Unlikely Fact Number Four:

Invitations are not always inviting or why the liberty to make our own choices may not feel liberating.

Brief vignette number one:  You are reading the newspaper on a lazy Sunday afternoon when your wife asks you if you would like to go to the movies later that evening.  Instead of feeling pleased about the invitation you find yourself feeling annoyed.  Why?

Brief vignette number two: Your husband calls to say he’d like to meet you for dinner tonight. He says he has no preferences on where he’d like to eat and that you should feel free to pick the restaurant yourself. Instead of feeling good about the invitation you find yourself feeling annoyed.  Why?

Brief vignette number three: You are watching “Monday Night Football” on TV when your wife walks into the room and asks if you would like to join her in the bedroom after the game for a sexual encounter. Instead of feeling pleased about the offer you find yourself feeling annoyed.  Why?

All three of the above proposals appear, on the surface, to be invitations to a good time. If we assume that the recipients of these three scenarios would usually have been pleased to have received any one of these offers, then we need to ask ourselves what in the world the problem could be.  What is it about all three invitations that result in annoyance rather than joyful delight?  Why might someone find an invitation to the movies, dinner, or sex anything but appealing?

Yet the annoyances (and sometimes worse) resulting from the types of invitations described above are illustrative of exactly the kinds of problems resulting from these inadvertently flawed invitations that couples bring to my office everyday.  The spouse extending the invitation can’t understand why in the world his or her offer could possibly cause an argument.  And the invitees are themselves bewildered about just why things invariably go awry.

One couple I saw recently told me about how their usual attempt to plan an outing to a movie typically results in their inability to decide either when to leave the house (should we go to the 7 o’clock or 10 o’clock showing?) or in their inability to select a movie (will we see the art house film or the latest special effects blockbuster?) both would like to see. The result: they rarely get out to see a movie.

Another couple was astounded by the fact that every attempt to eat out invariably becomes thwarted by some seemingly trivial barrier such as whether or not they grab a bite at the local neighborhood burger joint or drive downtown and try out the new Afghani restaurant everyone is talking about.

And the third vignette in which one spouse proffers a seemingly innocent invitation for romance to the other could describe a situation that occurs in fully eighty percent  of the married couples I see.  Invitations to join a spouse to make love more often than you might imagine turn out to be invitations to a quarrel about their lovemaking.

Perhaps one last non-marriage related example can give you a hint about the point I am attempting to make here.

Vignette number four. You are one of ten guests who have been invited to the home of a new acquaintance when he announces that dinner is being served.  While trying to decide where to sit, your host tells you to feel free to sit where ever you’d like.  Instead of feeling good about the freedom to choose your own seat you find yourself feeling annoyed.  Why?

Perhaps, with the presentation of this last vignette, the problem with the three previous scenarios can now be brought more clearly into focus.  What I am getting at here is that invitations that are ambiguous or that leave the invitee unsure about certain elements of the invitation are often perceived as uninviting and can frequently be received as unwelcome.

Most of us, before responding to an invitation, would like to know what exactly the nature of the invitation is.  Are we being invited to a brief cocktail party from which we can escape in thirty minutes if we find ourselves either bored or boring or are we in fact being invited to a four hour sit down dinner from which escape is virtually impossible?  Are we being invited to a party where the other guests will be wearing jeans and tee shirts or to a more formal get together where we might be expected to wear our Sunday best?

The ironic fact is that hosts often believe they are doing their guests a favor by being “flexible” and offering them the option of deciding for themselves where they’d like to sit or what they’d like to wear.  They mistakenly think their guests appreciate flexibility.  But what guests really want is for the host to remove the uncertainty from an ambiguous situation and to simply tell us what it is they expect of us.

Now to return to the first three vignettes. Vignette number one backfired  because the recipient of the invitation became confused.  When he was asked if he’d like to go to the movies he had no idea what the correct answer was.  Was his wife really saying, “Honey, you look really bored being stuck in the house and although I am happy to stay home and read the newspaper with you, I’d be perfectly willing to join you if you would like to go to see the latest James Bond movie.”  Or was she really saying, “I would like to see the new version of “Pride and Prejudice” and would really like for you to join me for the 7 o’clock showing at the downtown Cineplex.”

If his wife were asking question number one, he might have been quick to say, “No, I am not really interested in going to the movies today.  I’m having a really good time reading the paper.”  If, on the other hand, she had asked question number two, his answer might have been more like, “I’d be glad to accompany you to the movies. But rather than go downtown for the 7 o’clock show at the Cineplex, I’d rather have a more leisurely dinner at home and then go to the 9:30 showing at the local movie theater.”

However, because the question was phrased so vaguely, the husband instead wound up feeling annoyed because he didn’t want to upset his wife yet didn’t know which answer she really wanted.  He didn’t know if his wife was trying to do him a favor or whether she was requesting one of him.  He wanted to do the right thing but because the invitation was worded so vaguely, he couldn’t figure out what the “correct” answer should be.

Of course, you may be thinking, he might easily have gotten around the problem by simply asking his wife directly what her preference was.  But that might just as easily resulted in his wife saying, “I was asking you. Why must you always answer all of my questions with a question?” with the result being that she now feels annoyed that her husband could not or would not answer her “simple” question.  What’s the moral of the story?  You are not doing your spouse, or for that matter anyone else, a favor by extending an invitation that does not include all of the pertinent information.

Similarly, invitation number two might have been extended more precisely as “Honey, I’ve had a really hard day at the office today and eating out in my favorite Chinese restaurant near my office would give me the perfect opportunity to un-wind.  Would you be willing to drive downtown to meet me there at 6:30?”  Such an invitation is clear and unambiguous and the recipient of the invitation does not have to guess what else might be expected of her.  Also, since the person extending the invitation has already decided on the choice of restaurant, the invitee is relieved of any additional burden except having to decide whether she wants to accept the invitation as is.

Of course, just as in vignette number one, the wife in this case is free to offer modifications to the original invitation by, for example, offering to meet him at a different time or location which might be somewhat more convenient for her.

Scenario number three which for other reasons (primarily having to do with the fact that the subject of the conversation is about sex which itself is a more complicated issue than those raised by the other vignettes) would also likely have gone better if the wife’s invitation was more precise.  For example, did the wife who was inviting her husband for a sexual encounter for later that evening forget (as did one of my clients) that her husband had previously told her that he needed to get to sleep early that night in order to drive for three hours the next morning to the office of an important client?  Or did she in fact remember what he had told her and was she actually thinking, “I’ll take this opportunity to initiate a romantic encounter on the one evening that I know my husband will turn me down. That way he can’t accuse me of never initiating sex.”

Or perhaps what the vague invitation for a sexual encounter really meant was the following.  “Honey, I know that you are a really kind considerate lover and would not usually want to plan a sexual encounter unless there was plenty of time for both of us to relax so that we could both really enjoy ourselves.  However, I also realize that because of our busy schedules we have been romantically unavailable for one another for over a week.  So I am making you a “no strings attached” offer for a “quickie” sexual encounter.  I will be glad to offer you all the pleasure you may wish tonight, but because of the circumstances of your work, I will not be expecting anything back in return.”

The above stated offer is much less likely to have led to the annoyance that the first variation on this invitation was likely to lead to.

Which brings me to the dinner party vignette in which we were asked to choose our own seat and “sit wherever you’d like.”  When we find ourselves in a new or uncomfortable environment most of us crave nothing more than to know what the “rules of the house” are and to know what is expected of us.  Nothing makes people more anxious than ambiguity.

What follows from this? We’d prefer to be told where to sit.  Why?  Because invitations are not always inviting and the liberty to make our own choices does not always feel liberating.

Click for Unlikely Fact Number Five