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.

Take Up the Space That Is Yours in Your Relationship

You may have noticed that with some couples one partner takes up all the space and the other shrinks into the background. It could be simply that one partner is an extravert while the other is introverted. If that’s the case, the introvert may be happy to give the floor over to the more outgoing of the two. It may also be related to the couple’s cultural background. In some cultures, the male partner is viewed as “he who must be obeyed,” and it is not acceptable for the female to answer back or even to offer her opinion when it differs from his. But, a third possibility is that one partner concedes the floor because he/she either doesn’t know how to assert themselves or has given up trying.

If your relationship falls into the third category, you may find yourself in an unhappy relationship filled with increasing resentment. When one partner is subservient to the other while the other dictates the way things should be, it creates a master/servant dynamic. When one partner always seeks to be cared for while the other does all the care-taking, it creates a parent/child dynamic. After a while, such relationships begin to wear on one or the other partner, who may finally rebel.

When it comes to large and small decisions, allow each partner to weigh in. If you’ve been hiding in the background, let your partner know that you have something to say. And, make sure that each of you experiences your share of caring and being cared for. If you’re tired of always attending to your partner’s needs at the expense of your own, begin to ask your partner for what you’d like. Consider what your relationship would be like if you balanced things out and each occupied the space that is yours.

Zero Tolerance Domestic Violence Laws

When I teach my anger management class, I encounter class participants who have never before been in trouble with the law, but nevertheless now find themselves court ordered to be there. Due to several domestic violence incidents which resulted in severe injury and even death, more and more towns, cities and states are enacting zero tolerance domestic violence laws — and more and more partners are finding themselves in situations they never imagined they would be in.

Suppose a couple gets involved in an argument. The argument becomes more and more heated, and they engage in a full-blown shouting match. A neighbor hears the shouting, feels uncomfortable, and calls the police. The police show up. If a zero tolerance law is in effect, the police must arrest someone, and sometimes arrest both people — regardless of the fact that neither has touched the other physically, and regardless of the fact that neither party has pressed charges. Zero tolerance domestic violence means tolerance for no form of domestic violence. And, shouting is a form of domestic violence.

So, one or both parties find themselves embarked on a journey they did not anticipate: getting charged with an offense; having to obtain legal counsel, either through the public defender’s office or privately; appearing before a judge; receiving a sentence, usually through a plea deal, and usually involving attending anger management classes for anywhere from eight to twenty-six weeks. All this involves time and money. In my anger management classes, 100% of participants acknowledge that the incident that brought them to class started over “something stupid,” and if they had managed their anger differently they would have saved themselves, their partner and their family a lot of hardship.

The next time you feel the urge to let loose with a torrent of angry words, whether you are in the privacy of your own home or driving down the street in your car, be mindful that your behavior might precipitate a call to the police by a concerned citizen. Stop shouting. Stop talking. Take a breath. If you can leave the vicinity, tell your partner you need to leave for a half hour, and go for a walk. Calm down. Think about your own contribution to the problem, not how wrong your partner is. Develop a plan for approaching your partner peacefully when you return. If you were arguing about an issue that needs resolution, table it until the two of you can talk calmly about it.

You have a choice whether or not to get caught up in the zero tolerance net.

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.

The Escalation of Anger, Part 2

Because arguments so often escalate into verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse, this topic warrants additional discussion. Let’s take a look at situations that typically lead to escalation, and suggestions on how to handle these situations differently:

  • You dominate conversations, leaving the other person with little space to talk. This causes the other to pen up anger until he/she finally explodes. [Suggestion: Avoid monologues. Pause at frequent intervals, and allow the other to respond, so that you’re truly conversing, rather than giving a speech.]
  • You blame the other for the problems in the relationship. [Suggestion: Consider what role you play in the problem.]
  • You can’t control your own anger when the other person gets angry. [Suggestion: Focus on what the other is trying to express. Say something like, “In other words,….” or “So you felt that….” and add, “I imagine that makes you feel….” Responding in this way helps to defuse the other’s anger, because he/she feels heard.]
  • You control what the other person can talk about. [Suggestion: If a topic is uncomfortable, explore within yourself what it is triggering. It is most likely an indication of an area that needs work on your part.]
  • You engage in the one-up/one-down loop. [Suggestion: See The Escalation of Anger, Part 1.]

As you can see, awareness is a healthy first step in any of these situations. In any of your interactions, be mindful of the impact your words or actions have on the other person and on the relationship. Don’t minimize the effect of what you say and do. Recognize when you are being emotionally abusive, and takes steps to change.

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!