Updated: Oct 4, 2022
We often hear about ways to communicate differently with a partner, but we’re not as often given real world examples that go well, and why they go well. It can be really helpful to go more in-depth to explore the subtleties that make one situation go poorly, and another to go pretty well. In exploring this, we can also see that these things actually work - as a couples therapist I practice what I preach; I don’t just tell my clients to do certain things, while I’m doing something completely different.
It can also be incredibly helpful to hear about the issues that most couples get stuck on - very typical and unremarkable problems, not big ticket items. And this blog is certainly about an unremarkable problem that I imagine is very relatable.
My partner and I had plans to go to my parents’ house for the day, and one theme that sometimes causes friction is her lateness - I’m much more schedule oriented. Today we had agreed on leaving at noon, but she had some things that she chose to do right around the time we were supposed to leave. Those things took longer than expected and there was some miscommunication about logistical plans, but we ended up leaving right around 12:35.
This was really frustrating for me, not because of this one isolated incident, but because it’s a theme in our relationship. And when I was frustrated, inside my head I was thinking about how it feels unfair, I don’t feel prioritized or considered, and I was getting myself worked up even more.
Due to me feeling frustrated, I didn't say much for a little over half the trip (which is about 30 minutes), and then when I did, I prefaced it with saying that I’m not blaming her or saying that she did anything wrong. Then I expressed how I was feeling, and we had about a 20-minute conversation - just trying to hear each other out and share where we were coming from.
When we pulled up to their house we weren’t at this wonderful, super positive place, but we were okay. We said a couple reassuring things to each other and then headed in to have a good day.
How I chose to handle it
The first actively intentional thing I did was not react poorly or escalate before we even left. Sure, I wasn't being very positive and engaged, but I at least was trying my best not to do anything intentional that would’ve made things worse.
Then I stayed silent in the car - if I would’ve forced myself to communicate, it would have come out in a harsh way. I was still emotionally flooded so even if being silent wasn't theoretically the most positive thing to do, realistically it was the most effective.
When I cooled down enough, I started in an explicitly collaborative way. I didn't start by blaming or exaggerating my feelings or thoughts - I said, "I’m not trying to blame you, I just want to share how I’m feeling." I started the conversation in the best way I could in that moment.
Then, throughout the conversation I was very intentional in what I expressed, and how I expressed it. Sharing my feelings but not to blame, speaking in a calm way and slowing the pace that I spoke - and I also listened to her. I didn't use what she said as a springboard to talk more about me, or countered what she said. I just listened and tried to also understand where she was coming from.
At the end, I said that I wanted to, and we will have, a good rest of the day together. Saying this was a small but powerful way to share that even though I am/was frustrated, I still want to have a good day so I won’t be holding this over your head. Since we talked about it, let’s leave this in the car and enjoy the family time together.
What it Led to
This conversation made this situation a non-issue because we worked through it. Sure, I was frustrated for a period of time, but since we both shared and listened to each other, we had closure. We got back onto the same team and repaired that disconnect. This made it possible to have a good day, and maybe an hour later, feel completely back to normal and not be affected by it.
How I Could Have Handled it
What could I have done - I could have been passive aggressive and made little jabs at her, which would make her feel frustrated, which would just make me even more upset.
Or I could have just been aggressive - go on a lecture where I’m blaming her and telling her that she is inconsiderate and attack her character.
Maybe I could have even said, okay since we’re not leaving on time, let’s just not go. And that would’ve ruined everyone’s day without any benefit.
How it Could Have Ended Up
Any of those options would’ve been the opposite of a non-issue - it would have made it into a MUCH bigger issue that would spiral out of control. It spirals because if I’m frustrated and don’t communicate productively, she will then feel frustrated. If she feels blamed, of course she’ll feel defensive and shoot back.
And if that happens, I’ll feel (wrongly) vindicated - see, you can’t even take responsibility - you were late and can’t even apologize for it, so my anger, the way I’m looking at it, and the way I’m communicating is justified and right. But unbeknownst to me, she didn't get defensive because she can’t take responsibility or because I’m right - she got defensive because I was blaming her, I was attacking her character instead of sharing my feelings.
Who knows where it goes from there - maybe it creates more arguments that ruin a few more days after that. Or we don’t talk for a few days, feel mostly back to normal just because of time, and sweep that issue under the rug to be brought up in our next argument. There’s a lot of ways that this can go badly if we’re not intentional about it.
Highlights / Takeaways
The main takeaway is that every couple experiences moments like this - where there are moments of high levels of frustration. Even very healthy relationships have this. The most important part is what you do with it.
Like I described, if I just went with what my gut wanted me to do, I would’ve yelled and screamed about it and put ALL the blame on her. But I know that that’s not fair, and that it doesn’t get me anything. I know that if I bring it up in a very fair way, she’ll hear me out, and I’ll get what I want - I’ll be validated and taken seriously, and it won’t ruin our day.
So I encourage all of you to think about this and try to apply it to your relationship. When you’re upset, are there different steps you can take that will make things work out better? How would you bring a feeling up to the other person in a way that will limit the chances they’re defensive? Are you confident that your partner will respond well to you bringing it up in a more vulnerable way? Will you also be able to hear them out and their (likely very different) perspective on the situation?
All of this is easier said than done but it can help a lot for you both to think about these things and give yourself a good foundation to try to work off of in the moment.
And as always, if these are things that feel very difficult to work on or there’s one or more blocks to being able to navigate through tough feelings in this type of way, a couples therapist can be an invaluable resource.
Check out my video for more: https://youtu.be/P3TzXdd1aI0