It was a question I didn't really want to ask my wife. Before the words even left my lips, I was pretty sure that I didn't want to hear her response. But I was curious-too curious-and so the question somehow emerged during a weak moment while the two of us were out to dinner.
I looked at Jane from across the table and, with a shockingly composed tone of voice, I asked, “Is there anything I could do to be a better husband?”
There, I was at her mercy.
My wife became quiet. Her eyes turned reflective, but she didn't respond immediately. I waited. After only a short while, I began to wonder if she was replaying twenty years of Horrible Husband moments on her mind's video screen.
In reality my wait was fairly brief, but it felt eternal. I sat in my seat, nervously watching the expressions on Jane's face. I felt like a prisoner waiting to be sentenced-the only sensation I felt was coming from my stomach, which had twisted itself into one huge, insecure knot.
In the end, my wife cleared her throat and gave a relatively simple response. “Just cherish me more,” she said.
Well. That wasn't bad at all. I had been preparing myself for much worse. In fact, I started feeling pretty good about myself, so I probed further.
“Babe,” I said. “What do you mean? I do cherish you! I love you!”
She smiled. I smiled. Then I took things too far. “Give me a specific way I can cherish you more,” I said.
That opened the floodgates. It took no time at all for her to come up with a list of not one but three-three big ones. “Affirm my opinions,” she told me. “Don't get so upset easily,” she said. “Be kind and considerate to me.”
I could have used some sort of buffer with that response.
None of us likes hearing that our behavior in a relationship is lacking. It's not fun to be told when we don't measure up. For most people, this sort of thing ranks among brussels sprouts, public speaking, and chicken pox. Our gut reaction is to tense up, retaliate, even the score.
If we can learn to navigate around these impulses, however, we'll often find that our loved ones have profound insight to offer us. Their perceptions into our lives tend to be more realistic than our own-normally they can see things that we can't even begin to see ourselves. They're also a little less biased, a little more honest. “What can I do better?” is not a question for the faint of heart, but it's a question worth asking. We can't improve our behavior unless we know what we're doing wrong, and it's difficult to know what we're doing wrong unless we have someone who will point out our missteps. This is especially important within families. Family members are the people who know us the best. They're also the people who we're likely to treat the worst. This means that if we ask them what we can do better, they'll usually be able to come up with something. So ask your children. Ask your parents. Ask your spouse. Work up the nerve, take a deep breath, and ask. When they respond, don't talk back. Take notes. Then, as soon as you get over your wounded pride, you'll be able to move forward in the relationship. You'll be able to reform your life with a renewed vision, and you'll be better equipped to give people what they should have been getting all along. It's pretty cool, when you think about it. A whole bunch of growth can stem from one little question that you probably didn't want to ask in the first place.
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