By Carlene Lehmann, LMFT
I first heard of the term “Loving Firmness” from Terry Real, psychotherapist and creator of Relational Life Therapy. It is bringing kindness and firmness together. It helps us to be assertive without being aggressive.
How can we develop loving firmness?
It is where you cherish your partner or child, yourself, and your relationship in equal measure. You are able to speak up and have your voice heard without having to be harsh.
Instead of criticism and contempt, you treat your partner or child with the same level of politeness you would afford any other human being. It is about catching ourselves as we start to think “God, why doesn’t he just pick up his clothes. Can’t he see they get in my way” or “She never appreciates what I do for her. There is no gratitude”. We have to become aware of these thoughts and notice what we are feeling- anger, frustration, sadness. When we feel this way, most of us want it to stop. It’s uncomfortable. As humans, we don’t like discomfort and we will do anything to not feel it. We will often react- yell, blame, or withdraw.
Once we start to realize that we are having these thoughts and feelings. Then we can do something about it. Instead of being on automatic pilot, we can take steps toward a new way of being with our loved ones.
A clue that we are going into criticism is we tend to use words like “always”, “should”, and “never”. They are a generalized, sweeping attack at your partner’s character, rather than pinpointing a specific incident or behavior. Most likely our loved one has done what we wished they would do at some point in time, but we feel like it has been a long time or it is something we are really needing from them. There is an urgency to the need. In these cases, we get more emphatic in our language. We want to be heard, so we ramp up our response. But this usually pushes them away.
It usually causes our loved one to get defensive. They may respond “I’m busy! I’ll get to them later” or “I didn’t think you cared!”. The walls start to go up and they feel attacked.
Instead, let us try loving firmness. It is speak up for what we are needing in a firm and clear way in which we speak to the incident or behavior, not the person. So let’s say your partner or child didn’t do the dishes. They had agreed to do them and now it’s 9pm and there is a full sink of dirty dishes. You are probably thinking “Here we go again. They haven’t done the dishes and I’m exhausted”. Instead of doing what you would have done before- yell at them to come do the dishes, clean them yourself, or give up and go to bed- you take a moment and take a deep breath. You help to calm yourself down, so you can respond instead of react. You connect with the frustration you feel for your loved one and also the love you have for them. You are “talking yourself down”. Think of what you would say to a dear friend in this situation. That’s the part of you you need to come from.
This is not always easy. It definitely takes some practice. It is not our automatic way that comes up so easy. We have to have a pause in between the thoughts and saying something to our loved one. But in the end, this increases the odds of your partner really hearing your concern.
So, in the situation above, a new way of talking to your partner or child would be to say “Hey, I know you’ve been busy. I noticed the sink is full of dishes. It would be helpful if you could put them in the dishwasher before you go to bed.” Then you pause. In this you are not attacking them. You are acknowledging what might have been going on for them which can help minimize any shame they might feel for forgetting and you are asking clearly for what you need in a respectful way. This way of communicating helps to calm the nervous system. It helps your loved one know you are with them instead of against them.
If you have a teen, a loved one that gets defensive easily, or they are tired or hungry, it is possible that they may still get defensive when you speak in this new way. That’s okay. In that situation, it is important to notice “Oh, they are getting defensive.” “They think I’m mad at them or attacking them”. Since that is not your intention it is important to let them know. “Hey, I’m not trying to get on to you. I’m not upset. I know we can all use a reminder at times. That’s all.” Then the most important part is to not say anything else. Allow space. They might say something. If not, it’s okay to walk away and then see what happens. Many times this allows their nervous system to settle and gives them the space to do what was asked without feeling pressured or shamed.
Try it out and see what happens. Conduct your own little experiment. This also works with other people in our lives as well- parents, coworkers, friends. We are here to help you if you would like more support with this. Know it takes time to develop new practices and we won’t be perfect with it. So, go easily on yourself. You are learning something new!
Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist at Relationships Matter Austin in Austin, Texas. Carlene works with individuals, couples, and families. She can help you work through conflict and create more closeness in your relationships. To schedule your appointment with Carlene, you can reach her at (512) 994-0432 or request an appointment with her on the Relationships Matter Austin Scheduling Page.