Different habits

I was raised to value my independence, my boyfriend to rely on his family's advice -- and now our opposing styles are clashing.

By Cary Tennis

Published September 9, 2003 7:43PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I were both raised in wonderful, supportive families that we are still close to. However, the style of support each of our families offered was very different, and that seems to be at the root of our major problem today.

I came from a family that valued independence and self-sufficiency. When I had a problem, I was left to work it out for myself if possible, and only if I came to ask for help would my mother offer it. This was fine with me, and whether it was the cause or effect of my mile-wide independent streak, it has led to an extreme dislike on my part of unsolicited advice.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, was raised in a family that was constantly double-checking each other. Though this sounds smothering to me, I do feel that their intent was to be helpful and provide a constant source of information and ideas. Questions such as "Have you tried it this way?" "Did you think about this?" are frequently exchanged.

As adults, each of us has adopted the habits of our respective families. When I have a problem, I feel it's my problem until I actively seek advice. When my boyfriend offers suggestions, which I sometimes feel he does constantly (though really this isn't true), I feel defensive and angry. I interpret this behavior as arrogant on his part and condescending toward me, and no matter how hard I try I can't seem to shake off this reflexive reaction.

This is the only major issue in an otherwise wonderful and healthy relationship of a year and a half, but it seems to touch everything and comes up around once a week. I want to find a way to work through or around this problem before it becomes a much bigger deal than it should be. Normally I would seek the help of a relationship counselor, but we're living overseas at the moment in a place where such services aren't available.

Advised and Annoyed

Dear Advised,

You're going to be OK. It just takes time. The lag between understanding a problem and fixing it is the lag between seeing the work that needs to be done and actually doing it. Say you are painting a house. The easy part is observing how bad it looks now, and imagining how much better it would be if it were all the right colors. The hard, tedious part is doing the work. Flashes of insight are so great! But they don't get the paint on the wood. Changing habits is tedious, repetitive work. I guess relationship counselors have techniques for speeding it up, just as the paint store has special tools for making the job go better. But until the paint is on the walls ... you get what I'm saying?

You need to make some new habits. So does your boyfriend. He needs to learn to say, "I see what you're doing and I can think of a thousand helpful hints, but I'm not going to give you a single one." Then he needs to learn to say that under his breath, or out of earshot, somewhere into a mountain gorge. In other words, he needs to learn to see what you're doing and refrain from comment. And you need to commit to memory some kind of verbal form letter. Learn to say, "Thank you, boyfriend, for your helpful suggestion, comment or criticism. I know you have my best interests at heart, but for now I am going to have to pursue this in my own fashion."

In time, after you establish a modus of civility in the matter, you could stop what you're doing and try to hear him out. Much as it pains you. Just to see what happens. You might find it takes enormous patience; you might feel that the actual work is suffering while he plods through his spasms of helpfulness. But it wouldn't kill you to let him go through it once or twice. Likewise, as I said, it wouldn't kill him to work on shutting his trap and tending to his own concerns.

But that's all obvious. You understand what's going on. And you're working on it. Just remember that changing habits, and learning to adapt to another person, takes a long time.

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Cary Tennis

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