Every couple has disagreements – from squabbles about leaving dirty socks on the floor to battles over spending too much money. Frequently, each person pommels their partner with “the facts” and finds it maddening when their partner does not agree with them. You can save yourself from this common scenario by learning to address the issues that are fueling a current situation rather than focusing on situation itself.
Too often, when couples target a current problem, they fail to address underlying problems. So, despite sincere attempts at problem solving, they remain emotionally locked in battle (or quickly return to it). Some of the most common underlying themes include feeling unloved or unimportant, criticized or demeaned, or that the person’s efforts are un- or underappreciated.
For instance, when Sam came home from his incredibly stressful job each night, he needed time to decompress. However, Lisa also had her hands full with their children and with taking care of Sam’s mother, who was showing signs of dementia. When Lisa angrily complained that Sam did not help around the house, he responded with angry complaints of his own that she did not make dinner, or even keep the house stocked with much food. Though they argued about who was busier and how the other one could find time to do more, each felt hurt and unappreciated for their contributions to the family.
You and your partner can avoid needless and destructive arguments by choosing to listen differently to each other. Rather than focusing on the facts of the situation, begin by attending to your partner’s feelings and the underlying message about their feelings.
One day when “the craziness” of Lisa’s day slowed about 20 minutes before Sam was home, she had enough time to calm her inner swirl, though not enough time to fix dinner. When Sam walked in the door with the same tirade about no food being in the house, Lisa was able to hear his distress. She let him know that she understood that he worked hard. She could see how he would be frustrated. She spoke calmly and earnestly. This calmed Sam down a bit. Later, after they had eaten, Lisa explained that she understood how he felt because she felt similarly. She said that when she raced through the day trying to make sure everyone’s needs were met (including visiting his mother), his anger about her not making dinner made her feel that he didn’t appreciate her efforts. He could feel her struggle and let her know that he thought she was a wonderful wife, mother, daughter-in-law, and person.
After you feel like you and your partner are emotionally on the same team, caring about each other rather than at odds, you can work together to solve your problem. It is important that your solutions recognize both of your struggles.
After Lisa and Sam’s heartfelt talk, they felt more love than anger. They still had a problem, but they wanted to find a way for them both to be happy. They ultimately decided to cook together on the weekends so that they had dinners ready for the week. Not only did this eliminate the tension around weekday dinners, but they enjoyed cooking together on the weekends, and so this helped them to feel closer.
Even when you cannot find a solution that meets both of your needs, taking the time to understand and empathize with each other will strengthen your relationship. Whatever you were fighting over will become just a problem to be figured out rather than a glaring example of what is wrong with your partner or your relationship. In the end, you will find solutions, make compromises as needed, and feel closer as a couple.