Saturday, March 24, 2007

HTT, should I abandon all hope?


Before you rant about mustards, be sure to investigate the Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin: The Arran Scottish herb whole-seed mustard is like vegetarian caviar.

Here's a question for you:

My long-term significant other and I get along great except for one thing that bugs me to no end: I'm punctual, he isn't. It drove me so nuts when we were first dating that I created a conversion chart for him so we could calculate how much time to add on to his estimates (e.g. if he said "15 minutes," the chart showed he really meant "25 minutes.")

Over the past few years, we've enjoyed a lull in his habitual tardiness, but it's getting worse again and the chart isn't helping. The other week, I needed him to be home for parenting duty in time for me to get to a meeting. I told him I could make other kidcare arrangements if he couldn't manage it, but he swore up and down he'd be home in time. He wasn't. We left for a short family getaway the next day and I spent the whole weekend continuing to be pissed off at him, which wasn't exactly romantic.

I obviously can't change his behavior. What can I change in mine? I've thought about simply abandoning hope that he'll ever reliably be on time for anything, but that doesn't seem like a healthy way to foster trust. Other suggestions?

--Frustrated in NC

Dear Frustrated,

Thanks for the mustard tip! I’m always happy to expand my pantry of condiments.

As for your question: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in my experience you cannot expect lasting, reliable change from the habitually late. I have a good friend for whom punctuality is an on-going challenge. I’m not talking 5, 10 minutes late. I mean more in the vicinity of 30 minutes. I’ve seethed about how she doesn’t value my time, how rude it is to show up late, how any reasonably organized adult ought to be able to show up on schedule (or close to it---I’m not completely anal retentive) unless there are legitimate extenuating circumstances. I’ve gotten beyond tetchy sitting alone in a restaurant or standing in line at a movie theater waiting for her to show. I’ve laid on guilt trips and given her the silent treatment when she’d finally blow in, hastily explaining all the reasons she’d been held up and apologizing profusely.

But guess what I discovered? These tactics don’t work. In fact, they’re often counterproductive. For one, as you pointed out, they tend to ruin the time you do spend together. For another, this approach causes the tardy, in an attempt not to displease you, to provide overly optimistic estimates in the future about when they’ll be able to meet you, or how long it will take them pack up at work and be on their way home. And, finally, I often ended up feeling badly about my own (over?)reaction. The thing is, most late people don’t LIKE to be late. They don’t enjoy pissing off their friends and family. My friend, whom I suspect is representative of many late types, gets panicked and guilty when she starts running late, which probably just exacerbates the problem.

So I think you’re right when you say you can’t change your SO’s behavior. I recommend a three-pronged approach to dealing with it.

(1) Zen-like acceptance: If you agree with the premise that he truly doesn’t enjoy being late, that his tardiness does not reflect a casual disregard for your time, you might just have to accept that this trait is part of who he is and that all the anger and recriminations in the world aren’t going to change that. At the risk of sounding too Oprah-ish, I suggest you try to change how you feel about his tardiness. Hey, if it helps, try imagining that lateness is a mild form of mental illness for which we have yet to find a cure!

(2) Humility: I remind myself that I have my own unappealing traits. I’m opinionated (obviously), I’m not always reliable about returning phone calls, and I tend to hunker down at home when I get depressed without giving her a heads-up. I’m sure there are more, but these come immediately to mind. And yet, my friend remains my friend, so she must have reached her own zen-like acceptance and decided I’m worth it in spite of these factors. And I’m grateful for that.

(3) Small, practical changes: Now, when my friend suggests a time she’ll be ready to hit the town, I ask if that’s her optimistic estimate or realistic estimate. Sometimes she adjusts accordingly. I try, although not always successfully, not to get impatient if her realistic estimate is much later than I was hoping to get a move on. To give her a hard time would only encourage optimistic estimates, which she likely won’t be able to meet. Also, rather than setting a time to meet somewhere, I often suggest that she just call me from the car when she’s on her way, and then I, too, hit the road. I know some people recommend telling the habitually tardy that they’re needed 30 minutes or so before the actual time you need them to show up, but this seems sneaky. Plus, it doesn’t take them long to wise up.

Bottom line, I wouldn’t abandon all hope that he’ll be on time, but I’d abandon most of it. Try to think of this abandonment as a form of acceptance and forgiveness and maybe it won’t feel so bad.

Usually-punctually yours,