Relationships: What’s behind couple’s inability to communicate freely and effectively?
Vail, CO Colorado
Dear Neil: Can you help me with what my lady and I are fighting about? We are in a four-year relationship that is increasingly frustrating and hard for me to understand. I know we’re in conflict about something, but exactly what is hard to figure. What I know is that we have always been in agreement about the bigger items: We agree that neither of us wants to get married again, that we don’t want any more children (each of us has two), that we are faithful and monogamous and that we cover each other’s backs. So if we agree on the big things, then what are we fighting about?
Here are some examples of how our conversations have been going: Me: I’d like us to get a dog. Her: You’re not able to pick up after yourself, so how are you going to pick up after a dog? Me: I’ve gotten better at that; you’ve even said so. Her: Yes, you have. But I don’t trust it will last. Me: I’ve gotten better at picking things up like I said I would, but you haven’t gotten any better at being consistently late to things, which you promised you would. Anyway, would you be receptive to us getting a dog? Her: So you still think I’m late all the time. What about last night when you were late? Me: You so frequently tell me I’m guilty of doing the same thing that you do, and that’s unfair. Take responsibility for your own behavior. Her: I can never get anywhere talking with you because you don’t listen to me. No wonder we can’t communicate.
Needless to say, getting a dog has been put on the back burner. But I don’t understand what’s happening on the front burner. What does it sound like we are we fighting about?
Puzzled in Chicago
Dear Chicago: Part of why it is so hard to tell what you two are in conflict about is that there are multiple conversations going on at the same time, with one subject leading to another and with each covering separate issues and emotions. Let me break the conversation down for you:
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Topic 1: Getting a dog.
You: I’d like us to get a dog.
Topic 2 and 3: Different levels of comfort about neatness and tidiness and whose responsibility a dog would be.
Her: You’re not able to pick up after yourself, so how are you going to pick up after a dog?
Topic 4: Mistrust about agreements.
Her: I don’t trust it will last.
Topic 5, 6 and 7: Defensiveness, counter-attack and the real issue.
You: I’ve gotten better at picking things up like I said I would, but you haven’t gotten any better at being chronically late, which you promised you would. Anyway, would you be receptive to us getting a dog?
Topic 8 and 9: Counter-defensiveness and counter-attack.
Her: So you still think I’m late all the time. What about last night when you were late?
Topic 10, 11 and 12: Her being argumentative, fair fighting and taking responsibility.
You: You so frequently tell me I’m guilty of doing the same thing that you do. And that’s unfair. Take responsibility for your own behavior.
Topic 13 and 14: Not feeling heard and frustration because communication doesn’t resolve issues.
Her: I can never get anywhere talking with you because you don’t listen to me. We just can’t communicate.
No wonder you’re having a hard time figuring out what the two of you are fighting about. It’s because there isn’t one subject but a bunch of subjects you’re talking about at the same time.
So here’s a suggestion. Invite your lady to talk about what’s bugging her – about you or about the relationship. Your job is to listen, not respond. Try to discern what the primary issue is, the central thing that is upsetting her. When you figure out the central issue, ask her to stay focused there. If she strays, gently bring her back to that issue, so that you’re talking about one issue at a time.
After she describes what’s upsetting her, ask her what she would need from you in order for the issue to be resolved. Listen to her response very carefully, and decide if you can, in good spirit, give her what she’s asking for. Assuming you are willing, tell her you will agree to her requests and suggest that the two of you revisit the conversation in another two weeks in order to fine-tune the agreement. Whatever you do, do not respond with defensiveness or counter-attack – that will only fuel the fire, and it will not lead to a warm response.
Do this again a different day with a different issue, and repeat the same process. Then, hopefully, she will be able to allow you to do the same thing, so that you can be heard, as well.
The reason she hasn’t responded to your request about getting a dog is that she has too many issues or frustrations with you that are clouding her vision. Get those issues out of the way, and then ask her about getting a dog again.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 19th year of publication and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: http://www.heartrelationships.com.