A Connected “No” is better than a Defended “Yes”
Your partner is making a request. One part of you is feeling loving and wants to say yes and contribute to your partner. Another part of you is saying "Hey, what about my needs?!". This second part is encouraging you to protect your territory no matter what. It wants to make sure things stay fair. With a sense of defensiveness you say yes to your partner's request, and then quickly add in a stern voice, "But this is the only time. Next time we do it in the way we have agreed to previously." Much to your surprise, your partner doesn't seem particularly pleased with your generosity. You feel frustrated because you want to contribute yet your "yes" is met with a hesitant "thank you" and a forced painful smile.
Your partner is responding to the tension in your body and in your voice when you said "yes". While words are certainly important, nonverbal cues are more impactful. Your tense "yes" comes across as a disconnected "no". It likely took courage for your partner to express vulnerability and ask something of you. When this vulnerability is met with defensiveness from you, it's painful, jarring, and perhaps confusing.
Any time someone expresses something to you from an emotionally vulnerable place, the first thing that person is looking for is simply warmth and empathic presence. In the very next moment, there might be a shift to a different need. But that first moment of warmth and empathic presence is essential, especially in intimate relationships. It is more important than whether or not you say yes or no to a particular request. If you want to be able to offer this initial warmth and empathic presence, it means checking in with yourself before responding.
First, notice if you are immediately triggered into feeling defensive and having an impulse to protect your own needs. If this is happening, ask for a few moments to be with your own experience before responding. Checking in with your own experience you might do the following:
Remind yourself that you can just receive your partner with warmth and empathy without rushing into a yes or no answer. Empathy is not agreement.
Reassure the defensive parts of you that you can talk about your own needs in this conversation before saying yes or no to the request.
If you choose to say "no" to the request, remind yourself that you can ask for another way to show your love and care besides saying yes to this particular request.
What would all this sound like? Let's imagine your partner says: "Hey sweetie, I have had a long and stressful day. I wonder if there is any way you could go with me when I take the dog to the park tonight. Some companionship would go a long way for me right now."
You've had a long day too. You want to take a hot bath and read your novel to decompress. You tighten hearing your partner's request, you feel yourself start to scramble to come up with an answer and then you remember that you don't have to do that right now. That can wait and you can just be with your partner in their experience. Aaah, you relax and turn toward your partner, you lean in, offer supportive touch, and say in a warm tone that naturally arises when you make space for it, "Oh love, yeah, I hear ya, it's been a long day and you'd just like to feel me with you, is that right?" You take a few moments just to let your partner absorb the warmth of your caring.
Then you see your partner looking for a yes or no and offer something like this: "Hmm, I have been looking forward to a hot bath and time with my book to help me decompress. I really don't want to go to the park. I wonder if I take my bath while you are at the park, and then when you get back we could take a half hour or so for a snuggle on the couch before I get into my book." Or, instead of providing this alternative you just ask, is there another way I could offer support?
When much of the world around you is task oriented, it can be hard to shift your priority to connection when you are with your loved ones. Your partner is reaching out and the stressed out, hard working you hears it as another task on your list and you move to protect your own needs. When your intimate relationships get filtered through this task oriented view, disconnect and resentment seep in. With your loved ones you have only one task, to attend from the heart, to yourself and to them everything else will follow from there.
PracticeThis week pay attention to the transition between work and time at home with your loved ones. During this transition, set the intention to let go of the task oriented mind and drop your attention into your heart. Remind yourself to take the time to receive the other person with warmth and let a yes or no answer have its own separate space.