The Question That Will Save Your Relationship
I write about relationships, and over the years, have interviewed so many experts that I’ve lost count. Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced my family together 24/7 — and tensions frequently erupt around housework, homework, and personal space — I’ve found one piece of advice to be particularly life-changing.
The advice, courtesy of the New York City time management expert Julie Morgenstern, is simple. If a family member does something to annoy me (which, if I’m being honest, is happening hourly these days) I should ask myself one question before opening my mouth to protest: What does it cost me? Is my husband or child’s action costing me anything, or is it merely irritating?
According to Morgenstern, cost falls under one of three categories: time; money, or energy; and health. “These are the three most valuable assets we have in the pursuit of our goals,” she said when I recently phoned her. “If it doesn’t cost one of those resources, it’s likely just annoying — and therefore, not worth the fight.”
Here’s an example. In our household, I usually make dinner, and my husband Tom does the dishes. After dinner, he inevitably announces he is “letting the dishes soak” while he settles on the couch with his phone. I, on the other hand, like things to be done right away. If an hour goes by and the dishes are still in the sink, I start to twitch.
But do the dishes actually need to be done right away? Morgenstern walked me through what it is actually costing me to allow them to soak. Does it cost me time to let those dishes sit? Probably not, unless I needed to use the sink; what’s more, that extra soak might even be saving Tom time by minimizing the need for scrubbing. Would dish-soaking cost me money? Well, no. Nor would it cost me my health or energy, unless the dishes were left for so long that mold formed. And he does, I should note, tend to wash them before that might happen.
So no, it was not costing me anything — I just wanted the chore to be done. Asking myself that one question cuts through the emotional clutter of my individual preferences and gets right to the heart of the issue. It helps me decide whether Tom’s way of doing dishes is a battle worth fighting, or just an irritating habit I need to learn to live with.
The question works to help you pick battles worth fighting, too. I told Morgenstern about my daughter’s habit of snacking in her room and leaving food all over the place.
“Well, let’s go through it,” she said. “Does it cost you time? Yes, in debating how to bring this up to your kid in a constructive way that changes their behavior, without creating a blowup that will cost you time repairing later. Does it cost you money? Potentially, if you have to hire an exterminator. Does it cost you health or energy? Absolutely, because vermin bring all sorts of gross germs.” After I hung up, I felt confident laying down the law with my daughter.
Asking what something costs me has not only made for a more peaceful household, it also calls me on my own behavior. I am fanatically neat; my husband and daughter are not. Neither approach is “right,” merely different. The question pushes me to respect that difference — because often the answer is that it doesn’t cost me a thing.