I’m reading a great book called Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria by Dr. Beverly Tatum. In the chapter I was reading this morning, she talks about the difficulties of having conversations about racism, and it struck me how much it applied to the difficulties we often have in our own intimate relationships when we try to talk about any kind of conflict.
She said, “… when we have meaningful experiences, we usually seek to share those with someone else. In doing so, we hope to be heard and understood, to feel validated by the other.”
That’s basically the hope we all have in sharing anything with our partner, right?
She continues, “When we do not feel heard, we feel invalidated, and a relational disconnection has taken place. We may try again, persisting in our efforts to be heard, or we may choose to disconnect from that person (my bolding)”.
A relational disconnection. Isn’t that exactly what you experience when you try to share something meaningful, or difficult, or both, with your partner, and then you don’t feel heard or understood? As if the distance between you suddenly increased, even though you’re still in the same room, maybe even sitting across from each other.
Every time this occurs, you have to make a choice. Do you persist in your efforts and try again, or do you disconnect from partner? Every time you feel invalidated, it becomes a bit harder to try again, and a bit easier to disconnect.
Most of the time, you probably don’t stop to articulate all of this. You just know it feels bad when you can’t communicate, and even worse when you keep trying and it doesn’t work.
Even in harmonious, well-functioning relationships there is a multitude of conflicts that are difficult to deal with and talk about. Just in the last few weeks we have supported couples who have conflicts such as …
- Dad disciplines the kids in a way mom finds much too harsh. She thinks it scares the kids while dad thinks it is essential.
- One partner had an affair a few years back. It’s still an open wound and conversations about it are charged and difficult.
- Kids are staying half time with the ex and there are very different rules about Covid, and everything else, in that house.
- Arguments turn to screaming matches and both partners are totally burnt out.
- The extra stress of Covid is making it extremely challenging to find peaceful space and everyone is reacting to the heightened tension in the house.
- Mom and dad can’t agree on whether to follow an alternative or a Western medical route for their kids.
- Kids don’t bond with or respect the step parent, and the biological parent is caught in the middle between his partner and his kids.
It’s not as if you need to have a “major” disagreement or breach of trust to have a conflict. You might just be sick of how you talk to each other, annoyed with your partner’s eating or grooming habits, or tired of being the only one to initiate intimacy.
Still, any of these situations make for difficult conversations. But why is it so hard to talk productively and empathically about topics like these? Why do conversations so often result in arguments and hurt feelings?
Based on our decades-long experience, here are some of the main reasons. Please note that even though I’m writing to “you”, none of these reasons are personal to you, the reader. They are shared by everyone, including your partner. As you read, I encourage you to see which are relevant to you and your relationship dynamic:
- You don’t know how to talk about it. You simply don’t know how to put into words your thoughts and feelings about a topic. You don’t have an effective language to use (yes, that’s a thing).
- You take stuff personally. You translate what your partner is saying to mean something accusatory or negative about you and you get mad or hurt about it. We call this being “triggered”. Once you and/or your partner are triggered, productive discussion is pretty much out of the question.
- You trigger your partner. Of course, you don’t mean to. No one ever starts a conversation thinking, “I’m really going to make my partner mad right now!” But there are many words, phrases and ways of communicating which will predictably set your partner off. Some are no-brainers, like, “You’re a lying sack of s***”, but most are a lot more subtle.
- You get stuck in what you don’t want and don’t like. Your focus gets consumed with all the stuff you’re irritated or mad about. It’s as if all your mental “bandwidth” is taken up by what you don’t like. You say things like, “If you could just …”; “Why can’t you …?”; “You always …”; “You’re so …”; etc. The focus on what you don’t want makes it impossible to effectively create what you do want.
- You can’t remain calm when things heat up. This is a side-effect of getting triggered. It is a skill of its own to remain calm and open in the face of your partner’s upset or elevated emotions. Just think about it … how do you feel when your partner gets really mad or hurt, or shuts down or starts crying?
- You don’t have a blueprint to use for difficult conversations. For this reason, conversations that start out being a civil discussion about whether you should do A or B, turns into a mess of an argument where you totally lose track of what you’re talking about.
- You don’t have a model for creating win-wins. It’s to be expected that you and your partner (and I’m not even mentioning kids or other family and friends) will disagree about all kinds of things. You’re different people with different preferences and personalities and you have different desires. That’s not a problem. The problem arises when you don’t know how to arrive at win-win solutions that take care of both of you. Often, one person resigns after prolonged arguments, or one person simply pushes his or her will through. (A real life story we often tell as an example was a young couple with two kids. She wanted to use any extra money they had to start a retirement account. He wanted to buy a boat. After long arguments he just went and bought the boat without agreement from her. Not surprisingly, she was pissed and lost trust in him. Plus, they didn’t have enough money to take the boat out, so it sat as a monument of their breakdown in the driveway.)
Can you recognize any of these dynamics in your own relationship(s)?
Every single one of these is a precursor to a relational disconnection. Curiously, your intention when you start a new conversation is the exact opposite, namely, to create a relational connection. A relational connection is achieved when you share a moment of understanding and intimacy, and work through a difficulty and emerge stronger.
Most people I know would prefer no conflicts to conflicts, no stress to stress, and no fights to fights. But that’s not reality. In fact, we say conflicts are born from our commitments and desires. For example, if you had zero preference, i.e. if you didn’t care at all, about how you as a couple spent your money; there would be no conflict about starting a retirement account vs. buying a boat. You’d just go, “Meh, doesn’t matter to me, either way is fine”. Since you do have preferences, and since you do care, you’re going to want to weigh in on the decision. Same with your partner (or anyone else you’re navigating life with).
It’s the lack of language, tools, and blueprints that create relational disconnects (and that’s not to say you won’t, or shouldn’t, feel hurt and angry when your partner lies to you, or somehow breaks your trust). When you don’t know how to re-connect after disconnects it can sometimes become “normal” to feel disconnected and that is a dangerous and destabilizing state for a long-term relationship. No one wants that. So what can you do?
Here are a few ideas:
- Speak from your own perspective. Say, “I feel hurt” instead of, “You’re an insensitive jerk”.
- Be frank about not knowing what to do or what to say, there’s no shame in not having learned. You might say, “I’m aware I don’t really know how to share what’s on my mind, or how we proceed in this conversation. And I’d like to figure out how we can”.
- If your partner has a hard time hearing you, ask them how you might share it differently. Say, “Is there a way I could share this with you that would work? If yes, how?” Often, they will tell you.
- Get help to facilitate difficult conversations. Lean on a trusted friend or get a therapist or coach to help you. You can contact us for private coaching and facilitation. We would be honored to support you!
- Learn new skills! Best case, learn together. Learn new language and tools for getting more confident and proficient in dealing with and talking about conflicts. We have made topic-specific “mini-workshops” that are ideal for this purpose. We are also big fans of making step-by-step processes that anyone can follow, so each mini-workshop teaches one such process. You do them on your own time, from anywhere. Topics include how to rebuild trust, how to offer apologies, how to revive your intimacy and many more. Or for a more comprehensive conflict-resolution course, see our Gift of Conflict weekend course.
- If nothing else, notice when a relational disconnect happens and say, “I feel disconnected from you … and really what I want is to connect and be close to you!”