The extent to which other people are concerned about their impact on you is the extent to which you can trust them. You trust them because you know it’s not just you looking after yourself; they are looking after you too.
For example, I (Dr. Townsend) was working with Steve and Lisa on learning this, so that they could connect on a deeper level. She had a tendency to criticize him in public. It wasn’t mean or harsh. It was more like he was always the idiot in her stories: how he dented the car, got the flight info wrong, let their daughter wrap him around her finger, and so on. He brought it up in our session. Here is how the conversation between the three of us went:
Steve: “Sometimes I dread going to a party with you because I know I’ll be the butt of one of your stories.”
Lisa: “I’m sorry, but it’s not that bad, and I don’t mean any harm.”
John: “Lisa, if I heard you tell me that, I would emotionally shut down right now.”
Steve: “Yes. I just did.”
Lisa: “Why? I was just explaining…”
John: “You were explaining. And you may even be right. Maybe he is oversensitive, but at this point that’s irrelevant.”
Lisa: “But I didn’t mean anything…”
John: “I know. You weren’t trying to bug him. But here is what I wanted you to say: ‘I didn’t know I had that effect. I don’t want you to dread going places with me. Tell me more about what happens; I want to understand this.’”
Lisa: “Steve, is that true? Is that what you want?”
John: “Lisa, when you say things like ‘It’s not that bad’ and ‘I don’t mean any harm,’ it sounds as if you care more about him understanding you are a good person than you care about how you affect him with your jokes.”
Lisa: “I do want him to realize I have good motives.”
John: “More than you care about how you make him feel?”
Lisa (pause): “No.”
Lisa: “Yes, I’m sure. But I just hate thinking that he will misunderstand me and think I’m a bad person.”
John: “Steve, why don’t you speak to her concern?”
Steve: “I may misunderstand you, Lisa. And if I do, let me know. But it really makes it better for me when you care about how you affect me; and it makes it worse for me when you care more about image management. I love you, and I think you are a great person.”
John: “Lisa, what if the tables were turned? For example, I know that you don’t like it when Steve gets really mad and is loud with you and the kids.”
Lisa: “But that’s a bad thing; he shouldn’t do that anyway.”
John: “I understand. But remember when I agreed with you about that, and he had to listen to how that scares you, and then he felt bad?”
Lisa: “He started crying.”
John: “He started crying. He had no idea what his anger was doing to you, and he felt a lot of remorse for putting you and the kids through those nightmares.”
Lisa: “I get it. I’m sorry, Honey. I want to get you like you got me.”
Steve was right. He married a good person. But Lisa had to come to terms with a problem many of us have: Sometimes, we value how we are perceived more than the impact we have on others. She got the message, however. Lisa was a mild case. Had she fought me and insisted she was innocent and never gotten to wondering about her impact on Steve, I would have been more concerned. But she got to the right place.
The point is that you and I need to be people who care about how we affect others and require that of those who matter to us. To clarify all this, here are some additional examples of caring and uncaring responses people have in various situations:
Situation: A husband is overspending, and his wife mentions the problem to him.
Uncaring response: I have a right to the money as much as you do. I can choose, and you need to trust me.
Caring response: I didn’t know how much the spending scared you. Let’s look at the budget and figure something out.
Situation: An adult child is living with his parents, and it’s time to get a job and move out.
Uncaring response: Get off my back, you guys are so unsupportive!
Caring response: I appreciate the break you’re giving me. Let’s come up with a launch plan that works.
Situation: A wife is chronically late, and the husband has brought it up.
Uncaring response: You’re always micromanaging me.
Caring response: I guess it’s hard when I tell you I’ll be home at 6:00 for dinner, and it’s always 6:45.
Don’t give up hope if you are getting uncaring responses. It may not be a sign to find the exit door. The person you’re interested in connecting with might just need a little coaching. Then they understand that it’s important to you to know how they affect you. But don’t take any more steps toward vulnerability until you talk about this. If it’s a little defensiveness or cluelessness and the lights come on when you talk about it, and their behavior begins to change, then they pass the test of trust and it’s safe to proceed.
If you’ve been hurt by a bad relationship, you can prevent the past from repeating itself. Read Beyond Boundaries to discover how to tell who you can trust and learn the keys to know when you’re in a healthy relationship.