How to Talk About Relationship Problems with Your Partner
Something touched off hard feelings between you and your partner. Maybe it was a simple mistake. Your loved one forgot to pick up the milk on the way home. Or maybe you wanted some sympathy after a bad day at work, only to hear your partner criticize you. Ouch.
Now you’re upset. You may wonder if your partner really understands or cares about you.
How do you fix a relationship problem? Many people dread conflict so much they say nothing. They hope the bad feelings will just go away.
HOW TO BRING UP A RELATIONSHIP PROBLEM
You need to know how to talk about a relationship problem. The important thing is to learn how to allow the emotions involved.
Because avoiding emotional pain in your relationship works against you.
Hard feelings between you don’t go away on their own. You need to see them and soothe them as a couple, so they resolve. That’s one major function of a healthy relationship.
I worked with a couple I’ll call Bob and Amy. Amy wanted to keep just those things around the house they needed and used now. Bob preferred having stuff like extra boxes, umbrellas, and materials for projects. Bob tended not to tidy up unless pressed. And when Amy has pressed Bob, they had terrible fights.
Now Amy doesn’t feel free to speak up about the “clutter” issue, though it still bothers her. Meanwhile, Bob throws away more than he wants to, and resents it. And he worries Amy will never be satisfied, no matter how little he keeps or how neat he tries to be.
Do you see the trouble? On the surface, the disconnect is about stuff in the house. But as a therapist trained in emotionally focused therapy (EFT), my job is to help Bob and Amy see the unspoken thoughts and emotions at work. What’s under the anger and resentment? What do those thoughts mean to their sense of attachment as a couple?
LEARNING TO SEE WHAT HURTS
In therapy, Amy admitted feeling Bob’s stuff was more important than her peace of mind. She felt dismissed and hurt. She needed Bob to hear that his desire for “stuff” seemed to come first, and it made her feel unwanted. After Amy expressed her hurt in a vulnerable way, you could feel their tension soften.
Then Bob said he worried that even if he threw everything away, she’d still find fault with him. He felt rejected. Bob needed Amy to hear that her demand for “order” left him no room to be himself.
Before they can solve their lifestyle problem, the bigger problem needs tending: the underlying panic that neither of them saw or cared about each other. They took time to tend the hurts and put stress relief first.
After Bob and Amy connected emotionally, they could affirm their support for each other. They quickly found the energy to be co-creative. They agreed on “clean” zones for Amy and built a “man-shed” for Bob. But more important, they learned how to take each other’s distress to heart, find the source, and assure each other they matter.
Sometimes, tensions arose again. But now they could talk over what was happening without getting locked into battle or withdrawal.
RELATIONSHIP STRESS NEEDS A RESPONSE
Unsolved relationship issues trigger deeper worries about how safe and secure partners feel together. It’s hard to feel close when you’re worried. That’s why distress with a loved one needs to be resolved.
Doubts about a connection can make a person feel threatened or in danger. That’s because we naturally seek safety in relationships. Deep down, relationship hurts trigger bigger questions: Do I matter to you? Are we okay?
If we’re not sure how to say “I care” to each other, it’s easier to get angry and strike out against what seems wrong.
When we speak out of anger, we’re headed for trouble. There’s actually nothing wrong with saying something is bothering you. But the key to fixing your relationship is to talk about what you need—not your partner’s faults.
What else can couples do besides struggle in silence?
GOOD (AND BAD) WAYS TO TELL YOUR PARTNER SOMETHING IS WRONG
Let’s look at some of the damaging ways some people bring up relationship issues. Compare these to some healthier ways to fix a problem instead:
Don’t glare: Don’t glower, grumble, or go silent to get a reaction. It doesn’t help your loved one understand. More likely, angry looks will make your partner defensive.
Do be clear: Do tell your loved one that you are upset. Say what you are upset about without blame. “I didn’t like the way you spoke to me when you came home.”
Not this: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you remember one little thing?”
Try this: “I was counting on your help. You forgot about it, and I feel like I don’t matter.”
Don’t assume: Don’t expect your partner knows how you feel or can figure out what you want to happen.
Do explain: Tell your partner what hurts you. Be clear about what you want and need.
Not this: “You’ll never understand. You should know me a lot better by now.”
Try this: “I need you to see how upset I am about work. Can I just vent? I would really like some support.”
Don’t get personal: Avoid put-downs or name-calling. Words such as “selfish,” “clueless,” or nasty names usually make problems worse.
Do speak from experience: Focus on what happened for you. Clean anger deals with behavior rather than character.
Not this: “You said you’d get the milk. Can’t you get your act together for once?”
Try this: “I get really stressed when there’s no milk for the kids. I know you didn’t mean to forget. How can we stay on top of this better?”
WHY REPAIR WORKS SO WELL TO FIX RELATIONSHIPS
Repair is one of the most powerful things you can do to build a stronger relationship.
You don’t need to be perfect for each other to be happy together. You can do a lot to restore goodwill by repairing hurts.
What separates many successful couples from less happy ones is the ability to make repairs. It allows you to keep getting better at responding to each other’s needs over time.
Repair is any gesture—a phrase, apology, hug, a friendly glance—that eases the negativity between you.
A lot depends on whether, beneath it all, you see each other as friends. Even if the repair attempt is awkward or clumsy, faith in your friendship will tips the scales toward healing after conflict.
Your kindness—and your partner’s ability to accept it—makes you both part of the solution instead of the problem for each other.
EMOTIONAL CONNECTION: ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT JOBS IN THE WORLD
It’s hard to admit we need each other. No one wants to invite ridicule or rejection by showing a tender need for love and acceptance. Yet it’s more terrible to feel cut off and alone.
“Do I matter to you?” That’s the question we need to hear “yes” to, especially when one of you is hurt.
Gently explaining your hurt is the first step to deepening your understanding together. Being able to hear when your partner is hurt is just as important to make things better.
This is much easier said than done. It’s tempting to avoid painful feelings rather than talk through relationship issues. That’s why a good therapist can be a powerful help to find a repair process that works for you.
Talking to your partner when you’re upset is a great chance to connect. You can learn to get your message through in a way that works with your need to connect, not against it. For more information on relationship coaching, contact my Portland office.