Cally was rushing. She was making something that had to get put in the oven in just 15 min in order to come out on time for her to dash off to do carpool. Hopefully, the baby wouldn’t mind being awakened from her nap at that point. Her days—and nights—were always like that: rushing from one task to another with little time to think, prepare or, it seemed, breathe.
What Dismissive Behavior Looks Like
Just then the phone rang. She had to take it. It was Tim, her husband. His voice was deep and strong, a voice she had once thrilled to hear. But lately it had a coolness to it that set off a wave of anxiety. He was calling from work, a place that made her hectic life seem tame. In spite of that, he never lost control. He seemed to float above the anxiety.
One of the tricks he used to survive was to delegate. And he never shied away from delegating to Cally. “Cally,” he said, without a “Hi” or a “How are you?” “I need you to look up something for me on my computer. It’s information that I would not put in my work computer; it’s sensitive. But I need it now, okay?”
Cally couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong with his request, but it was as if a scaffolding collapsed raining down concrete and sheetrock. Cally couldn’t say why she felt that way and she just breathed a sigh, telling him she needed to get dinner into the oven right now so that Jason would have it when she got him home from school.
Even as she was speaking, she could hear his response in her mind: “I make the money that pays your bills with my work, and you won’t cooperate?” with his deep, intense voice, growing a shade colder if possible.
“Screw the dinner,” she thought, and took down Tim’s directions for getting the information he needed. When she was done, it was time to wake the baby and leave. The food sat on the counter. Tim would later look at her with that superior look and ask why she hadn’t started on it earlier. There would be no point in explaining that the baby was fussy and she couldn’t put her down when she had planned to; he would just say she was spoiling her. It was always her lack of planning, her lack of discipline, her lack of cooperating. Her! Her! Her!
She knew this wasn’t the case, but he seemed so rational, so sure of his points that she honestly was left without words. Cally was so depressed, she was thinking of getting a prescription for something.
Cally doesn’t need a prescription. Cally needs to learn how to not get taken advantage of, how to be assertive. Otherwise, the marriage is in danger of drying up: Cally will feel more and more rejected and will eventually have an affair or request a divorce. Assertivenss, on the other hand, can literally save the marriage.
Like Socrates Said, Know Yourself
Here are some things that bothered Cally on a subconscious level:
- The first thing that made her uncomfortable was the fact that he didn’t say, “Hi” or “How are you?” Even though these things seem trivial, they’re not. They’re all about the equality of the relationship and what Cally means to her husband. The message he is giving her is that her only purpose in his life is to be his glorified secretary. Had he inquired about her, that would have elevated her to his equal in his own eyes.
- The second thing that made her uncomfortable was that his request had no apology in it for breaking into her day, no question as to whether this time was convenient. This again put him on a level above her.
- The third thing that made her uncomfortable is that he said, “I need” and there was no “please.” Ditto what I said above.
- The fourth thing—and not necessarily in that order—that bothered Cally was his cold tone of voice. Why would he be cold? Okay, he was involved with work, but now he has taken a break from work to call home; where were his feelings for her?
- Finally, when Cally objected with her own concerns, the fifth thing that made her uncomfortable was Tim’s lack of valuing of her work and how she spends her time. Only the earning of money counts. So the raising of children doesn’t? Getting dinner ready for a schoolchild coming home hungry at the end of a long day doesn’t? Not only didn’t he express anything to indicate this awareness but he didn’t move from his position when she explained it to him. To Tim, in the contest between dinner and sensitive information for his work, there was no contest.
Of course, if Cally were consciously unaware of any of these things, you can’t expect Tim to be aware of them either. He was acting from habit and she was reacting from habit.
Cally needs to know exactly what to say to Tim to put a stop to this. With a few simple but assertive sentences, she can turn this awful situation around. Here are some guidelines:
She needs to sit down with Tim when neither one of them is rushing somewhere or doing something. If time doesn’t come up for that, she needs to make an appointment to talk.
Assertive Secret #1
She needs to make a request before telling him how she feels. Her request can be as simple as, “When you are very busy and you need some information or task from me, I’d like you to say ‘Hi, how are you?’ when you call. And you have to have a smile in your voice. Okay?”
Assertive Secret #2
Many therapists advocate telling Tim how she feels. That’s a bad idea. Tim can’t relate to feelings. He will be annoyed by the whole thing and confused, too. It will not give him the information he needs in order to know just what he should be doing. He will feel that Cally’s focus on feelings is proof that she is out of touch with what’s important—namely, making a living!
The formula above, on the other hand, is elegantly simple and Tim can’t claim that it takes up too much time or thought. It’s so simple that he has no room to wiggle out of it. Now, it is true that it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of his not being aware of her as a person or of his not seeing her as his equal. More about that in upcoming posts.
Even more important is the fact that once Tim gets in the habit of addressing Cally as a person, he will start to see her as a person. Yes, sometimes the right attitude comes after behavior change.