In this chapter of our new book, Snap Strategies for Couples: 40 Fast Fixes for Everyday Relationship Pitfalls, Dr. Pepper and I discuss the best ways to avoid falling into the trap of making and responding to accidental accusations. Enjoy another free sample!
“Why?” means simply “For what reason?” It seems like an innocent word, and it can be. Occasionally we want to know about something in detail that happened in our partners’ lives. We want to know what happened, how it happened, when it happened, and the reason it happened. There is a genuine interest in understanding or hearing the story. “Why?” is an invitation to your partner to tell you more.
Unfortunately, in our experience “why” questions are not usually an inquiry for detail but rather an accusation of wrongdoing:
Question: “Why did you turn that way?” Answer: “Because I am stupid.”
Question: “Why did you forget to pick up the groceries?” Answer: “Because I am lazy.”
Question: “Why are you late?” Answer: “Because I am crazy.”
The only seemingly reasonable answer is “Because I am stupid, lazy, or crazy.” These “why” questions don’t feel like inquiries. They are inquisitions, and you are already judged guilty.
We think these questions are booby traps, even though that may not be your partner’s intentions. Usually these questions come to the surface because your partner is put out over something. We suggest that instead of falling or jumping into the trap, you ask a simple question: “Did I create a problem for you? Because I didn’t get the groceries?” Or, “Because I am late?” Or, “Because I turned that way?”
Then you can apologize and be empathetic that your partner was inconvenienced or disappointed. You can say, “I am sorry you can’t make the dinner you planned. Shall I make pasta?” Or, “I am sorry I am late. I don’t like disappointing you.” Or, “I turned that way because I thought it was the right way to go and I am sorry you don’t agree.”
If you are the one asking why something happened or why someone made a decision, you can start to sound like a prosecuting attorney, not a beloved partner. In fact, if the underlying motivation for asking the question in the first place is to catch your partner doing something wrong or disagreeable to you, your partner will know it is a trap and will not like it or you. There are better ways to find out what you really want to know. Think about asking, instead, “What happened?” or saying, “I’m surprised,” rather than anything that sets up a dynamic of accusation and defensive reaction.
Eliminate asking or answering “why” questions with your partner. They will only lead to a fight that has no merit, without getting to the real issue or problem.
Once again, for the other pages of the chapter and the rest of the book, order here!