Earlier today I received a call from a man, Bob, who is engaged and making preparations to get married. He and his fiancée both own their own homes, so they made a decision that he would sell his home and move into hers. In the process of putting his home on the market, however, he discovered that the foundation had significant structural cracks that would require expensive repairs.
He called to say that he was finding it difficult to ask for help from his fiancee, Shirley. It was killing him that he would need her help with more and more things as he worked with the realtor, the contractors, the redecorating of the house, and all the other details involved with repair, selling, and moving. He was overwhelmed in either direction: if he tried to do it all alone or if he asked her for help.
“Why does it bother you to ask her for help?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
When people say they find something difficult, they’re almost always using difficult as a code word for afraid. Rarely, however, do they realize this, much less what exactly they are afraid of. I knew this when I spoke to Bob, but I was asking the question just to get the conversation started.
“Let’s look at some of the negative things that could happen as a result of your asking Shirley for help, because as you recognize them, simply bringing them into the light may make you less afraid. The unknown is usually more frightening than what we can see. And we might be able to come up with a plan for overcoming some of these obstacles. So, think about it. Picture yourself asking her to help you with the decorating, the house selling, the contractor, everything. What could happen?”
He paused for quite a while before he answered. “It might not be the way I want.”
“Excellent,” I said. “If you ask for help, you might lose some control over things, right?”
“Yes,” he said, with a tone of surprise. “I never thought of it that way. I never thought of myself as a control freak.”
“We all like to control things to be our way to a certain extent. And now you get to learn a powerful lesson. Why are you getting married?”
“Because I love her.”
“I think so,” he said.
“And really loving her would mean to care about her happiness, wouldn’t it?”
“Which would mean learning a whole new way of doing things. It would mean learning to do things in a way that contributes to the happiness of the two of you, not just the way you want to do things, which is how you’ve been accustomed to living. Being married means doing things together as a unit. It means losing some of that control you just said you were afraid of losing.”
“Hmm.” He knew there was more coming.
“So, if you ask for help here, you’re concerned about losing control, but asking for help and losing control is exactly what you need to do. You need let go of control and let someone else into your life so you can learn to love, learn to be loved, and learn to be a couple. You already know how to be alone and in control, and that hasn’t made you all that happy. Understand what I’m saying?”
“Yesss . . .”
“There’s a but in there.”
“You’re still wondering if you let her start doing things, she might just screw up and make a mess of things.”
“She might actually do that on occasion. And that’s when the two of you will learn how to work together as a loving couple. These apparently minor occasions are actually critical. They begin to establish the pattern for the remainder of your relationship. Consider what is important to you. Do you want a particular thing done your way, or do you want to build the unconditional love in your relationship? If you control everything she does, you might as well live by yourself for the rest of your life. If you control her, you’ll just turn her into an extension of yourself, and that is not a partnership. It will kill any feeling of love between you. On the other hand, you don’t have to accept every form of help she offers. If she’s helping you in a way you just can’t live with, speak up and say something. Tell her you really would prefer she do whatever-it-is a different way. You will spend your whole lives together practicing the principles of Real Love, and you start right now, by asking for help. Making sense so far?”
“Now let’s talk about a second fear you might have. What if you ask her for help, and she lets you down? You need quite a bit of help. What if she just isn’t there for you as much as you need, and you’re disappointed? Does that bother you?”
“Yeah, it does.”
“How many people in your life have consistently been there for you whenever you’ve needed them?”
“So it would be a significant fear for you that if you asked for help you might be disappointed. But we all live with that. There just might be occasions when she’ll deliver less than you’d like. But until you ask for help, you also won’t get any help at all. You’ll be pushing away all the opportunities for her to demonstrate that she cares about you. You’ll feel alone and unloved. So why not let her try? Why eliminate all the opportunities for love, just because there might be a few occasions when she’ll love you less than you’d hoped? That would be like deciding to never eat again because you’re afraid that an occasional meal might be disappointing.”
“I get the point.”
“Here’s a third reason you might be afraid to ask Shirley for help, and it’s a variation on the first reason. You might be afraid that she would use this as an opportunity to control you, to tell you what to do. Shirley is pretty outspoken, while you’re fairly quiet, and this would give her a chance to intrude and control you.”
“You’ve got it.”
“Who else in your life did this?”
“My mother, every chance she got.”
“So, what could you do so that you could feel less afraid of being controlled?”
“I don’t know.”
“Just tell the truth about it. Always deal with the truth. When you ask for her help, tell her about this fear. Tell her that you’re afraid of being controlled. Tell her that it’s an old fear—not about Shirley—one that came from interactions with your mother. Then propose a solution, because you don’t want this to get in the way of the love in your relationship. It’s always about keeping and building love. If an occasion arises where you feel like she’s telling you what to do—whether she actually is or not—you’ll give her some kind of indication that you’re feeling anxious. You could agree on a hand sign (raising your hand like a stop sign) or a set of words (‘I need to pause here to talk about this step’) or something that would bring everything to a stop. At that point, whatever is going on needs to stop until you feel like you’re being listened to and a course of action is being taken that you agree with.”
“But then what would I say?”
“Easy. In a calm, non-defensive way, you tell her what you need from her in the way of help. If she persists in doing something her way—where she is not listening to you—you tell her that she has three choices: (1) She can help you your way and like it; or (2) help you your way and hate it; or (3) not help you at all. Remember, she is helping you, and you really do get to decide how she helps you, or whether she helps you at all. Would that make you feel more comfortable?”
“Oh yeah. I just never thought about all those options.”
“There’s possibly a fourth reason you would find it difficult to ask Shirley for help. When you were a kid and asked people questions, or asked people for help, did people ever make you feel weak or stupid?”
“All the time.”
“Is that playing a factor here?”
“Yes. I feel like all this is stuff I should be able to handle by myself, so if I ask for help, that makes me both stupid and weak. A real man should be able to handle all this, and I’m really feeling overwhelmed. I don’t like this feeling very much.”
“That’s a huge advantage of having a partner. You now have someone who complements you, which means someone who fills out what you don’t have, who completes you. How can you take advantage of that huge gift unless you ask her to help you? Not asking would be kind of stupid, wouldn’t it? That would be kind of like getting a new car and not turning on the key, because you were afraid that you might get a flat tire, or you might wear out the engine, or you might have other problems. Yes, you might have all those problems, but so what? That just goes with having a car. You can’t have benefits without risks. Relationships are like that. Love is like that. If you want all the rewards of love and a partnership—which are abundant beyond expression—you have to start taking the risks, and it starts right now. You have to start asking her for help. You have to start getting intimate, which begins with moments like this. Are you willing?”
Bob decided he was willing to take the risks.
As we seek closer relationships with others, it is inevitable that we ask for help, ask questions, tell the truth about ourselves, and inconvenience each other. In the process we will make mistakes—lots of them. Taking risks and making mistakes, in fact, is required, and if we are willing to make them, we will be showered with the sweet rewards of Real Love and the intimate relationships we seek.