You know those moments when you know that the very next thing you say or do (or the other person says or does) is going to make the tension and whatever is going on between you worse and you say or do it anyway? Or those times when you’re on the verge of a communication breakdown and if you just had some way of reeling yourself back in, so the conversation flows instead of breaking down? Or when your lover routinely does or says something that makes you a little crazy but you can’t put your finger on how to deal with it?
Today I have a solution! Before we get to it, it requires one short paragraph of backstory.
Years ago I read the advice, “Eat a frog every day.” It’s from Brian Tracy, and it means that as you approach your to-do list each day, do the hard thing first. Just get it done. Brian suggests starting each work day by eating a frog. He calls the hardest things on his to-do list frogs and by looking at them this way and making up his mind to eat the frog first, it gives him stamina and a sense of purpose to just do it – just get it done and then the rest of the day flows with ease.
Having followed that advice for years, I’ve wondered if it can be applied to marriages and other relationships. If “eat a frog” in Tracy’s worldview means just get the hard thing done, perhaps, in terms of relationship, “eat a frog” can mean just do something different. Especially in those moments where the next thing you’re going to do or say is going to blow it, “eat a frog” can be a signal that helps you skid to a stop with the opportunity to do something different. Even if it means you stop reacting long enough to do nothing and let some space breathe between you, giving you enough time to sort through thoughts and feelings before speaking or acting.
Recently Joseph and I had an exchange that would have benefited from this “eat a frog” idea.
While walking our dog, Daisy, I was texting a family member and he found it curious that he felt offended by my texting as we walked because we don’t talk much on these walks anyway. That is what he meant to convey when he spoke up about it. He found his emotional response curious and wanted to share his experience. What he said was, “That’s funny. We don’t talk much when we walk, but that (and he motioned at my phone) offends me.” It isn’t that the only thing I really heard was “that offends me,” but what I layered on top of it I should have swallowed like a frog! This is what I added (in my imagination) to what he said, “You’ve been texting more on our walks recently and I find it offensive. Please stop being one of those people who texts while we’re spending time together.” So I whined, “You’re offended?!?!” Pout, pout, pout…ruin first half of walk.
Had I eaten a frog instead, I would have stopped the self-talk that loaded up his words with stuff that wasn’t there and, after taking a pause, would have asked a question. I either could have repeated his words with a question mark in my voice or asked, “Say more?” He would have had the opportunity to express more about his experience that he found confusing and I could have calmly shared who I was texting with and why, bringing the texting to an end very soon.
Another reason and way to eat a frog in a relationship is when your beloved says or does something that you perceive to be unusually hurtful and, instead of lashing out, you take a breath and ask for clarification in a way that does not escalate the tension you feel inside. For instance, if in my personal example above I had asked this question, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I would have escalated the tension. I would not have solved anything. Instead of just the first half of the walk being uncomfortable, I’d have ruined the whole day! However small, there must be a genuine spark of desire to have real understanding going on between you when you “swallow a frog” and seek out clarification.
By the way, it isn’t only the kind of question asked that escalates tension – it’s the tone of voice too. If the tone of voice seethes with resentment, tension will escalate no matter what words are used. If words cannot be exchanged without seething resentment, then there is more going on that needs to be addressed. A conversation needs to be had where the two of you can explore, as peacefully and respectfully as possible, what’s going on and what needs to change.
Also, if your partner is usually or often hurtful, if he or she can be counted on to be hurtful and shaming, that is a whole other relationship dynamic that needs professional care. If your spouse or any person in your life can be counted on to be hurtful and mean, find a counselor or trusted member of the clergy and get yourself professional support.
Another example of “eating a frog” in a relationship is when there is a personality conflict between you and your partner and it’s something you believe you could let go of, if you just tried hard enough. For instance, let’s say your partner feels a need to call their mom every Sunday evening to check in and get caught up on each other’s week. And for some reason, that phone call drives you a little crazy. Maybe there’s some jealousy or insecurity over the idea that the intimacy they share somehow threatens you. Maybe the routine phone call makes you feel left out. Perhaps trying to talk about your feelings to your beloved has never gotten you anywhere. Maybe you’ve spent months or years hovering around that phone call to get a sense of what they talk about and why their contact is so important to them and upsetting to you.
In this situation, eating a frog would look like picking yourself up and removing yourself from the room. Have something creative or nurturing to do for yourself during those phone calls. Determine that the phone calls and their relationship is none of your business and get busy doing something that takes your mind off it while it’s going on. If you want to, share your new determination and plan with your partner. But mostly, if it’s really something that you know is your problem and not theirs, eat the frog and make yourself exit the situation that has become gummy with feelings and stories made up about it. At some point, taking care of yourself in this way will become the natural response and your feelings toward the calls and your partner will change.
So the benefit of applying this eat-a-frog idea to relationship issues is this: the phrase and the intention behind it become a signal for taking action – for doing something different. When it comes to my to-do list and I tell myself I’m going to eat a frog, I dive in. I do it. I get it done. When I use it in a relationship, it means I stop my typical reaction and make a new (and better) choice.
When it comes to relationship issues, we humans really like to gnaw on those things like dogs on bones. We like to chew it over, designate blame, point to each other’s families as the root of the problem, imagine it not getting any better, imagine it getting worse, round and round we gnaw on it until we’ve created a story we could self-publish on Kindle!
To procrastinate an item on a to-do list simply means turning our attention away from it. Story telling might come in the form of convincing ourselves that other, less important things are more important than the dreaded thing. But mostly, we just turn our attention elsewhere. Procrastinating a relationship issue (or self-issue) looks like analyzing it to the point of not being able to do anything productive about it.
To address relationship issues with this idea of “eat a frog” means:
- train yourself to turn off the analyzer,
- take your attention away from the stories you create about it, and
- do something different.
The phrase triggers a new response to an old problem.
It takes practice. The emotional part of the brain responds so rapidly to any negative event, word, experience, or feeling and the thinking/analyzing follows on its heels. Cut yourself some slack as you develop this new habit.
The breathing room it will give you, your partner, and the relationship to negotiate the routine upsets in a different way will provide a payoff that makes it worthwhile for you, for them, and for the relationship.