Why Your Partner Never Does What You Ask (& How To Get Them To Start)

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How Men And Women In Healthy Relationships Get What They Want Using Effective Communication

Couples in healthy relationships know that effective communication skills are critical for long-term happiness. However, learning how to communicate effectively with your partner isn't always straightforward.

When you find yourself having to repeatedly ask for what you want in your relationship and your partner still doesn't deliver, complaining can feel like the only option you have left. 

Born complaining, we enter life with a wail. Adults are hard-wired to respond to a baby’s cry. That may be why certain kinds of complaining work well, and others are said to be deadly.

A number of authors quote a study that proves complaining shrinks the brain's hippocampus. It seems so intuitively reasonable that it almost doesn't matter that this study doesn't exist!

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Complaining asks others to pay attention when something's wrong. When it works well, it can produce results. But there’s one kind complaining that backfires every time. It’s the complaint that takes the place of a wish.

"You don’t bring me flowers anymore," actually comes from a wish that your partner would bring you flowers. Likewise, "You never take the garbage out," is a wish that your partner would pick up their end of the housekeeping details.

The tricky part is that the person complaining usually thinks they’re asking for what they want.

Think about it: How often have you been frustrated by a partner who gets defensive when you ask that way? "You don’t …" is often the beginning of an argument. Then not only do you not get what you want, but now your partner is angry. Why is that?

You wish your partner would treat you the way you would like to be treated. You’ve probably demonstrated the behavior you want, over and over, and they’re just not getting it. You’ve been very patient and tried again and again, and they still don’t get it.

Why wouldn't you be disappointed? Why wouldn't you be highly frustrated? And now you’re pointing out what they've missed, and they get mad at you.

Maybe you've even told them — communicating in words! —what you want from them, and they don't remember. You don't want to have to tell them, because they already agreed to do it, but they're not doing it — or at least, not doing it the way you'd like.

Doesn't it make sense that this would be the time to lodge a complaint? Otherwise, aren't you just giving in or giving up? If they really loved you, wouldn't they be on the same page as you?

This is a common and "normal" way of thinking about communication in relationships, but there are some problems with it.

You come into relationships with certain ideas about how partners should be with one another. You both have pretty fixed pictures of what it’s like to be a partner. But the source of your information is different.

You bring with you the traditions — both conscious and unconscious — of your respective families, who may be very different. When your partner behaves according to their background, you may react poorly. This is when, in couple’s counseling, you might say to your partner, "Any reasonable person wouldn't act that way!"

"Reasonable" in this case means in accordance with your background.

For example, maybe you like to be coddled and comforted when you're ill, and your partner would like to be left alone. If they act according to their own way of loving, they won’t fluff up your pillows for you, or ask you if you’d like a cup of tea. Simply because that’s not in their picture of how you treat a sick person.

Conversely, they may push you away when you "hover" — which would be exactly what you'd like, but it’s too much disturbance for them.

So long as you keep trying to show one another the "right" way to be, you will be disappointing each other. You need to learn how to communicate better by using your words.

You need to tell one another what you like, and how you’d like them to be with you.

And you need to be willing to "train" them. Telling someone once is not enough to undo years of habit, even when they’ve listened, and understood, and agreed. Learning to share a mutual life is a long undertaking.

When you don't put in this kind of effort, though, you're pretty well doomed to disappointment. And it's so very easy to avoid the work, and to wish your partner had done it, already! And that’s where this utterly useless kind of complaining comes in.

It may feel easier to be disappointed, as painful as that is, than to put on your big-kid pants and remember that adult relationships take mature effort. It feels easier to complain to your partner that they’re not treating you "right." (After all, when you were little, didn't whining or crying get you that cookie?)

So you’re disappointed, and a little angry that you’re not getting what you want. But you probably know that acting angry won’t get it for you, so you complain. You’re probably not even aware that this complaint is a passive-aggressive attack.

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Your partner knows it, though. They know you think they’ve been "bad." So they will probably either defend or fight back. Maybe they will give you a laundry list of all the things they have done for you, or come back at you with, "Well, you don’t …"

Now you’re facing off over the many disappointments you’ve had with each other, and you both feel bad. And you usually part ways in a huff. Neither of you feels satisfied, or even that they’ve gotten their point across to the other.

Instead of making a complaint, you each need to practice good communication skills and learn to ask — in a particular way — for what you need.

Ask in a manner that says you deserve what you’re asking for. If you approach with the idea that your partner will probably say "no" — well, they probably will.

If you expect your partner to want to do what you want (like when Jennifer Anniston's character says in the movie, The Break Up, says, "I want you to WANT to do the dishes!") you may be asking for the impossible. If you want to shame them into doing what you want, you may get action, but you’ll definitely get resentment.

This is one of those times when your unconscious anger and resentment comes straight through, and your message is lost.

Instead, plan ahead. Start with a conversation about what you want. This would be before the head of steam builds up.

Remember not to assume that your partner can read your mind, so you want to make sure you talk to them so they know what you like. This is a vital step, because once you know you are both clear on the subject, you can refer back to the conversation.

If the conversation doesn't seem to bear fruit, you can go into "reminder" mode. This is not the same as "nagging," although we tend to mix up the two. This looks like, "Remember, you said you would … XYZ. Please do it now."

If that’s not working, you can't avoid feeling angry. Not only is your partner not doing as promised, but now they're ignoring you. But do not complain.

As we've seen, that kind of passive-aggressive approach derails you. Tell your partner directly, "We had an agreement and you're not living up to it. That makes me angry!"

Scared to do that? I can assure you, expressing your anger that way is not harmful to anyone, even though your partner may not like it. Speaking anger directly is powerful.

Try it out in the mirror, if you'd like. Make the face that goes with anger. You may feel silly, or scared, and want to giggle. Don't.

When someone is blowing you off, anger is the right feeling. Disrespect is not only harmful to you, but also to your relationship. When you express your anger directly, you are actually preserving the connection between you.

So, complain about poor service, or bond over shared complaints about a bad movie, but when it comes to getting what you want from your partner, speak directly.

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Cheryl Gerson is a licensed clinical social worker and board certified diplomate, specializing in relationships. She has been in private practice in New York City for over 25 years. Call her for an in-depth conversation about the right treatment for you.