What do you want?

I wasn’t a straight A student (I totally flunked art), but I did pretty well, by which I mean to say that I have always liked being asked questions, and getting answers right. Honestly, I’ve realised that my favourite phrase to hear, coming from my husband’s mouth is, “you’re right.” (It’s rare.)

But there’s one question that has stumped me for as long as I can remember.

“What do you want?”

I’m like: is this a trick question? What do you mean, what do I want? What do you want? What do you want me to want? What’s okay to want? What’s within the acceptable framework of wantable? If I tell you what I want, are you going to eat it in front of me and not share?

But more than being suspicious of the question, I’m just stumped by it.

I am not sure. I don’t really know. I want world peace. I want us to solve the climate crisis. I’d really like to spend time with some friends again. I want my people to feel safe and happy. Me? What do I want? Hmmm. Let me get back to you.

It’s come to my attention that it’s pretty important to know the answer to this one, so you can parent well and partner better.

In the Strengthening Families workshop that’s currently being offered for free to Pemberton-area families, through Sea to Sky Community Services Society, the facilitators are sharing tips on how to elicit the kind of behaviour you want to see in your kids.

First, you check that your request is age and developmentally appropriate – so your expectations don’t wildly wound them, for being so unrealistic or so patronizing…

then, you say, clearly and positively, “I want you to hang up your towel to dry after your shower. I want you to clear your plate away after dinner. I want you to try at least three bites of the meal I make for you, before saying you don’t like it.”

It’s challenging to reframe our asks, from the negative, to the positive, because often, the offending behaviour has become such a trigger that all we can see is the thing that irritates us (mouldering pile of wet towels on floor, dishes left everywhere awaiting some magical house elf, scrunch-faced refusal to eat anything that isn’t pasta doused in nutritional yeast and butter…) It’s like those optical illusion puzzles that contain a beautiful young woman and a crone, depending on how you focus… sometimes, for the life of you, you just can’t see anything but the pile of mouldering towels, and it’s impossible to reframe that vision to what you really want, which is towels hanging like flags announcing “we are drying out now!” from the towel bar.

Esther Perel, the guru of relationship intimacy, has also said this skill, of speaking what you want, is crucial to the health of intimate relationships.

How should people fight, when they cannot physically separate?

I think that couples, by definition, go through harmony, disharmony, and repair. This is a dance that we do no matter what. By definition, we fight. What matters is how you fight. When you get really mad at something, can you afterward say, “O.K., got that out of my system—how are we going to solve this?” or “Look, I realize I was quite unfair. Let me first say what I do appreciate about what you do before I dump on you the whole list of stuff that I don’t think you do”?

Begin by saying to yourself, “What are the one or two things that they have done that I can appreciate?” Otherwise, it’s whatever is negative I will highlight, and whatever is positive I will take for granted. If we made it on time, it’s because there was no traffic, and, if we got there late, it’s because of you. The negative is attributed to the other person, and the positive is just taken as “that’s the way it should be.”

And you can be all entitled about this and say, “Well, there’s no reason I should appreciate that, because I have done a whole bunch of things, and you haven’t appreciated them either.” But the productive thing is to start with you. You want to change the other? You change you.

What else can you say about how to fight better?

Stay focussed on the task. When you want to talk about the dishes, don’t end up talking about five different things, two of which are years old. Don’t “kitchen sink” it. Keep yourself to the one thing that you’re upset about at this moment.

Also, make a request and not just a protest. Tell your partner, “I really wanted you to do this. I counted on you. Can we agree you’ll do it by twelve o’clock today?” Fight from a place of enlightened self-interest, as [the family therapist] Terry Real says, not just to get it out of your system. To get it out of your system, call your friends. Vent as much as you want. And then go back to your partner and be strategic about it. Because you don’t just want to get it out of your system. You actually want a change.

Apart from loving just how fantastic and BS-free Perel is, I was really impacted by this: Make a request, not a protest.

Which brings me back to my question. What do I want?

I don’t know. But I know what I don’t want, when I see it, and I can react to that.

Working in creative situations and agencies, this happens a lot. The client doesn’t really know what they want. So designers try and telepathically intuit it, and then the client is able to clarify what they want a tiny bit more, because they have something to react to, and mostly provide a kind of negative guidance, not that, not that, not that… which becomes increasingly disheartening for the designer, who poured their best creative energy in to the first round.

I still don’t know the answer to the question. But I have an image in my head, of a person who knows what she wants. She’s not a tyrant. She’s not a petulant child. She stands in mountain pose, grounded and dignified and gracious, and the air around her seems clearer, for her own sense of clarity. And the people who love her feel at ease, because they know how to show her love, and they know it’s safe for them to ask for what they want to. So I guess I can start there. With that image in my head. I want that. It’s a beginning.

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