Laura Gilliom, Ph.D.
When couples are discussing a problem in their relationship, a very common pitfall is to go for solutions too soon. It's common because it's natural to want to reduce the tension by trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible. (This also happens for issues that are not couple issues. So many times I have heard one partner, usually the woman, complain that when they are venting about an issue at work or with a friend, the other keeps telling them what they should do about it, rather than just listening.) And men in particular are wired toward action and problem solving. So what's wrong with that? Why is it a pitfall?
Relationship problems are not like mechanical or technical problems; there are often complex emotions involved. If solutions are proposed too soon, they will likely fail, for two main reasons:
1. The partner bringing up the issue may not feel fully heard. He or she may feel patronized or that the other person just wants to get the conversation over with. As I emphasized in part 2, being heard is extremely important.
2. The issue has not been fully understood from both perspectives. If the husband brings up the issue of the wife working late, and the wife says, "Fine, I'll come home earlier," they have likely not solved the problem. They may be ignoring real pressures on the wife at her job, or her history of perfectionism, or the husband's feeling of being unappreciated. A solution that does not take these factors into account is not likely to succeed.
So, even though it can be anxiety-provoking to postpone the solution part of a discussion, it's important to do so until each side has been fully expressed and heard. The good news is that once you have done that part, it is much easier to resolve. In fact, sometimes just hearing and understanding each other's point of view is all that is needed. Once you understand the reasons for your partner's and your own behavior, it may cease to be a problem, because you may find that it was your interpretation of the behavior that was bothering you and not the behavior itself. For example, when I was staying home with our children I used to be offended when my husband would come home and immediately start straightening up the kitchen. I felt he was silently criticizing my failure to keep things neat, when clearly he had no idea what a challenge it was with two small children around. After we discussed it, I learned that he felt guilty about being away all day and was simply trying to contribute to the housework. From then on, I didn't mind his straightening one bit.
In the cases where change is still needed in addition to understanding, it is usually much easier once you have that understanding. Sometimes the solutions are obvious. You will be much likelier to come up with something that takes both partner's perpectives into account. And, when changes don't happen instantly or perfectly, you will likely be much more forgiving.
If solutions are not obvious at this point, here are some ways to move toward resolution:
Say what you want. Example: "When your mother is here, I'd really like you to back me up if she criticizes my parenting." The other partner should repeat back what they heard, and say whether they are willing to try to make the change.
Say what you're willing to do to help support the change. Example: "I will try extra hard to tell you how much I appreciate it when you do back me up. Also, I will let you know when it happens if you miss it."
Do not agree to a change that you will resent or are not motivated to make. If this is the case, further exploration may be needed.
Revisit the issue soon. Ask how your partner is feeling about the issue and anything they have been trying to do differently. Be sure to show appreciation for efforts to change or efforts to be more accepting.
Recognize that some changes will take time and some may not be possible. For example, one husband asked his wife to read the newspaper more often so that they could discuss current events. She tried to comply but he wasn't really satisfied. Eventually, it became clear that what he really wanted was for her to be more intellectually curious, which was not something she was able to change about herself. Sometimes you need to work on acceptance of the other's limitations while appreciating their strengths.
If you follow all or even some of these guidelines, you and your partner should become more successful at "fighting." That is, you will identify issues, hear each other out, and make progress toward a solution. It may not even look or sound like a fight at all!
So you've taken the plunge and brought up a difficult issue with your partner, or maybe they've brought one up with you. Good! The next step is to make sure both partner's perspectives are really and truly heard -- otherwise you won't get very far. If you've been thoughtful about how you brought the issue up, you are more likely to be heard, but that's just the beginning.
Making sure both sides are heard:
Each partner should have a chance to express their views and feelings while the other listens. Depending on the complexity of the issue, this may take one brief conversations or several longer ones. (Some issues may be ongoing conversations you have throughout your partnership, such as those involving political or religious differences. Obviously such big topics are never "resolved," but they can become a source of lively debate and discovery.)
When you are speaking, you should express your feelings, acknowledge your part in the issue, and be respectful, as described in Part 1. For example, "I've noticed you've been sleeping later and later on weekend mornings, which leaves me to deal with the kids all by myself. I know I said I'm a morning person, but that doesn't mean I want to do morning duty every weekend. I've also realized I'm sensitive to this because my dad used to sleep most of the day on weekends because he'd been drinking all night, and we had to tiptoe around so we wouldn't wake him. I hated it!"
When you are listening, try to put aside your own feelings for the moment and be open and curious about what your partner has to say. You may very well learn something new if you are open to it. This means not preparing your defense or looking for holes in your partner's argument. The goal is not to win the argument but to try to understand each other. It's quite likely your partner has very good reasons for doing the things that you don't like, and that understanding those reasons will get you closer to a solution. Listening well is actually quite difficult, especially when you may feel defensive. For an excellent book on this topic, see The Lost Art of Listening, by Michael P. Nichols.
A really helpful technique for the listener is to periodically reflect back or paraphrase what you've heard your partner say. You may have heard this called "active listening." For example, "What I heard you saying is, 'When I sleep late on weekends, you feel resentful because you end up having to take care of the kids all by yourself for several hours. Not only that, it reminds you of how your dad used to be hungover every weekend, which you hated.' Is that right?" This is not the way most of us have conversations, so it can feel strange at first. However, it's very valuable for making sure you are understanding what your partner is trying to say, because we frequently mishear and misinterpret things. Even more crucial, your repeating things back lets your partner know you've heard them. Never underestimate the importance of being heard. It can heal old resentments, bring immense relief, and allow us to let go of our anger and become open to our partner's point of view.
When the first speaker has said all he or she wants to say about his/her feelings on the subject, switch roles. In some cases you may need to take a break before doing so, either because there is a lot to say or to let the other partner gather his or her thoughts. Just make sure to come back to it. When both partners have expressed their perspective and have felt heard by the other, you are ready to move toward a solution.
All couples fight (or at least disagree), but not all couples fight successfully. What is a successful fight? One where
1) an issue is brought up,
2) both sides are heard, and
3) there is progress toward resolving the issue.
Is it resolved forever? Probably not, but usually there is some new understanding and possibly some ideas for how to do it differently in the future. I can always tell when couples have had a successful fight when they call it a "talk" instead of a fight! Let's talk about the three components of the "fight." In this post I'll address the first one:
Bringing up a difficult issue: The way you bring up your concern or complaint can make all the difference in whether you have a productive discussion or a fight.
Timing is key. Bad times include right when your partner walks in the door, when they are in the middle of something that takes concentration (even if it's "just" a TV show), right before going to sleep, or when you're extremely angry. It's best to check whether it's a good time to talk. If it's not, ask when would be a good time.
Even more important is how you bring it up. If you accuse or blame, your partner is likely to get defensive immediately. Instead, talk about how the issue affects you. Notice the difference between, "I can't believe you're going out with your stupid friends again tonight -- it's so selfish of you!" and, "I've been missing our time together. When you see your friends so often it makes me feel like you'd rather be with them than with me."
Acknowledge that you may play a part in the dynamic, without assuming it's all your fault, e.g., "Is there some reason I've been less fun to be around lately?"
Describe behavior, not personality traits or pathology. "You've gone out with your friends three nights this week," is much better than, "you're becoming way too dependent on your friends."
Be respectful. Calling your partner names or swearing at them is guaranteed to escalate the fight and lessen your chance of being heard, even though it might feel good in the moment. This is a good reason not to bring things up in the heat of anger.
It may seem obvious, but your partner can't read your mind -- no matter how much they love you. To have a productive discussion, you have to bring up what's bothering you. It takes some maturity and self-awareness to know what you're feeling and to express it clearly and kindly. Holding it in for the sake of avoiding conflict just creates resentment and distance in the long run. This doesn't mean you should complain constantly, either. Don't sweat the small stuff, but don't ignore the big stuff.
Since the way you initiate a discussion is so important, it's a good idea to take some time to get clear in your mind what you want to say before saying it. You don't have to have a whole script written out (although if you are very conflict avoidant this could be helpful), just be clear about how you see the problem and what your feelings are.
In the next posts, I'll address how to make sure both sides are heard and how to move toward resolution. Hint: Be ready to listen as well as talk!