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Expressing one’s needs no easy task

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend once accused me of being passive-aggressive, and now I’m paranoid. Granted, I don’t find it easy to express anger directly but mostly that’s because I feel it’s unwarranted. For example, I don’t feel justified in getting mad and yelling when my boyfriend is tired on a Friday night and would rather stay in by himself. Likewise, if he fails to call, I’d rather be uncommunicative back (sending curt e-mails). Isn’t that expressing my annoyance?

Or am I being immature? I’d like to think I’d call him on bigger problems. My parents had major communication problems (no yelling, but a failure to talk about or deal with their problems), which led to infidelity and divorce. I don’t want to be the same way. – Potential Passive-Aggressive

“I’m annoyed.” That’s expressing annoyance. Snippy little e-mails are hints, and people drop hints when they’re too chicken to say what they want.

In your examples, you rationalized not articulating your needs: because you had no right to (ask him to go out), and shouldn’t have to (ask him to call). If these accurately reflect your behavior, then you’re channeling your parents, thinking and feeling and wanting things that you express backhandedly, instead of just speaking up.

Good communication starts with asking for what you want. Knowing what you want means knowing your priorities. Knowing those means figuring out what your emotions mean.

Which brings us to the intersection where you consistently make a wrong turn (just as your parents taught). When you’re upset, you have a choice: Take the “safe,” nonconfrontational way out; or, trust that your emotions mean something and confront their source.

The former may seem sensible: Why freak out over a skipped call?

However, you are bothered – you’re just not saying so, ostensibly to keep the peace. But you’re merely postponing the battle (the “passive”) for when your anger can’t be contained. In the meantime, you inflict nonverbal punishment (the “aggressive”) as both a release and a bid to be heard – which only drives your mate away.

We’ve all heard “It’s not worth breaking up over,” but avoiding the initial, awkward conversation does so much more damage than actually having it. Anger becomes chronic, fights recur, affairs start, feelings die.

So when you can’t shake the small stuff, there’s a bigger problem. Maybe you’re insecure and quick to feel rejection; maybe your mate is disrespectful; maybe feelings have changed; whatever. Distress warrants careful thought and attention, even if the trigger is minor, and even – this is key – when that attention disrupts your comfort zone.

This oversimplifies an intensely difficult process; it’s tough to know what’s right, who’s wrong, when (not) to take things personally. For breakup-phobes, “I’m annoyed” is heresy.

So train yourself to read your emotions more accurately and respond more productively: Start noting your reactions, leaven them with facts, and convert them to rational actions.

E.g.: “I’m mad. Why am I mad? Because I’m sick of solo Fridays. Should I be upset that he’s tired? No, it’s who he is – but I like going out. Can I be happy dating a homebody? Maybe not. I’ll tell him my Fridays matter to me, and see what comes of that.”

Think of such mental dialogues as training wheels: ridiculous-looking, but essential, until you can ride on your own.

E-mail Carolyn at, or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at
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