Part Two of a Six-part Series on Relationship Communication
The darkness of the sky felt as if it might swallow the whole of her as she stared out the window that cold winter’s night. Tears streamed down Jena’s face as she replayed the evening’s events in her mind. The same fight. Again. Over and over, no matter what she did, she could not control the rage that grew inside each time she came home to find Eric casually enjoying himself while dishes lain piled on the counter and clothes overflowed the basket. How could he care so little about her, she wondered?
Three years earlier, during her senior year at college, Jena and Eric fell in love over physics homework. No matter how difficult or abstract the problem was, he had a way of seeing it, almost in three dimensions. If it were not for him, she would never have passed. He had the patience of a saint with her. His piercing blue eyes, wavy brown hair, and British accent did not hurt, either. Throughout their courtship, Eric proved his love and care again and again. A nerd at heart, he was terrible at telling jokes and she had no idea what sort of fashion statement he was attempting to make, but he was always able to surprise her with a gift or a sweet note at just the right time. She remembers laying awake at night feeling unimaginably blessed at having found such a caring, loving, and thoughtful man.
Where had her sweet man gone?
They married only seven months ago and already she was doubting she would be able to live with him much longer. He had no regard at all for the state of the house. No matter how many times she told him how it affected her, he would express great sorrow and sympathy, but nothing would change. She was convinced now he simply did not seem care. He worked as an online teacher and part-time engineer at a local aeronautics firm, he had so much more time at home than Jena did. A marketing executive, Jena left the house around nine in the morning and did not return until seven or eight at night most days. All she had wanted in the world was to come home to a clean house so she could spend time with him. Instead, night after night, she was up until late straightening and cleaning.
That night had been the last straw. They had spent hours over the weekend arguing about her dismay at the condition of the house and she had carefully explained why he needed to do more. He had even agreed and apologized profusely. Yet, there he was, again, sitting on the couch reading a book. She dragged herself through the door, work and grocery bags in hand, and all he did was smile and say, “Hi, Honey! How was your day?”
How was my day?
She flew into a rage, throwing the bags to the floor, yelling, and slamming dishes and doors in the kitchen. Eric looked shocked and befuddled, as if he had no idea why she was so upset. That had been hours ago. She said cruel things, things intended to hurt him. As she sat in the dark now, listening to the rhythmic sound of his breathing, she wondered how things had become so bad so quickly.
The next day, she shared her grief with a dear friend and was referred to a couple’s therapist. Eric gladly agreed to join her, and they began to work on their marriage. They learned in the first few sessions to clearly define the problem they were having. It was not the dirty dishes. It was not the spilled cat food. Jena realized how unheard and unloved she felt. She learned that she had never asked Eric which chores he would do or not do. She simply made assumptions and was hurt and shocked when he did not act accordingly.
Knowing the problem was helpful. Jena felt heard as Eric learned to reflect his understanding of what she was saying. They worked together to define their goals and household duties. Then, the counselor surprised them by saying they needed to learn how to “argue better”.
“Argue better? Isn’t the goal supposed to be to stop arguing altogether?” Jena asked with confusion.
Maybe you can relate to Jena or even Eric. Something is amiss in your communication. You learned the importance of properly defining problems and gaining “buy-in” in Part One of this series. No matter how well you do this, though, you will still have struggles from time-to-time. All relationships have breaches. The important part of a healthy relationship is how we work to repair those breaches.
The “E” in the DECIDE acronym stands for: Envision.
This means to use the power of your whole brain to create a picture of the solution. To do this, you must not only incorporate the outcome of what you want, but also include what you know about your partner. Consider the following:
Remember Who They Are. When we care for others, especially in the early stages of a romantic relationship, we often focus on their admirable qualities. The truth is, we all have flaws and shortcomings. Every one of us. Your significant other may thoughtful and caring in the romance department but may not think twice about dirty dishes in the sink. Since we have brains that are “deficit oriented” during difficult times, it is easy to ascribe over-generalized traits to others when they upset us. Poor Eric went from “all good, night in shinning armor” to “all bad, couch potato” in a relatively short time. The truth? He was neither of those. In moments of difficulty with our loved ones, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the traits you most love in them. Those traits are still there, even if they do not show at the moment. During times of disagreement, consider asking yourself the following questions:
- What do I want?
- Does (my partner) have the ability to give me what I want the way I want?
- What are (my partner’s) strengths and challenges? What do I need to do to convey my needs while taking these into account?
- Given what is going on in both our lives, is this the right time to work on the issue?
Be Realistic about the Outcome. Learning takes time. If one person in a relationship grew up with fastidious parents who trained them to notice and attend to details and the other partner was raised in a care-free, focus-on-the-moment type of household, there are bound to be differences. It is absolutely true that there needs to be give and take in relationships. It is fine and necessary to ask your partner to change a behavior or do a task for you. However, a lifetime’s learning cannot be summed up in a single request or instruction. Consider adding check points to your discussions. Once you determine a plan forward, decide a day and time you will intentionally monitor your progress. Be realistic. If they have made no changes, rather than assuming “they don’t care,” ask them “What got in the way?” Then, adjust your plan until you find something that works for both parties.
Change takes time and the truth is, we are not always honest with ourselves or others about our wants and needs. We often believe, “If they really care, they will know…” and we inadvertently train others to thwart our expectations. If this fits you, own it without shame…we all do it. If the person you are with has earned your love and respect, then when things go wrong (and, they will), remember who they are and play to their strengths. You will find the effort worth it in the end.
If you feel that your relationship issues have spun out of control and you need help to see things objectively, reach out. Find a relationship group, a mentor, or even consider a place like The Center, where caring whole-person care providers will help you see yourself and your partner with new eyes.
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center ● A Place of Hope. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.