Most of us have had the pretty common relationship challenge at some time or another (especially with the people closest to us) where you just can’t seem to talk to each other about something without one or both of you getting upset.
Four typical (and often unhelpful) reactions to relationships challenges
Sometimes we need to say something about an issue or situation, yet it can seem to just make things worse. A big reason for this is that you may be met with reactions that make it harder to address and resolve the underlying issues.
It’s helpful to understand that reactions to relationship challenges often show up in one or more of 4 unhelpful ways or patterns.
- Lashing out in some overt display of anger with mean words or actions.
- Withdrawing through not talking about the important issue(s). Perhaps even the silent treatment.
- Inaction, indecision, and ambivalence. The person who is upset cares about the situation but is triggered into some form of inaction.
- Being nice for the wrong reasons. This is when someone responds to upset by doing nice things for the other person. There’s nothing wrong with doing nice things, except that when the underlying intention is to avoid or distract from an important issue that needs to be addressed.
These 4 behaviors and variations of them often cover over strong emotions like fear, anger, sadness, feeling alone or not understood.
Unreasonable expectations for fast food fixes complicate issues in successful relationships
As a society, we have a hard time dealing with difficult truths in relationships.
We’re not taught how to and usually not comfortable acknowledging and dealing with things that are challenging or difficult. Ironically this acknowledgment is often the medicine that is needed to resolve them.
Three helpful tools for dealing with the difficult truths in relationships
First, agree to give space between sharing and response
It might be something as simple as “I don’t like the way you cook spaghetti.” Or it might be something big that needs to be said, such as how a behavior makes it hard for one partner to feel trusting toward the other.
It’s helpful to let some time, at least 24 hours, pass between when a difficult truth is shared and when it’s addressed and responded to. This gives space and time for the strong emotions that the sharing may bring up to cool off and both parties can have some time to reflect on the situation. Then it can be addressed, responded to and discussed when clearer heads prevail.
This does require some advance agreement that you’ll approach things this way – or that one person can ask for it. And, it does require a mutual commitment to make time to discuss it later.
If one person feels like this is being done just to blow off their concerns, they’re less likely to bring them up.
Concerns that are not addressed can simmer under the surface, eventually explode, and possibly damage the relationship permanently.
Second, go slowly, one step at a time
Titration is a term from chemistry. When two chemicals must be combined but could have a dangerous reaction, they are combined one drop at a time, rather than a bucketful at a time. At each step the reaction is assessed before continuing on. This gradual process – one drop at a time – is called titration.
Hopefully there are not a bucketful of difficult issues that you and your partner need to address together.
Still, the concept is helpful. When something needs to be communicated go slowly.
Researcher John Gottman did extensive studies on marital stability and divorce prediction. His research brought to light a similar concept. Couples that stay together avoid what he calls a “harsh startup” to difficult conversations.
Our “instant” society wants quick fixes. We want the fast food and we want it to be nutritious and taste home cooked. However, both healthy food and healthy relationships require more time and effort than the local fast food joint.
Actually, this is one of the advantages of a committed relationship, unlike a casual fling. Difficult issues need not be resolved in one conversation. You can talk about it a little today and then continue the conversation tomorrow or next week. Just make sure that you do continue the conversation.
Third, make distinctions and talk about them
When emotions are highly charged and things feel challenging it’s easy to collapse several things together. We forget to make distinctions and need to pause to intentionally do so.
When you’re dealing with difficult issues and sharing difficult truths in relationship, there are two kinds of helpful distinctions to make.
Emotions need to be acknowledged but do not have to be logical
Emotions are powerful and it’s not helpful to ignore them. They might be based in one person’s experience of reality. But often are not logical.
For example it’s possible for one partner to feel they were being ignored while at the same time acknowledging the behavior of the other person that reflects the opposite.
The emotion is still valid and matters. Often the most helpful thing to do is to talk about it, for both parties to acknowledge the emotion – even when the emotion is not logical based on the mental process and experience of one or both people.
There is great power and healing potential in acknowledging your partner’s emotions.
Intention and impact are not always aligned without conscious effort
When things aren’t working well, often underlying this can be that the intention of a certain behavior may not match up with its impact.
Both are important. An ongoing mismatch can cause problems.
Acknowledging your partners positive intention can help greatly when you need to share about something that has a negative impact on you.
Similarly acknowledging that something you did with positive intent had a negative impact can help smooth the way when discussing such challenges.
This is not to say everything is done with positive intention. However, at some point in the relationship you liked each other and were approaching it that way.
Sometimes we do things unaware of the intention. Or one partner may simply not know that our partner may think and feel differently about the behavior.
There can also be simple assumptions that we didn’t even know we were making. Thus it’s important to talk about the difficult truths in relationship so we can find clarity and a shared understanding of what things mean.
Clearly talking about difficult things is important in relationship. Creating space between sharing and addressing issues, going slowly and making distinctions can help you do so in ways that are easier and more helpful for your relationship’s long term success.