By Amy Alkon
Q: I have a bad temper, and I’m trying to change. Now when I’m mad, I leave the room to compose myself. Recently, my boyfriend said something that really upset me. Taking a break allowed me to calmly explain that he’d hurt my feelings. He apologized, and I could tell he truly felt bad—much worse than if I had raged on him. Can you explain this?—Formerly Volcanic
A: It’s really smart to “take 10” when you’re angry—and not just because it takes that long to get the gasoline, pour it all over your boyfriend’s Xbox, and light it on fire.
As I explained recently, screaming at a guy—a verbal attack—launches the same fight-or-flight defense system as trying to use the guy’s face as a bar rag. And once a person’s adrenaline gets let out of the gate, there’s no coaxing it back. That’s why Braveheart would be a Monty Python movie if the Scots, upon doing their battle cry, stopped, looked at one another, and then called to the English: “Say, luvvies … on second thought … shall we all put down these silly battle-axes, wash our faces, and chat out our differences o’er a cup o’ tea?”
As for why your emotional makeover led your boyfriend to go more Mother Teresa than angry motherf—-er, social psychologist C. Daniel Batson explains that we have two distinct emotional responses to perceiving another person in need. The first, “personal distress,” leads us to have an “egoistic” motivation—to focus on ourselves and how we can escape our own uncomfortable feelings. The other response is empathy—or really, “empathic concern,” which leads to an altruistic motivation: Wanting to comfort the other person. You’re more likely to elicit the empathic response when your boyfriend doesn’t need to mount a defense—that is, when you approach him with quiet hurt and disappointment instead of like a hornet with boobs and a purse.
Kudos to you for recognizing that having a feeling isn’t a reason to hop on it and ride it like a hoverboard. But in light of how gnarly-hard impulse control can be, what’s most impressive are your adult timeouts—putting space between having a feeling and acting on it. It is good for your boyfriend to believe he can always count on you—but not to explode and take his hand off like black-market fireworks you bought with the possum jerky out of the trunk of some guy’s car.
Q: I have noticed something odd in my relationship: The less demanding I am the more my boyfriend does what I want. Are guys so defiant, like little boys, that if you tell them what to do, they won’t do it? Curiously, if, after saying what I want, I add “but do what you want,” he usually does the thing I was hoping for. I don’t get it.—Puzzled
A: “Hey, baby, let’s role-play. I’ll be Stalin, and you be the tens of millions of peasants he sent to labor camps!”
Pick one—having a relationship or ruling the world’s tiniest totalitarian state. There are ways to get a man to do your bidding, and barking orders at him is among the least successful. (This is not the kind of doggy-style a man is hoping for.) Social psychologist Jack Brehm’s research on what he deemed “psychological reactance” finds what anybody with a 2-year-old knows all too well: The more you try to pressure somebody to do something the more they will “react”—that is, resist being controlled.
You can use what you’ve discovered to stealth-control a guy—trick him into bending to your will by being all, “I dunno … do what you want … ” However, what’s better is not needing to control him. You can get to that point by being consistently giving. This tends to cue our psychological mechanism for reciprocity—our internal accounting system that keeps track of gifts and favors we’ve received and bugs us when we’re in the red (kind of like a bill collector who demon-calls our conscience instead of our phone).
And, sure, this reciprocity thing can also be used to pull a guy’s strings. But, especially over time, we seem able to sniff out people’s motives. So see that you’re giving out of love rather than out of a desire to, uh, nanomanage (because micromanagement is for slackers). When generosity of spirit is what’s driving you, you’re likely to inspire the guy to give back—wanting to make you happy, as opposed to wanting to get your “honey-dos” out of the way so he can tie up two guards and tunnel out of the relationship with a sharpened toothbrush.