A TV host found me online through my trademark, “Be Direct with Respect®.” He asked me to appear on his show, sharing why respect is so important to me. For once, I, the communication strategist, couldn’t think of a thing to say. Suddenly, I remembered a turning point I’d buried years before.
At 21, fresh out of college and a brand new teacher, I moved out on my own. While my parents had imbued me with a belief in hard work and persistence, I was still a free spirit with my self-esteem intact. Or so I thought. Then I met Jerry.
After a one-year courtship, we married. Then we argued—just like any couple. The problem was that Jerry is a talented attorney. Each time we disagreed, I felt like we were in court. Since I had no training in argumentation, I was no match. My outlook had always been positive and focused on fairness, but that situation was neither positive nor fair. I didn’t have a clue how to stand up for myself. After several months, all my energy was gone and I felt invisible and voiceless —as if I’d been zapped by the Dementors from Harry Potter. I didn’t want to leave him but I couldn’t continue as we were.
Instead, I became a woman on a mission. Assertiveness was my Holy Grail. Somehow, I would make my husband behave. However, reading The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner really opened my eyes. Dr. Lerner points out that when one person in a relationship changes the steps of a dance, the other follows. It became so clear! All that time, I had been trying to fix Jerry, and nothing had ever changed except my frustration level. Now I realized I had to alter the steps of the dance. It was me who needed to change. I’d have to take a risk and have a tough conversation the next time we disagreed.
The argument that broke this passive pattern involved my decision to go back to school and pursue a career in counseling and coaching. I was thrilled, and of course I thought Jerry would be as delighted as I was. I couldn’t wait to share my new ideas with Mr. Lawyer. Imagine my shock when Jerry told me that it would be a waste of time. He wanted me to go into sales since he knew how focused and hardworking I was.
At that moment, the old Joyce disappeared. I kept calm, drew in a breath, and took a huge risk. “I am frustrated when I share my excitement about becoming a counselor because my ideas are discounted.” I had done it—I’d changed the dance steps! Jerry was surprised with my direct statement, and realized I respected him and was not sarcastic. Most importantly, I’d respected myself by standing up for what was important to me.
That one conversation changed our entire relationship. It took many more books and months of coaching for both of us to change our steps, but it worked. We are still happily married. Of course, we still disagree, but now we interact as equals and there is no winning or losing. When people ask why I specialize in conflict management, I tell them that I married a lawyer. They laugh and think that I’m joking. You know the rest of my story.