Navigating the Gray Area

When my brother was in his twenties and a couple of years into marriage, he explained to me his theory about the cleanliness threshold. He drew out a chart where he illustrated the state of the household mess and that when it increased, it hit his wife’s threshold for a messy house long before it hit his. Therefore, she was always cleaning it and he never thought it was messy. The diagram looked something like this with the gray area as the space between her threshold and his:

Since I am six years younger and wasn’t married at the time he told me, I thought he was imparting some great wisdom about marriage. It wasn’t til later that I realized that his diagram depicted a way of looking at all our relationships.

Because our thresholds on any number of subjects will likely vary in a great number of areas from those around us: what qualifies as noise, when do we experience hunger, pain tolerance, ability to withstand uncertainty, desire to take risks, and our willingness to express ourselves or seek relief when we are exhausted, overwhelmed and sad to name just a few. So how do we live with others in the gray area between our tolerance level and theirs?

Believe Them

My years as a parent of young kids have taught me that it goes better when I believe them when they tell me how they feel. In that way, we don’t end up debating the truth of the feeling but instead can move to finding out what to do about it.

There are times they’ll tell me they are sad, frustrated, disappointed and I might say, “It’ll be okay” if we need to move on. But I try not to argue that they should be feeling something else like grateful, happy or blessed because it compounds the feeling. They stay stuck trying to prove what they are feeling instead of transitioning to the next phase of how to make it better.

Try to Laugh About It

The other day my 7-year-old daughter was goofing around before bed. Despite my numerous admonitions that she was too tired to keep safely doing cartwheels and should instead try to quiet her body, she kept throwing herself around the room until she ended up hurting her arm pit and her crotch. At that moment, I had the choice of being irritated that she didn’t listen or making a joke about those being two very unlikely body parts to get hurt at the same time. We ended up laughing all the way to bed about how that happened.

On a recent Unlocking Us podcast with Brené Brown, Drs. John and Julie Gottman were talking about their latest book, The Love Prescription: Seven Days to More Intimacy, Connection and Joy. They made the distinction between turning toward a bid of attention (responding or engaging when your partner says something like “look at that blue jay out the window”), turning away (ignoring) and turning against (responding with something like “why are you interrupting me?”).

In happy relationships, people turn toward their partner’s bids for attention 86% of the time, couples who were not successful only turn toward each other 33% of the time. John Gottman explained the result, “Couples who increase their turning toward wind up having more of a sense of humor about themselves when they are disagreeing with one another, when they are in conflict.

As Brené Brown summarized “Turning toward gives us a sense of confidence about our togetherness.” From there, it’s easier to find what’s funny about this daily existence.

Live Directly

In his book, The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo gives an example of being at an ice cream shop with a friend and eating their cones when the table next to them became boisterous. As he became more irritated, he asked if she wanted to go. But his friend was fine and in saying so, she noticed the look on his face and asked, “Do you want to go?”

He laughed as he realized he was couching his needs into some form of thoughtfulness instead of owning his own feelings. Relationships are so much easier when we claim our own stuff and live directly.

Navigating the Gray Area

My brother’s marriage from his 20’s, the source of the threshold theory, didn’t work out. Turns out his wife had a different standard for telling the truth about significant things. I suppose there needs to be another line on the chart for boundaries. Regardless, I learned a lot vicariously about living in the gray area with others. The longer I live, the more gray it gets but also easier to navigate if I believe others, laugh about it and own my own stuff.

What do you think about navigating the gray areas between us?

For more posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at or follow me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

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(featured photo from Pexels)

40 thoughts on “Navigating the Gray Area

  1. So much of life is perspective, yet we don’t realize it. This is a lovely exploration on perspective I very much like the idea of turning towards. It reminds me somewhat of “yes, and,” from improv, a style of interaction that’s open rather than closed.

    1. A lovely and enlightening exploration! There’s this delightful show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that in one of the first episodes shows Mrs. Maisel wake up more than an hour before her husband, jump out of bed, do her make-up, brush her teeth, etc., then get back into bed in time to “wake up” with her husband, looking all spiffy. It was hilarious, but after reading your post, it makes me wonder how much of the “gray” we create to our detriment, making a much larger “danger zone” to navigate.

      I think the graph points to an important truth, and if a (loving) spouse husband knows that their partner’s threshold is much lower than theirs, they may adjust to it. If it’s hidden from them, it’s so much harder to navigate?

      1. I love the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and how you’ve applied that to this post. You’re right – if we hide our threshold, how can others adjust? And the way you’ve named it the danger zone is great – yes, that is the danger zone and it’s wider with some than others, isn’t it? Love this wisdom and comment, EW!

  2. This post made me smile. Marriage, in my experience, is a constant stay of navigating ‘the gray’. What bothers the hubs…often doesn’t register as problematic for me at all…and what bothers me? Same. Unless I point it out, he’s unaware but it’s the constant reminders about my thresholds for this and that…being different than his…that can be maddening. What works for us? Respecting the differences. It makes me crazy when he RELOADS the dishwasher…after I’ve just cleaned up the kitchen…but I know it’s his inner engineer…thinking about efficiency for the machine. Me? I’m just cleaning up, my way, and that means getting dirty dishes INTO the dishwasher – and I’m happy. So I respect his need to reload and walk away…locking my lips and avoiding the urge to provide color commentary while he does his thing. xo, Wynne! Such a great post! 😘

    1. Oh, the dishwasher. I think you just nailed the biggest area (IMHO) of different thresholds. My ex used to unload the clean nesting stacking bowls and just stack them on top instead of re-nesting them. 🙂 You are so wise to skip color commentary, Vicki, and that’s why you have such a long and beautiful marriage, I’m sure. XOXO!

      1. Aaahh…don’t give too much praise. Every day is a new adventure where I learn how to pick and choose…and I’d say you do that very well…given your sweet sharing this morning about Mr. D and the socks. Love your wisdom in knowing it’s never REALLY about the socks…
        xo, Wynne! ❤❤❤

  3. Another very interesting post, Wynne; thank you for sharing it with us. I whole heartedly agree about the importance of not telling anyone how they should think and feel about anything; as it negates what they are feeling. Personally, I feel that dealing with the issues that fall into the grey area becomes so much easier when we see “others” as ourself, in a multitutde and diversity of forms.

  4. Your brothers chart is incredibly true and valid to so many areas of a relationship Wynne, just as your suggestions are for working through those difficult aspects and turning them into positives. I think there can be a level of fear in turning *toward* and also fear about one’s own ability to navigate that gray area. If a partner really has no clue how to do either, or even one of those things, is it up to the other partner to teach them, guide them, direct them? Or does the individual have to desire and seek out the *how* on their own? Past experience tells me that going into these situations of gray areas has to be a mutual desire for success and understanding to occur.

    1. Ahh, so many great points. They remind me that I don’t have many of those answers because I’m divorced… 🙂 But I think you’re right that the first step has to be a mutual desire for exploration and learning about those gray areas! One person’s awareness of the gray area can compensate for some amount of time but probably isn’t sustainable. Right?

      1. I think that’s correct. I also think it fosters a growing resentment toward the partner who is unwilling or unable to make advances to bridge that gap.

  5. There must be something in the air, right before clicking the WordPress icon and then your post, I was doing a circle of our house putting things where they actually belonged instead of where they were, (mittens at the front door, new dog food at the top of the basement stairs, kettle on the counter etc…) and commenting to my spouse that the house had suddenly become messy, meanwhile he didn’t see any of it lol. Thanks for your post and thanks to everyone who commented, this was a fun read.

  6. Gray areas make me glad that I’ve achieved live-alone status. I’m happy to retire into a blissful gray-free zone after years of marriage, bosses, co-workers and child raising. Loving life in the easy lane!

  7. Excellent post, Wynne.
    This is so true, “But I try not to argue that they should be feeling something else because it compounds the feeling. They stay stuck trying to prove what they are feeling instead of transitioning to the next phase of how to make it better.”
    That brings me to the oft-repeated dialogue between my hubby of 47 years and me.
    “I am just venting, dear. Please just listen. I don’t want you to look for a solution, give me advice, agree with me, reason, or say everything will be alright.”
    Hubby, the oldest sibling among four brothers (and no sister), an engineer, and a project manager, didn’t realize that when I say I want to vent, that’s what I meant. (I, on the other hand, am the oldest among three sisters and used to sharing everything with them and my mum.) And his job was not to project manage, but to listen attentively. No matter how responsible and protective he feels towards little, old, me or how he can’t see me hurt and wants to put everything right by me.
    Now, if I say more than a few sentences without the preamble, “I am going to vent”, he will ask, “Is this you venting, or is it a dialogue or a discussion between us?”
    So some gray areas remain a little tricky, even with a lot of practice! Haha

    1. Oh, I love this wonderful example you provide, Chaya! 47 years – and you’ve figured out what preamble is necessary and he’s figured out what clarifying question to ask. That is great – and still tricky to navigate. The gray area… 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting – it makes it so fun to have these examples!! XOXO

  8. I’d read this post previously, but had become sidetracked and never commented. But… if you’d seen me reading it, then or now, you’d have seen me grinning along with the threshold chart (our household is 100% the same), then looking thoughtful when you got to the deeper applications. Such great stuff, all of it! 🤍

  9. The cartwheels! LOL, reminded me of my granddaughter who broke a finger in a cartwheel race with a friend. She was so intent on the race she didn’t see the metal railing.

    That’s so true of so many things in life isn’t it? Our focus is elsewhere so we don’t see what’s right there. Love the diagram your brother did, very true illustration of how differently we can each see the same thing!

    1. That’s a good story about your granddaughter. Miss O was trying to tell me last night that she needs to get all that extra energy out in the 15 minutes before bed…

      But you’re right – we so often run into obstacles because we’re focused on something else! Very true, Tamara!

  10. This is one of your best, Wynne. The “turning toward” still leaves us with a challenge, of course. For example, if a couple suffers from different internal thermostats not solved by blankets or fans, they might still feel some amount of irritation or unequal sacrifice. Too many such issues challenges the parties to remember what still binds them in the hope of the “plus side” triumphing over the “minus side.” Still, you’ve offered a big step in the best possible direction. Thank you.

    1. What a lovely compliment coming from you, Dr. Stein. I’m sure you know better than I do about all the things that challenge us and I’m nodding my head as I read your example here. True, it’s not always fair or equal but hopefully we can take steps to be closer as we navigate it. Thanks for your very kind words!

    1. Oh, I’m laughing about the graph. My brother would be thrilled. Yes, the differences of individuals abound, don’t they! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  11. It’s definitely easier when you express your feelings/ thoughts / wishes directly. I think you would need a certain degree of trust between the persons involved in the relationship. At least to avoid misunderstandings. Beautiful insight Wynne!

  12. Your brother is a genius! I’ve been pushing the same cleaning theory to my wife for years 😂
    Seriously though- not only is what your brother said true, I love how you applied it to everything, which is also true. And the suggestions of how to handle it are so valuable. I think this is one of your best pieces, definitely one of my favorites, and not just because I agree with your brother.🙂

  13. Wynn, I think you are right on target about gray areas in relationships. There are many between Robert and me, especially when it comes to his health issues. I try to be aware and behave empathetically, as he does for me. 🙂

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