This “Marriage Minute” is from my book, Marriage Minutes, available from Amazon.com This book is a collection of 200 articles from years of marriage counseling and ministry. This “minute” begins the section on Assertiveness.
Marriage Minute # 27 Whose Problem Is This?
If I am standing in a crowded elevator and am aware that someone is standing on my foot, who has the problem? Or, if I am wondering about whose fault this moment might be, I suppose I can say that it is the fault of the person who is stepping on my foot. But it won’t be long before the responsibility changes. If I don’t say something, the perpetuation of the suffering becomes my doing as well. At first I may ask myself why this other person doesn’t notice that his or her feet are uneven. Don’t they notice that they are standing on something? Don’t they have responsibility for being careful in a crowd? Sure, they have responsibility. But the question is about who has the problem. There comes a point at which this suffering becomes my fault if I don’t speak up for myself. I shouldn’t stand in a crowded elevator waiting for this insensitive person to become aware. I have a problem, and I have some responsibility to myself. You see, having a problem doesn’t mean that I am guilty of anything. Neither does it mean that I am relieving the other person of responsibility. Far from it, I am adding responsibility since I am adding awareness by speaking up for myself. (And, my self appreciates me for it, too.)
When I ask people about why they don’t speak up about their problems I hear a number of responses. Let’s take a look at a few.
One person says something like, “If I say anything, I won’t be taken seriously.” Well, this person has a problem all right, but silence is not the cure. The underlying fear may be the fear that if they see that they are not taken seriously and continue to protest, then the next step is to grow further apart and eventually divorce. A person may secretly decide to put up with “having their foot stepped on” since rejection will raise the stakes and may lead to the end of the relationship. But, if I can carefully say it, I should. While I am in favor of relationship, there is not a good future for the relationship in which one person is required to be a silent martyr.
Another person says something like, “If I say anything, I’m going to make them angry.” No, you won’t. If they believe they have the right to step on your foot, and not be responsible for how they relate, it is not you that makes them angry. It is their own selfishness that makes them angry. You really have very little influence on the emotions of others, and you have more power than you may realize over your own emotions. Good relationships, and especially those excellent relationships, are not dependent upon what Murray Bowen called “de-selfing” by either person.
Then another person says something like, “If I say anything, I will be taking responsibility for the other person. They ought to figure it out themselves.” Yes, maybe they should. But after a while, if they don’t, it’s time to speak up. Speaking up helps to define the relationship. Speaking up helps to define you, which is actually something that needs to happen even before the relationship gets defined. Not taking responsibility for both sides of the relationship is a healthy idea, but we must also realize that by not defining ourselves, and our expectations for the relationship, we are simply giving the other person responsibility for both sides of the relationship.
Be careful in the elevator today.