Meet Vivian. An otherwise sane, sometimes even saintly, woman. A wise & wonderful woman. A woman like you and me. And yet, a woman who is unwittingly wreaking the worst kind of havoc in her relationship.
You see, Vivian is a tragically obsessive Should’er. Shoulding all over her partner. All over her marriage. All over herself. And she really shouldn’t. Because she needn’t. There is another way of being. And it’s easy. Except for when it isn’t. But that shouldn’t keep her from stretching for it, now should it?
Six months ago Vivian and her man Adam walked in to a Couple’s Seminar that my husband Hillel and I were leading. They both had a most serious case of “Shoulditis”. Shoulditis is a highly contagious disorder, mind you. It started with Vivian but quickly spread to Adam…and beyond.
They reeked of it. Vivian’s first words: “Oh, Adam, you really should have gotten us here earlier. All the comfortable chairs are taken.” Adam deftly deflected Vivian’s should-shot onto us: “Yeah, for the money were paying for this seminar, they should provide more comfortable seating.” And with that I too caught the bug, “Hillel, you should’ve brought down those 2 comfy chairs from the 3rd floor.” Hillel, duly should-struck, rushes upstairs and returns with the chairs, amply covered with Shouldy sweat.
Luckily, one of the first tasks we have the couples do in the seminar is a swift DeShoulding Exercise. It looked like this:
Step 1) Getting It Out: Vivian and Adam are posed seated back-to-back, leaning up against each other. Each is given a piece of paper. They are instructed to write out all of the SHOULDS they are feeling. To just let it all spill out on the page. Vivian is pouring them out, and requests more paper. Adam, exasperated, scribbles out emphatically, “She shouldn’t be so demanding!” The Should-slinging is in full force.
Every possible Should is articulated. And when the couples have depleted all those Shoulds we ask them to write out another 5. And another 5. To literally – and literarily – flush them all out in a gush of words. The goal – to be cathartic, cleansing and thorough.
Step 2) Tracing Back the Roots: The couples are next asked to turn their chairs so that they are both looking forward in the same direction; gazing not at each other but at a shared horizon.
We then set about putting those Shoulds to good use. For every Should actually offers up immense fertilizer for self-awareness and growth. You see, each Should has deep roots in an important inner truth. Each Should erupts out of a crucial buried FEELING.
We hand out red pens and instruct the couples to write out in the space next to the Should the deeper feelings that prompted it.
Vivian ponders her first one, “Adam should’ve gotten us here early so I could have been more comfortable.” She closed her eyes and felt into it. A few quiet moments passed. Finally, with a startled look of revelation, Vivian’s eyes popped open and she scribbled out: “Feeling: When we walked in I felt a wave of worry and fear…I felt scared that I was going to be uncomfortable doing this couple’s work and wanted Adam to put me at ease – symbolized by his getting me a comfortable chair.”
Walla, she had hit the psychological bulls-eye! Who knew that a little guided introspection would turn this once-kvetchy woman into a Freudian protégé.
It was an enlightening reframe for her. Instead of projecting her frustrations onto her partner and expecting him to fix them, she simply rooted into her self. She found there a remarkable treasure trove – her feelings.
She discovered that she was scared. Scared of confronting herself. Scared of doing the work on her relationship. But, now, instead of the encounter with self being the scary beast she feared it would be, she felt thrilled. The encounter wasn’t scary at all. In fact, it was real and precious and profound. It didn’t feel like a burden, it felt like a relief.
With eagerness, she dove in to her next Should, keen to see what it would reveal. And sure enough, it traced back to another crucial submerged truth within her. “Adam should give me more compliments” turned in to “I feel self-conscious and ashamed of how I look.”
An awe-struck Vivian realized how often she misses out on her own experience by unconsciously projecting onto poor Adam. Which is a bummer for Adam. But it was also a bummer for her. Because each detour into Should-ville was a tragically missed opportunity for her to meet her self. And, most importantly, to meet her own needs.
Step 3) Releasing Partners: With their red-market sheets and a new sense of self-awareness, the couples make the final turn, shifting their chairs to face each other; moving from a place of back-to-back projections to a place of face-to-face connection.
Here they take turns rephrasing each Should with a new (& improved) formula.
The formula of release: Instead of “You should x”…insert “You are not responsible for x.”
Instead of Vivian’s “He should compliment me & make me feel confident about my looks,” She declared to Adam, “You are not responsible for complimenting me and making me feel confident about my looks.”
Next formula: Instead of “You should x” insert “I release you from x”.
Vivian continued, “I release you from the responsibility of complimenting me and making me feel better about my looks.”
Remarkably, when Vivian declared this to Adam it was like he had stepped into a warm bath. Like someone had handed him a purring kitty. His face softened. His entire body relaxed. The release was remarkable. He smiled. He sighed. He laughed out loud.
Step 4) Taking Responsibility:
The formula of taking responsibility: Instead of “You should x”, insert “I SHOULD X”. Own that once-onerous Should. It’s really yours, after all.
Then share that empowered affirmation with your partner.
Vivian took to this with surprising exuberance. She declared an enthused “Yeah, I should give myself compliments! I’m awesome!”
Step 5) Soak in the Benefits:
By the time Vivian was done with claiming responsibility for her Should Adam could barely contain himself. He burst into his own spontaneous combustion of a compliment, “Oh my gosh, you are so gorgeous!”
And that, my friends, was the grand finale we were all waiting for. ‘Cuz here’s the kicker. The paradoxical prize is that the moment we stop Shoulding on our partners, we rake in the very rewards we were trying so desperately to reap.
When we hoist the responsibility off of their shoulders and onto our own, then nine times out of ten, our partners are all too eager to join in helping us shoulder it.
Suddenly the responses you have been pulling teeth for for ages are given freely, dotingly.
Where once was the stench of a Should suddenly there is the scent of love in the air.
Presto. The magic formula of getting everything you want in your relationship: Give up on ever getting it from them and go about giving it to yourself. Your partner will very often eagerly follow suit. And if they don’t, well you yourself are already committed to providing it instead.
Step 6 – for you readers) Do the Work NOW
My dear friends in the digital era, you’ve read about Vivian on your screen, now bring it down into your own life. Take the next 3 minutes to do this piece of work yourself.
Write out your own chart. This is your chance to track down your feelings, take some responsibility for your needs and share it with your partner. Great relationships don’t come pre-packaged at Target. you have to work for them. Daily.
And while you’re at it, by all means, RUN to sign up for our Face-to-Face Couple’s Seminar. It’s based on the best of psychological-insight-meets-Kabbalistic-principles. It’s starting May 14th. You can even Skype in from the farthest reaches of the universe. I promise it will knock your socks off and bring you untold joy, fulfillment and relational bliss.