Do you sweep too much under the carpet?
My experience of working with relationships is that if people are cross or sad about something it often feels easier to express it in the small everyday stuff than by making time to have a difficult or intimate conversation about something that is bothering us. The trouble is, if we don’t make time for these more difficult conversations, resentments can build up and then the rows about the everyday stuff start to become unbearable or seem completely disproportionate (which causes even more resentment).
I wondered if the idea of a spring clean could be helpful here. We may actually from time to time need to do the equivalent for our relationships of lifting up the rug and getting at the dust that has built up underneath so that it doesn’t build up to something unmanageable. This is an opportunity to think about how you’re feeling in the relationship and to tune into things you think are working well as well as things you think aren’t working so well. This perhaps sounds a bit clinical but actually often couples I see who feel disconnected and frustrated are couples who have been invested in avoiding these conversations.
How then might you go about ‘spring cleaning’? Here are some things to think about.
Maybe one of you is going to need to suggest you do this in order for it to happen. Something like ‘I think it might be helpful for us to sit down and make some time to think about us’ generally is how these conversations get off the ground. It sounds obvious but we all find flagging this up difficult – particularly couples who are very busy, perhaps with children or demanding jobs (or both). It’s not just the busy factor, but also perhaps the intimacy of saying – ‘let’s think about our relationship’ – can feel awkward. Make it clear that this is not about one person being in trouble so much as both of you looking at your relationship from the outside as if with a bird’s eye view.
I bang on about this a lot but thinking about the TIMING for a conversation like this is important. You need to clear out a proper time to talk to each other. This is as much about planning as everything. Springing difficult conversations on each other isn’t helpful as it is likely to put one of you on the defensive. If you’ve got kids, you’re going to need to plan how to have time that is focussed on you being able to talk.
You also might need your own time beforehand to think about what it is you’d like to bring up and how you are going to express it.
Keeping the conversation from escalating
It’s important to think about the difference between a conversation that makes someone really defensive and one that, whilst tricky, might not put up someone’s back so much that the conversation turns into an argument.
I’m going to borrow a case study from my book Five Arguments All Couples (Need To) Have to illustrate this. Ryan is struggling with Josh’s work schedule.
Ryan: Why can’t you just stay in the office late two days a week rather than come home and be around but not available? You just don’t think of us.
Josh: It’s not like I have any control in this. I can’t believe you are still going on about this. Are we seriously going to have this conversation again?!
Ryan: You just create such a bad atmosphere when you’re around. The kids need to come home and relax and there you are on the phone and you don’t see how frustrated they get about it? You also set such a bad example by being on the phone all the time.
Josh: You have no idea. Seriously. I am not going to talk about this with you. If you only knew the pressure I’m under at the moment at work. What planet are you on?
This exchange is getting them nowhere. Josh defends himself from Ryan’s criticism by criticising him back and by refusing to take his position on board. Ryan feels that Josh has ducked the issue and this obstructs them ever having a conversation about the situation. He feels that Josh is completely insensitive and rude.
What I wondered with this couple was whether there was a way in which they could soften the conversation to make it more productive. A different way might be:
Ryan: Look, I know you hate me bringing this up, but I’m really struggling with your work at the moment – and I know you probably are too. I find it so hard that you are around but not available.
Josh: Yes, it’s awful. I hate it but I don’t know what to do, I want to be with the kids before they go to bed but then I can’t find any other way to get the work done.
Ryan: I’m not sure I can go on with it like this.
Josh: I don’t know what to do but we really need to have a think about working things out differently.
In this example, because Ryan is able to speak about feeling bad, rather than starting off by accusing Josh and making him feel bad, the conversation has the chance to be more productive. Ryan isn’t attributing the whole situation to Josh. This leaves room for Josh to feel that he isn’t completely under attack from Ryan, so he doesn’t need to be so defensive and doesn’t need to protect himself so much. They seem to generate, between them, a capacity for thinking, and seem to be more sympathetic to their relationship as they share in the disappointment and painfulness of the situation. Rather than criticising each other, they are looking at the relationship from the outside and acknowledging that things are difficult.
Think about using “I statements” to describe things rather than accusations – e.g. ‘I struggle with you being on your phone when you get home from work because I feel a bit ignored’ rather than ‘you’re always on your phone’. Or ‘I hate that I’m the one who always takes the bins out’ rather than ‘you never take the bins out’
Think too about how your tone comes across. We are all highly sensitive to a critical tone (and some people more than others).
It isn’t just about what you get across to your partner but it’s about how you listen to them. Even if they are saying stuff you don’t agree with, it’s important to acknowledge it and show that you’ve heard it. So often I see couples who are infuriated with each other because they are in a battle to be right rather than to hear where the other person is coming from. You are never going to agree on everything but you can make conversations more roomy by being curious about the other person and where they are coming from.
If your partner is telling you they are sad or upset – telling them to ‘get over it’ or that ‘there’s nothing I can do to change that’ is not going to make them feel better. Instead, making room for their sadness, showing that you’ve really heard it, is actually something you can do, and is much more likely to help them feel better about it.
Talking about the good stuff
If you love it that your partner takes the bins out every week and has done forever, make sure you tell them. We can all get stuck in our roles and take it for granted that we appreciate the other one doing them but making sure we spell it out to each other is important and builds up goodwill – and perhaps means that when you bring up the stuff you don’t appreciate so much there’s more context for it. Making time to speak about your relationship means you can have time to talk about these aspects too.
What to do if you end up having an argument
It may be that something comes up when you are talking about your relationship that means you touch a nerve or someone gets angry or it escalates. Obviously it’s really important to keep safe and if things escalate it’s important to find a way to cool things down either by stopping talking or putting some space between each other and agreeing to come back to it. If you are a couple who struggle with arguments escalating or if you ever feel unsafe about bringing up an issue then I don’t recommend that you do this ‘spring clean’ together and instead recommend that you seek professional help from a relationship therapist.
If things turn into an argument but you don’t feel unsafe then it may be that you can agree to come back to the subject when things have calmed down and actually have a repairing conversation where you reflect together on what it was that one or both of you felt strongly about. These conversations, although difficult or painful, can actually lead to greater awareness of each other and develop your relationship.
When you might seek help from a therapist for this type of conversation
It’s not just a feeling of being unsafe that might mean you need professional help. Sometimes we bury stuff under the carpet for a reason, to protect ourselves, because it feels too difficult to talk about or address a certain issue or we feel that it is too antagonistic a subject. If there is something that you feel is off limits to talk about in your relationship but that is also troubling you and getting in the way of your enjoying your relationship then this may be a sign that you might find it easier to ‘look under the rug’ with the help of a therapist rather than on your own.
If you would like to read more about how to keep your relationship in good shape and to deal with the inevitable disagreements that being in a relationship poses (everything from communication to sex) then I’ve written in lots of detail about it in my book Five Arguments All Couples (Need To) Have And Why The Washing Up Matters. You can also sign up to my mailing list here.