Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My husband is constantly angry at our fifteen-year-old son. They are always in shouting matches and it drives me crazy. When I walk away from them, my husband says I am “burying my head in the sand.” My husband is very negative and set in his ways, and he expects our son to have the same ideas. My husband also verbalizes his disappointment in our son and tells him he is only concerned with himself. Granted, there are times this is true, but he’s a typical teenage boy. He’s sometimes mouthy, but he’s a good kid, works hard even though he may complain, and is never in trouble anywhere but at home.
I want to support my husband, but I feel he is often wrong, that he goes too far, and that some of his expectations are unreasonable. When I try to talk about it, he says that I am taking our son’s side and that the only way he can keep the peace is to just shut his mouth and not say anything. He’s not very open to conversation. Help!
End of My Rope
Aren’t marriages wonderful? And I mean that! Sustained, intimate relationships are usually both the greatest opportunity for personal growth and the greatest challenge of our lives. And they are the former because they are the latter.
You are exactly the gift your husband needs, and he may just be the perfect gift for you. Children need both affirmation and influence. It sounds like you’re world-class at affirmation and he has a bias for influence. Unfortunately, many relationships break down because we keep trying to make the other person be good at what we value without properly recognizing our need for what they bring to the party. Now, I’m not suggesting your husband’s approach to influence is the best. But it sounds as though what’s important to him is trying to help bring out the best in your son. And your approach to affirming him may, at times, come at the expense of helping him aspire to higher standards. But that should not take away from the fact that you see great worth and beauty in him. That’s wonderful!
So the question is how do you turn conflicting values into complementary ones? How can you and your husband create a relationship where your son gets the best you both have to offer—and where you both learn to offer it in a healthier way?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Start with safety. Help your husband know that you value what he is trying to do for your son. Express genuine appreciation for his desire to influence your son to strive. Point out specific ways you can see that your son has benefited from having him as a father. Then scrupulously avoid using the word, “but.” Don’t do it! Get it out of your brain.
After affirming your value for having a positive influence on your son, don’t go on to say, “But…you often do it about things that aren’t that important.” There are no “buts” when you’re affirming people and creating Mutual Purpose. There are only “ands.” The fact that you appreciate him wanting to challenge your son is not offset in any way by your desire to also affirm him. The two are complementary, not competing, values. So don’t make it seem like they are in conflict by using the b-word.
2. Motivate with natural consequences. If your husband is reluctant to engage in this conversation with you, think of things that are important to your husband that will help him want to engage. Then share these as you invite him into this complex discussion. Think, for example, about pain, concerns, worries, or problems he may have with you or with your son that are connected to the changes you’d like to discuss.
For example, you might say, “John, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can better work together with our son. I know you and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. I know you are also frustrated that he has drifted away from you. I also know you don’t like how I criticize you at times about how you handle things. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I want to find a way to help you have the relationship you want and to partner in a way that works for you as we solve problems with him. Could we set aside some time to discuss this?”
3. Work on you first. Realize that while you will have useful feedback for your husband, he will likely see weaknesses in you that you must be willing to hear. Be open and humble. If you get defensive in the conversation, avoid reacting in the moment. Say, “I’m sure there is merit in what you’re saying. I’m feeling defensive right now so I’m going to need time to think about it. Can I do that and then get back with you later to talk about what I will do with these suggestions?”
If you are to work together better, it is going to require both of you to change. You will need to be more willing to be part of raising tough issues with your son and holding him accountable. Your husband will need to be willing to learn to do it in a healthier way—and focus on big things while letting go of little things. If you both work on yourselves, you’ll be a potent parenting team for your son.
4. Organize for the long run. Have realistic expectations. If both you and your husband have habits that have been nurtured over a lifetime, they aren’t going to change after one conversation. I suggest you frame this conversation as a starting point, then agree on ways you can help each other stick with commitments you make about how to work together more productively. Be patient with one another as you try new approaches. Expect relapses. I suggest you read our book, Change Anything, as a couple, for ideas on how to create a plan that will help you both make steady progress in changing these habits.
I applaud your commitment to your son and wish you the best as you find ways to complement one another, grow together, and give your son the gifts both of you want so much to offer.