When I get fired up, I am passionate. My enthusiasm can knock the other person over. I can talk about that topic for a LONG time without running out of steam. If I am excited (and not mad), it eventually occurs to me that I am hogging the conversation.
When I am mad, it’s a different story. If I believe that I have experienced an injustice, I want to vent. My venting is loud and pointed. That’s when I am oblivious to what my partner is experiencing. I completely miss their cues.
When I am on a rant, it overwhelms my poor husband. When I am aware and paying attention, I see his eyes glaze over. I can’t really blame him. It’s not in his even-keeled nature to get so bent out of shape. Even when he is frustrated, he communicates everything he needs to within fifteen minutes. Then, he is ready to move on.
This pattern is even worse when I direct my frustration is at my husband. He stays engaged until I start stringing all the problems together. Whatever tolerance he might have is quickly used up. I’ve learned the hard way that I can easily overwhelm him. When that happens, our conversation is over. I can continue talking as long as I want to, but there will not be a discussion or resolution.
Who’s to blame? It would be easy to focus on my husband’s communication skills. In fact, that is easy to pile onto whatever the original problem was. Maybe you have said some of these things:
“Why can’t you listen to me?”
“Don’t you even care about me?”
“I need some feedback from you!”
Each of these focus on your partner and what the skills they bring to the conversation. How often are you able to change your partner’s behavior by listing their failures? It would surprise me if you can give me examples. In fact, people rarely change their behavior in the face of criticism.
So, what can you do? If you can’t change your partner, are you doomed to stay in the same old frustrating patterns?
There are things that you can do to completely change the course of your conversations. Some are easy, others take practice.
There I was, minding my own business, getting ready for bed. Actually, my husband was minding his own business, getting ready for bed. I hadn’t had the chance to bring up an issue until the end of the day. Bedtime is one of the worst times to start a lengthy, impassioned discussion. Kids underfoot, hectic mornings or evenings, or other distracted times are not better.
Think about your week. When are the worst times to bring up issues in your relationship? When are the best? Timing is one of the biggest factors that affects whether the discussion is productive or it becomes an argument. If you can only manage a good discussion once a week, that is better than several conversations at times.
A good rule of thumb: plan your discussions when neither of you are tired, hungry, in pain, or distracted.
Venting is talking about a situation with the hope of getting support from your partner. Complaining is talking about a problem with the hopes of solving it. These are two different types of conversations. When you combine them, the conversation often veers off into an argument. When you say which type of conversation you need, it helps your partner understand how to respond.
Most couples believe they can talk about a problem one time, reach a conclusion, and wrap it up in a pretty bow. They would rather have a marathon discussion than talk about it in small chunks over a long period of time. One-and-done discussions have a way of getting off track and turning into arguments.
Conversations are usually much more productive if they are short. Limiting discussions to 15 or 30 minutes can keep either of you from feeling overwhelmed. If you expect the discussion to be short when you start, you won’t feel let down when you move onto something else. You will feel reassured to know that you will tackle it again on another day.
Another strategy couples use to reduce conflict is to avoid bringing up difficult topics. This works in the short run, but leads to long-term frustration and resentment. When you have shorter, more frequent conversations, there is less pressure on each one. If you want to score relationship points, bring up an issue that is frustrating your partner. It will show your commitment to working through problems. Regularly tackling the problems also increases the safety and trust in the relationship.
Imagine if someone brings you three problems to solve. That might sound possible, but for many, it makes their heart beat a little faster. What about twenty? When you bring several problems at a time, they often get tangled up. The more complicated they are, the more hopeless it feels to find a good solution that fixes every part of it.
You have better odds of finding a solution when you talk about a single, defined part of a problem. To challenge yourself, think of an issue that you have struggled to solve with your partner. See how many smaller parts you can divide it into. Then try to tackle just one of them.
So many arguments are sparked by a small, everyday incident. We don’t plan them. They seem to pop up out of nowhere. This type of argument usually signals that there is something bigger lurking under the surface that you are not talking about. Those underlying, unresolved problems add fuel to everyday differences.
You can short-circuit these everyday arguments by looking for the deeper issue. Are you fighting about filling the dishwasher or about feeling unappreciated and unnoticed? Even if you solve the problem of filling the dishwasher, the underlying problem will pop up elsewhere.
“You are doing it wrong.”
“Why won’t you do it the way I asked?”
“I told you….”
“You said you would. Why haven’t you?”
These sound like trying to hold your partner accountable. However, they shut down the communication. They will trigger the listener to react with defensiveness. Rather than trying to solve the problem, they are an opening to vent your frustration.
If you want to solve the problem, you will need to discuss the problem neutrally. For most people, this means you can’t bring it up when you feel upset. That is different than biting your tongue; it is biding your time. If you want your partner to truly hear you, then you will wait to discuss it until you are calm. Then you will be able to present a problem that you can solve.
Don’t try to change everything at once. Choose one suggestion from this list and break that down into one thing to try. You will need to notice how that change affects the flow of your next conversation. Most partners respond well to these efforts. If the change doesn’t make a big impact, try another.
When you work on what you bring to a conversation, you will be surprised to see changes in your partner. It doesn’t let them off the hook for doing their own work. However, they will feel invited and encouraged to improve their relationship skills.