Dear Crucial Skills,
My wife asked a friend of ours to help her with a home improvement project. Since then there have been other similar types of projects and he is now coming over to the house on a regular basis. In some worrisome ways their friendship seems too close. I have not found them in a compromising situation—yet—but it feels like she has moved her affection from me to him. And truthfully, I worry that inappropriate things are happening.
How do I confront her on this? Do I need to have proof solid enough for court before I confront her? This is tough, and I have to do something soon. I should have done it already, but until I picked up your Crucial Confrontations book a couple of weeks ago, I was at a loss for any answers that were not complete ambushes.
I am stuck still on how to apply your principles with her. She tends to shut people down when they disagree with her. I know if she did this with me at this point I would completely lose it, and resort to all the things that you folks say not to do, regardless of the consequences to the relationship or our marriage. I don’t want that to happen.
Dear Home Improvement,
I can’t imagine a bigger burden than the one you’re carrying. I’m so sorry for your predicament and hope I can offer something of use to you.
As I’ve done before with questions like this, I’ve collaborated with one of the Marriage & Family counselors I respect most in the world—my father. Here are our thoughts.
First, examine your story. You need to do this for three reasons: 1) to ensure you don’t overreact to the situation; 2) to open yourself up to dialogue rather than delivering an “ambush” as you so aptly put it; 3) to prepare yourself to hold the crucial confrontation in a healthy way. The “story” you’re telling yourself (which, of course, is possibly true, possibly false, and possibly somewhere in between) is that your wife has inappropriate feelings for this friend. You’re also telling yourself that she may be acting on those feelings. To get control of this story and help yourself see it as story rather than fact, take out a piece of paper and make two columns. Label one “Facts” and the other “Stories.” Under the “Stories” column write out all the feelings, thoughts, judgments, and conclusions that are spinning in your head and gut right now about the situation. Then under “Facts” write down all the objective, observable information that supports your story.
Now comes the tough part. Write down any facts that *don’t* support your story. Work hard on this. The challenge here is that once our fears cause us to embrace a story, we tend to ignore information that would refute it. We are not encouraging you to take this step in order to wash away your concerns—only to help you judge more accurately what might be happening. So be sure to do this step thoroughly.
Now, with this information in front of you, you can decide whether or not to speak up. As you look objectively at this separation of fact and story, you may, for example, notice you have very few facts. Or that you have ignored some significant contradictory facts. Perhaps you are telling yourself a story that is not supported by the whole body of facts. If so, this is your issue to deal with. A more likely outcome is that you’ll realize that there is some cause for concern, but not as much as you had earlier thought. If so, you need to speak up—but you’ll do so with less accusation and certainty. Your goal will be to share concerns and gather more information. Finally, you may look at your worksheet and realize you have a legitimate and acute issue and your story looks pretty solid.
Now it’s time to speak up. No sugarcoating—but an attempt to talk in a way that leads to the best possible outcome. You must accomplish a few things in the first sixty seconds of this most Crucial Confrontation:
Make it safe. Tell your wife you have something tough to discuss. Assure her of your love for her and your desire to have a wonderful, loving, and safe relationship with her. And yet something is in the way of that right now. Tell her you realize you could be telling yourself stories, but that you also believe there is legitimate cause to wonder. Then ask for permission. Ask her to commit to hear you out before responding. Then allow her to take a timeout if she needs to before she responds. If she has a tendency to get defensive, respect that challenge and give her leeway to work through her defensiveness.
Share facts first. Once she commits to hearing you out, share only the facts first. Describe the behaviors you’ve seen from her or the friend that cause you concern. Be careful not to mix your story up with the facts. For example, you might say, “In the past we would talk a lot with each other during the evenings. In the past month we talk very little. That’s also the period of time in which you and Clifton have been working a great deal.” Notice the difference between this and “Since you’ve been spending time with Clifton you don’t talk with me anymore.” The first is fact. The second has a story (a judgment that time with Clifton has caused you to stop talking to me). Strip out any inflammatory, judgmental, or emotional language as you share the facts.
Tentatively share your conclusion. If you’ve done your mastered your stories well, by the time you finish sharing your facts your wife will understand why you are concerned even without you sharing your story. But share it anyway. And do it tentatively. After all, since you haven’t seen them doing inappropriate things, all you have is a story right now, not final facts. Say something like, “As I’ve thought about speaking with you I’ve tried to ask myself if this was just me being jealous. And perhaps that’s some of it. But as I consider all of these observations I think it’s reasonable for me to be concerned. Can you see why I might be? And is there something I should or shouldn’t be worried about here?
Invite dialogue. Now you need to hear her out. Let her respond. If she becomes defensive, reassure her of your intentions. If she tries to turn the tables on you and make this out to be your problem, once again, restore safety—then remind her of the facts you’ve laid out and keep the focus on those. Ask her to help you understand what is and isn’t going on. Reassure her that your goal is not to accuse or attack her. Your goal is to not let anything get in the way of a spontaneous and loving relationship with her. Make it safe. Ask sincere and inviting questions. Encourage her to share her feelings. If there are things you’ve been doing wrong that have driven her away, own up to them. This is not just about her; this is about you, too.
Once you get the issue in the open and establish a solution-focused conversation, come to agreement about ground rules–behaviors you both agree are appropriate and inappropriate in your relationships with others.
You have our sincere best wishes that this conversation will lead to a healthier and happier life for both of you.
Dr. Guy Grenny