowing smirks are strictly forbidden in these circumstances – and pick a better moment to pounce. Because pouncing in the moment will be perceived as kicking them when they’re down, as you not being on their team, even when that team is getting trounced. If you time it right – which usually means later – your feedback will be accepted and held up as much appreciated wisdom. You will be someone who cares instead of someone who criticizes too quickly, and there’ll be no price to pay for your willingness to express your opinion.

The bottom line is this: when criticism is designed to express your emotional response to a moment, it’s less effective than criticism designed to help your partner better cope with situations through a more positive and productive response to it. And rest assured they aren’t open to that feedback while their pulse is racing. The moment of anger is rarely about you, but you make it so when you pounce on it. Let the situation cool down so you can touch it without getting burned.

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