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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Relationship Troubles? Look at Your Shoulds (and Shouldn'ts)

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 13th 2012

fightEveryday relationships erupt into little fights over what many people later consider to be “little things.” He didn’t clean up his coffee grinds, she didn’t record my favorite show, or he wasn’t listening to my day. We all have these rules that live up in our brains, it’s a kind of model for how the world “should” work. We’re often unaware of these rules, but they inform our momentary reactions and decisions that can help or hinder our relationships. It’s time we get to know them better.

Consider for a moment any relationship you have. Maybe it’s a significant relationship or just a friendship (not that friendships aren’t significant, but you know what I mean). Consider “the shoulds” you have for that relationship. Should she always be listening or interested in what you have to say when you talk? Should he remember to take out the garbage when it’s full? If you are a having a tough day “should” you get a call? 

You can come up with a number of examples, but pay attention to the first one that comes up. 

For most of us the answer is yes and that yes gets us in a lot of trouble because the other person may not hold that same model. Their model may have reasons why they shouldn’t do the things in the moment that you think they should do. 

Let’s take being interested in what you have to say for example. 

Just to play with this concept and expand our minds for a moment, consider why this person “shouldn’t” be interested in what you’re talking about. What are some potential reasons? 

Maybe the other person is tired. Maybe the content you’re bringing up is triggering some kind of aversive reaction in them. Maybe they’ve heard you talk about this for a while, but there’s been no action or maybe the hard but important truth is that you’ve both become disconnected and the person actually doesn’t care anymore. That’s good information to have. 

Flipping “the should” 180 degrees helps us gain perspective on the other person’s mindset and reasons they may or may not be aware of for their reactions. If we know it’s because they’re tired or that it triggers some anxiety in them, then we take their disinterest less personally and it becomes more about them or the relationship then just about you. Then you can even say to them, “I can see how you might be too tired to talk about this right now and it’s so important to me, maybe we can find another time to discuss it.” 

This help the person feel like you understand them which creates connection and ultimately may allow them to soften into a listening place. 

Think about what your shoulds are in relationships.

But remember while it’s important to check out our “shoulds” in relationships, it's equally important to consider the other person's “shouldn’ts” to get a better understanding and facilitate awareness and connection in the relationship.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from. 


Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

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