Having Difficult Conversations
Colleague #1 Her husband is finally doing well at work, the business has been steadily growing, and she (who pays the bills) is finally starting to see some light at the end of this very long tunnel. Then, with a full day of 10 business appointments, which will earn him about $1000 total, he decides to take the day off and go golfing with some buddies. What??!! It seems like every time he finds some success at work, he almost immediately starts to sabotage it. It’s almost as if he can’t tolerate the success. She wants to shake him, and tell him how frustrated she is that he keeps putting her into this situation. She’s even considered asking him to leave, because she can’t believe that after all they’ve been through, he is sabotaging it again. But she remains quiet, because anytime she has ever tried to talk with him about this, he completely shuts down. He won’t fight, and she wishes he would at least do that. But instead, he goes completely silent. She knows he has lots of issues from his childhood, and is afraid of pushing him too far, so she suffers in silence as usual.
Colleague #2 He admits that he hates conflict, shrinks from it actually. He’d rather be anywhere except in the middle of a fight. But part of it is anytime he tries to talk with her about anything, even minor things, she becomes defensive and accuses him of not appreciating anything she does. There’s one subject that is really quite painful to him, and he wishes they could talk through it, but he knows that she will see it as a direct attack on her as a wife and mother, and she will go on a tirade about his “attacking” her. He fears she will leave him, even though the issue is by no means divorce worthy. He doesn’t want to be “that guy” with no wife and only able to visit his kids on the weekends. This is his main fear, so he says nothing, ever. He has learned over the years that silence is far better than the war that comes from trying to communicate something he dislikes.
Each of these individuals believe that silence is better than conflict. But I would suggest that the absence of conflict is a very cheap substitute for intimacy and connection. Moreover, you are teaching your kids in the most direct way possible that it’s okay to not communicate. I can guarantee you that your kids know if you and your partner are disconnected. You cannot hide this from them, even though I’m sure you think you are doing a fine job of it. So learning how to communicate about difficult topics is not only going to benefit your relationship with each other, but it will be a huge gift you’ll be giving to them. You’ll be modeling the very thing they will need to have successful relationships in the future.
Didn’t Know Dr. John Gottman was the first to suggest that marital conflict can divided into two categories: solvable and unsolvable (perpetual). Yes, that’s right. Some problems will never be solved. In fact, marriage research suggests that about two-thirds of all marriage conflicts are here to stay and will never be resolved.
Any of you that have been married for more than a few months can think of a number of problems that you’ve had over and over and just don’t go away. This is normal. As Dr. Dan Wile, one of my favorite marriage writers said, “When choosing a long-term partner, you will be choosing, along with that person, a particular set of irresolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or even fifty years.” Let me give you a personal example:
The other day Valerie got frustrated with me because of the following: I had left my socks on the floor of the bedroom, my slippers, laptop, and sweatshirt on the floor of the living room, my glass of water on the bedside table, and my towel on the floor next to the shower. Valerie is neat and organized, and I am like the absent-minded professor, minus the professor part. This is a problem we’ve had in one form or another for the entire time we’ve been married. I don’t intentionally try to be cluttered, but sometimes my head just ends up in the clouds and it doesn’t register with me. I can get so hyperfocused on what I’m doing in the moment that I don’t pay attention to certain details. Valerie and I still laugh about the time many years ago as I drove by a carnival and Ferris Wheel in our town that had just set up camp for a local fair. I noticed it in my rear view mirror after driving past it on my way home from work. When I mentioned it to her at home, she informed me that it had actually been there for a week already. I had literally driven past it every day for a week. So you see, some problems will never get resolved. I will continue trying to be less messy however, because it’s important to her.
What Should You Do? The first thing I want you to do is accept this fact that you just learned. It’s hard to let go of the idea that some problems will never get fully resolved. We don’t want to think this way, especially when we’re young. I’m sure if Valerie had a crystal ball 26 years ago and could see that she’d still find me just as forgetful now as I was then that she might reconsider what she was about to do. As much as I’d like to be less forgetful, it is just how my brain is wired. That doesn’t mean I stop working at it, but I’ll never have the attention to detail that she does, because that’s just how she is wired. However, I have learned from personal experience that one of the beautiful things about marriage, and in fact maybe the most beautiful thing, is the relationship that comes when two people love each and come together to make up for each other’s weakness.
Now that you’ve accepted this new fact, let’s quickly readjust our goals. More important than even solving a particular problem, is learning how to talk about problems. We need to develop the ability to maintain an ongoing dialogue, especially about those problems that don’t seem to go away. Following are some suggestions for how to have these difficult conversations. Many of these ideas are not mine, but are based on the work of Dr. John Gottman. Google him, he’s the real deal.
Step 1: Have the Dang Conversation Stop avoiding because you don’t want conflict or are afraid of the consequences. Take the risk and have the dang conversation. Say what you have to say, and say all of it. Don’t take the route of comfort and silence for the sake of “peace.”
Step 2: Don’t Have the Conversation in the Heat of the Moment As I have mentioned in previous articles, when you’re angry and upset isn’t necessarily the best time to have the conversation. Once your heart rate is above 100 beats per minute, you are now emotionally flooded and not much good comes from this place. It takes most people a good 30 minutes to get out of this survival mode. Once you’re heart rate returns to normal, wait a bit longer and now you’re ready.
Step 2: Go in Easy Dr. Gottman describes the need for using a softened startup. This is critical. If I ever say to Valerie that “I can’t stand it when you…” I’m guaranteed to get nowhere fast. This type of beginning immediately puts us on the defensive. How you say something is critical. This doesn’t mean you have to treat your partner like an infant, but be polite, respectful, and kind. I don’t care how angry or upset you are. If you can’t start this way, wait until you can.Try to make a complaint without blaming your partner.
So, instead of this: Hey, you’re doing it again and leaving us in financial ruin. You always run off to golf when things start going well for us. Why can’t you ever be dependable. BLAME
Do this: Hey, I am unable to pay our bills. We agreed that you not take off work to play golf and I’m really upset about this. COMPLAIN
I am not saying that the above examples of my colleagues are either solvable or unsolvable. Who knows? It could possibly take years for this husband to quit sabotaging himself (or just a couple of visits to a good therapist) – I have no idea because I don’t know the details underneath that drive his self-sabotaging behaviors. Maybe the wife in the example above will always struggle with being defensive, possibly because of her own unresolved family issues that go back to when she was a young child (I’m guessing here since I really have no idea). Since I’m guessing, I think these issues are solvable, but one thing is for sure, they never will be if no one talks about them. Sitting around saying nothing to your spouse in order to keep the peace comes at a price, that’s a fact.
Step 3: Be Clear, and Please Try to Be Concise Do not expect your spouse to read your mind. When we were first married and I was so totally immature, I would make sure that Valerie knew by my facial expressions whenever I was upset about something. A few months in I realized that Valerie was not real great at facial expression, so I made sure to do a better job with them. I enhanced them to the point that of course she would know I was upset. A few months later it dawned on me that facial expressions were not her strength, and I was being silly waiting around for her to recognize when I was mad or upset.
Don’t be ridiculous like I was. Don’t make facial expression or use the silent treatment to “communicate” when you’re upset. Say what you have to say, and be clear about what you are communicating. Your spouse is not a magician nor is he or she a mind reader. Say what you have to say as clearly as possible. So instead of saying: “You left our bedroom a complete disaster,” you might try saying “I’d appreciate it if you picked up your laundry.” Also, please try to be succinct. No one wants to hear a 30 minute dissertation on why you’re upset that he didn’t do the dishes, or why you’re frustrated that she invited her parents over for Sunday dinner.
Step 4: Soothe Each Other and Deescalate This is definitely a skill to be learned. Most people do not know how to do this, but it can be learned with some practice, and it’s best if you can do this for each other. These types of difficult conversations ALWAYS bring out very intense emotions. This is why we avoid them in the first place, so count on it getting intense. That’s okay and is what should be happening. When things get intense, you feel angry, defensive, or scared, learn how to deescalate these feelings and the conversation. This is critical to keep it from spinning out of control. There are three things that work for me:
1) Own it. If Valerie tells me that I am being insensitive by leaving the house cluttered, the very best thing I can respond with is something like, “You’re right, I know I do this and I know it’s frustrating to you. I’m sorry.” This almost always calms the situation down immediately. She feels heard and doesn’t feel like she has to convince me to understand why she is so frustrated.
Side Note: Want to know a great way to get your apology rejected? Saying something like, “I’m sorry that you feel…” Don’t be sorry that your spouse feels something, because that’s really saying they shouldn’t feel however they feel. This never works, trust me, I’ve tried it.
2) Use Humor. I will make fun of myself, or the situation, without making fun of her. Sometimes I tease her, but never in a way that hurts her. I may crack jokes while letting her know that I am hearing what she is saying. It’s really hard to be angry when you’re laughing.
3) Express Genuine Appreciation. Confession: I LOVE that Valerie is so naturally organized and neat. It is the exact opposite of me, but I love how she makes our home feel. It feels good and I appreciate it, and I tell her this frequently, even when she is complaining about something. So if she is upset at me about leaving a mess, I’ll actually tell her that I do appreciate how she makes our home feel. It has to be real and honest. Don’t make stuff up, express your appreciation for something real with your spouse. It makes them feel good, and it’s hard to be upset when you’re feeling good.
Step 5: Express Acceptance Another finding from Dr. Gottman (can you tell I’m a fan?): It is a fact that people can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted as they are. When they feel criticized, disliked, or unappreciated, they are unable to change. Take a minute and read that again. If I feel that someone doesn’t like me or accept who I am, I will not change for them, and neither will you. But if I feel loved, appreciated, and accepted for who I am, then I want to change for them. At least if we are talking about someone that I care deeply for, like Valerie.
Remember in all of this, nothing is more important than communicating your basic acceptance of your partner as a person. This has to be the guiding principle in all of your communications.
This might be especially important for anyone like my Colleague #2 above. In this situation, you have a very defensive spouse who takes almost any kind of criticism and translates it into being a horrible person. Some people, because of their backgrounds or just their makeup, have such a difficult time hearing that their spouse is upset about something. They personalize it into feeling unaccepted and unloved. If this is your spouse, you will need to double your efforts in making sure she knows you like her for who she is, but that you want is the behavior to change.