Why is it so hard to buy me flowers?

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In my last blog I talked about how doing what we’re told can feel like giving up an important part of ourselves.  In fact it can feel so risky to meet our partner’s desires that our ability to even hear a request from them decreases drastically over the course of the relationship.

I often talk with couples about this triggered reaction (see blog: If you do what I say, it will be okay) using an example that always (always) elicits the laughter of recognition.  I call this guilty laughter.  It’s the old scenario where one partner says to the other, “You never buy me flowers.  Could you buy me flowers sometimes?  Even just for my birthday?”

Actually it often sounds more like, “Why can’t you just be more romantic?  Why can’t you just go to the shop occasionally and get me some flowers like any normal person?  You know I like flowers!  Talking to you is like talking to a brick wall!  What’s so hard about this?  What’s wrong with you???!!!”

This seems to be a commonly recognised situation.  Even if you’ve never experienced this, you’ve probably seen something similar in relationships around you.

When I ask the ‘attacked’ partner what their reaction is once they’ve heard this request, the response is, “Well I can’t buy the flowers now because then it would just be because I was told to do it”.  (Aka I’m resisting being treated like a child and told what I should do. I’d rather do it from my own initiative.)  The flower-lover, knowing their partner ‘cannot’ comply immediately because the issue has been raised directly, now has to wait for a period of time before the flower ‘request’ can be acted on.  After waiting in hope for months (or years or decades), the issue invariably returns but with more hurt (and less hope) attached – which then leads to the predictable response of, “There’s no way I’m going to buy you flowers now.  You can’t expect to scream at me like that and for me to be nice to you”.

And so it goes. 

(Sadly, the real message, “I feel unloved and unlovable in this relationship. Could we talk about ways to begin showing love to one another again” is lost under all the attack-and-defend manoeuvres.  It feels instead like we are enemies at war.  Who would share such a sensitive message with an enemy?)

For this scenario, we’re working with the basic idea that in any communication with other people, we’re either responding from our Adult (grounded) brain or we’ve flipped into the triggered parts of our brains, sometimes called the past brain – the fight, flight, freeze, submit reactions that have been refined over the years of our lives.  Being told that we should be doing ABC often has the effect of pushing us into doing XYZ.  So again, as in my last blog post, it’s very important to notice the story we are telling ourselves about the request because, if we slow down and pay attention to those stories, we can begin to choose different responses.

Our tendency is to give this request for flowers a meaning like, ‘You’re treating me like a child so I can’t do what you’re telling me to do’, or, ‘I always do nice things for you but you never pay attention’ (and underneath those stories can be deeper meanings like, ‘No-one ever really sees me.’ ‘No-one thinks I’m good enough – not even this person who’s supposed to love me.’  ‘Of course I’m in trouble again, because I am an idiot.’).  These stories ricochet around our brains at warp speed.

Hot on the heels of these meanings are feelings that we’d rather not feel.  Anger, sadness, loneliness, worthlessness.  Rather than sit with these unbearable feelings, we react out of them by yelling at, or ignoring our partner (who then gets triggered into their own crazy meanings-and-feelings cycle).

The meanings and feelings flash through our brains faster than we usually notice them – and this is why I’m writing about this stuff.  The wonderful news is that if we can start paying attention to our stories and the feelings they produce, we can take charge of how we behave and actually become the person we want to be… instead of who we usually become.

Consider this: when your partner next asks for flowers, instead of buying into your triggered brain’s message that your partner is ungrateful, selfish, offensive and controlling (and that you are just bad, bad, bad), you could pause (take a deep breath and let it out again) and focus on what they are actually wanting to convey.   It sounds a bit like this – ‘I can hear my partner wants flowers (again) but underneath that request, I can hear that her/his real desire is that I act to show that I care and that we are still in this together.  If I choose to see this as information about them and their desires in this relationship, I can stop seeing it as a personal attack.  What kind of person do I want to be in response to this?’

Can you see how this grown-up, values-based response might allow for a deeper dialogue to be engaged – without losing any part of yourself?  In fact you might find a little more of your genuine self and move closer to your partner.

If you choose to see this as one-adult-person-in-the-relationship trying to let the other-adult-person-in-the-relationship know how they like to be shown love, you can likely develop greater warmth and respect-filled living.  It’s grown-up love instead of infantile point-scoring. ‘This is my partner making a request’ rather than ‘This person is treating me like a child so… I’m not going to budge’.

If you want to keep playing games (and getting nowhere) you might try tit for tat – ‘I’m not going to show love for you because you don’t bother showing love to me’.  This might seem to make sense at the time but it’s coming from the triggered part of the brain and it keeps you away from your partner rather than bringing you closer.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that love means doing everything your partner wants you to do and ignoring the things that are important to you.  That would produce the opposite of a warm, loving relationship.  The challenge here is instead to be able to move into your adult thinking space, responding according to your values rather than being hijacked into childish or controlling responses that feel like self-protection but are instead, just childish and controlling.

Of course, flowers are just the ‘front’ for a deeper desire to be noticed, wanted, cherished.  The ‘front’ could be anything that represents love and care for an individual within a relationship.  ‘Why can’t you finish the back deck?’  ‘Why can’t I just spend a day fishing with my mates?’  ‘Can’t you just mind the kids while I….?’  ‘You never let me relax when I get home from work’ – all genuine dialogues about love and care that are waiting to be engaged.  The examples of unmet desires can go on forever but the triggered responses, and the hurting, can stop. 

As soon as you are ready.