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Early Bird or Night Owl?

One issue that can create conflict between partners, roommates and even between parents and children is the bedtime hour. In some homes, dorms and other communal living situations, there are disagreements almost every night with respect to when to go to bed. One person may need at least seven hours of sleep in order to function well at work or at school. Another may need far less. Some “night owl” partners get angry when their “early bird” partners go to bed before them, because they hold the belief that “couples should go to bed together” — meaning, “at the same time.”

While it may seem at first glance that it’s related to stubbornness and refusal to comply, there may be another more complex reason for these scenarios — our circadian clocks. Each of our bodies has an internal “clock” that dictates our sleep preferences. It’s something we’re born with, like our temperament. Our circadian clock tells us when we prefer to go to sleep, and how long we need to sleep. This explains why some people are early risers while others just can’t seem to get their act together until after Noon. It explains why some people believe that at 9:00 p.m. “the night has just begun,” while at that hour others consider the day to be done, and are dragging themselves off to bed.

When you think about it, it’s easy to understand how problems can arise among dwellers of a household due to discrepancies in their circadian clocks. But, knowing about the “clock” can also help us to develop tolerance for those on a cycle different from ours. Parents may not want their night-owl children prowling around the house at all hours of the night, but if they recognize they have a “night owl” on their hands, perhaps they can be more lenient on weekends and allow the child to stay up later and sleep later the next morning. Couples might stop imagining that their partner is staying up late to avoid sex, and occasionally request that their partner join them in bed earlier that night. The disappointment of night owls when they see others going off to bed can be tempered by the understanding that their partner or child simply needs to go to bed early, in the same way that the night owl needs to stay up.

Think about the people you live with now, or that you lived with at other times in your life. Do you remember having arguments about bedtime?  Now think about it in terms of your circadian clocks. It will probably help you to have more empathy for yourself and for the others than you may have had.

How Do People Respond to You?

We can learn a lot by observing how the people around us respond when we talk with them. If they seem interested and engaged, it is a sign that your communication style is healthy and effective. On the other hand, if they look away, become silent, look down at the floor, and seem generally bored, it may say more about the way you are communicating than about their attention span or lack of respect. And, if several people respond to you in similarly disinterested ways, it’s time to pay attention to how you are generating disinterest in what you are saying.

First, notice your tone of voice. Is it harsh, critical, or demanding? Think about how you might soften your tone, so that you don’t come across as “attacking” your listeners.

Second, notice your choice of words. For example, instead of saying, “I see you finally emptied the garbage,” you might say, “You emptied the garbage. Thank you!” That word “finally” contains an indictment — that he/she failed to empty the garbage when you wanted it done. Watch for other words you may use that turn seemingly innocent statements into veiled criticism.

Third, notice your body language. Do you yourself multi-task while you talk, rather than establishing eye contact? Do you stand with your arms folded or hands on your hips? What facial expression do you display — is it a frown or a scowl, or is it neutral or pleasant?

Finally, notice whether you tend to dominate conversations, making them all about you and yours. Do you express interest in the other person’s experiences, family, opinions, or is it a running monologue on your part? Do you talk on and on, barely taking a breath, so that the other person can barely get a word in edgewise, or do you pause between thoughts to allow space for the other to interject their own thoughts?

If you have been unhappy with the way others respond to you when you talk with them, use the questions above to do a self-assessment. If you change your style of communicating, you may generate more interest in what you say.

Body Changes

As we go through the various stages of life, we change not only intellectually and emotionally, but also physically. During the pre-teen years, this is considered a good thing. We can’t wait to grow up, so that we can do things that the “big kids” do. Then we become teens, and while we still covet becoming 18 or 21 so that we can legally drive or vote or drink, for the first time in our lives we are concerned about our physical changes. Clear complexions give way to acne, girls fret over whether their breasts are too large or too small, and boys who don’t yet have to shave worry about their manliness. Somehow, though, we survive all that, and before we know it we are 21+ adults.

As adults, men might worry about their weight or physique, but due to the importance our society places on slim, beautiful female bodies, it is women who seem to experience the greatest body angst. Added to that are the changes that the female body undergoes through the process of pregnancy. The result? A lot of women who are unhappy with their bodies. Just the other day I saw a photo of a group of women who appeared on the Today show to celebrate their post-baby bodies. The caption read, “Moms dare to bare post-pregnancy bellies.” Dare? Really? Doesn’t this give new Moms the message that their bodies are something to hide, and be ashamed of? Make no mistake about it, this message of shame gets internalized by many.

Fast forward to perimenopause, menopause, and their male counterparts (which I do believe exist). More body changes. Women experience hot flashes, moodiness and irritability, and have trouble concentrating. Men notice their receding hairlines, and their once flat bellies that might now be paunches. Again, at this stage we revisit the feeling of dissatisfaction with our bodies. Often depression sets in, because these changes have crept up on us, and we don’t feel ready for them. We say, “I’m too young for my body to be doing this. I’m not ready!” It feels as though we’re on a runaway train over which we have no control.

In later years, we may begin to realize certain limitations in what we can do or how we can move. More dissatisfaction with the way we are, again fed by what our society seems to value the most — beautiful people who are healthy, active, and productive. It doesn’t do a good job of acknowledging elders and offering respect for the rich, fruitful lives they may have led in the past.

I suggest that, no matter what stage of live you are in, you begin to positively affirm your body. If there are things that you can do to improve your health, such as exercise or diet changes, by all means do that — because, if you don’t do what’s within your control to do, you have absolutely no right to feel sorry for the state of your body. But, if you live each day taking care of your body in the best way you can, allow yourself to embrace it lovingly. It’s yours, and it’s the only one you have. Stop treating it like an unwanted stepchild!

Household Chores: The Division of Labor

Whether you live with roommates, your partner, your kids, or in a commune, one issue that commonly comes up is who will do what. Everyone has their own living style, ranging from compulsively neat to excessively messy. The further apart cohabitants are in styles, the more they will argue over the condition of their living quarters. Often one person assumes the role of the household “taskmaster,” constantly attempting to get the others to clean up. The others then resent being told what to do and when to do it — and so they do nothing.

How much do you contribute to keeping your home habitable? Are you the person who runs around picking up after others? If so, you’re teaching them that being “helpless” has its benefits. Or do you close your eyes to a messy situation, and just wait until “someone else” cleans it up? Neither the neatnik nor the sloppy one is assuming appropriate responsibility. The neatnik is assuming too much, and the sloppy one is assuming too little.

One solution is for all the members of the household to sit down together and create a list of chores that need to be done, how often each chore needs doing, and who will be responsible for doing each. It’s best if members volunteer for the chores they don’t mind doing. For example, one person might absolutely hate to clean the cat’s litter box, while he/she doesn’t mind tackling the laundry. Have fun bartering with each other over chores. If any are left unclaimed at the end, use a coin toss or some other means to distribute the leftovers. Then, decide what the reward might be for completing a week’s chores, and what the penalty will be if things don’t get done. A penalty might be having to hand over the TV remote to others for three nights!

One important thing to remember: Once someone agrees to take on a chore, the others cannot criticize that person for the way it is done or when it is done (as long as the agreed-upon frequency is maintained). If anyone can’t resist criticizing, the chore becomes theirs, and they must exchange one of their chores for the one they’ve just acquired. So, it really doesn’t pay to slack off — if someone is critical and takes a chore from you, you never know what other chore you might end up with!

Sometimes the Truth Hurts

Ever notice how defensive you get when someone calls your attention to something hurtful you may have said or done? It is partly because we each hold an image of the type of person we think we are, or want to be. When we behave outside of that image and our behavior is pointed out, sometimes we go into denial. A voice within us says, “No, that can’t be so….I’m not like that, I’m like this….I would never hurt someone like that….” It’s difficult to hear what the other person is saying about us, because we don’t want to be the kind of person who would do such things. So, we get defensive and attempt to justify what we did with excuses: “I wouldn’t have done that, except for the fact that….”

The next time someone lets you know that you’ve behaved in a way that caused them to feel hurt, uncomfortable, or frustrated, listen to what they are saying. Acknowledge that, while it may not have been your intention to trigger those feelings, what you did had that impact on them. Accept the fact that sometimes you will stumble and act contrary to the person you strive to be. The acknowledgment to the other will be healthy for the relationship. Your acceptance of your own capacity to fall short from time to time will help you to stay aware of, and work on, your weaknesses. You can’t work on weaknesses when you deny that they exist.