I’m not a couples’ psychologist by training. I don’t specialize in relationship communication. But I’ve worked in a fertility clinic, where even the most loving and glowing relationships are put through the grinder. This is not surprising, given the extremes of emotional, physical, social, and financial pressures couples must deal with as a team in an often unforgiving landscape of loss and uncertainty. In this land of fertility treatment, the most common frictions between couples are highlighted and blown up like textbook examples of what can go wrong in couples’ communication.
This week, I will share some of the most universal themes I’ve observed, along with advice that applies to every couple.
1. The continental drift.
Sam feels upset about something. Raj can see that she’s upset, and he doesn’t want to touch the wrong chord, so he carefully avoids acknowledging her bad mood. She sees that he clearly notices, but for some reason he doesn’t even care enough to ask. He sees that she’s fuming harder, so he retreats to another room, not wanting to set off a bomb. She feels even more pissed off, and there’s no place to vent. Eventually, someone says something “wrong” and a fight erupts.
Understandably, people are afraid of “setting of” unpleasantness. Sometimes, we think that if we just give bad emotions a wide berth, they will eventually dissipate and everything will be fine again. But avoiding unpleasantness has a tendency to amplify it, because your avoidance makes it look like you don’t care. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to solve the problem. Most of the time, partners who want to vent don’t even want a solution. Just be a good listener.
Don’t think that you’ve been a good listener just because you remained in the room and allowed sounds to enter your ears. That is actually one of the most frustrating things you can do. You’ll be a good listener—and help your partner to feel cared for—when you actively engage in the conversation by reflecting back what you heard (“it sounds like you’ve had a frustrating day”), asking follow-up questions (“what do you make of that?”), and expressing empathy (“wow, that really sucks!”).
2. The faucet and the plumber.
John is sad that his mother’s illness is making a turn for the worse. He’s looking for a shoulder to cry on and tells Jack about his worries. Jack immediately puts on his problem-solving hat. “Has she gotten a second opinion yet?” “Maybe she can try alternative medicine.” “You shouldn’t have to shoulder all this by yourself. Ask your sister to help more.” Meanwhile, John feels no better (in part because he has already considered all of these solutions), and eventually gets frustrated and walks away. Jack feels indignant and hurt because he’s just trying to help.
Are you the “fixer” in the relationship? When there’s a leaky faucet, it’s very helpful to call a plumber. But many stressors in life and in relationships are not fixable—heartache, loss, frustration, deterioration. When you call a plumber to fix a heartache, how far could he get? In the process of wielding his awkward wrenches and screwdrivers, he may even make the heartache worse, by making his partner feel unheard and invalidated.
Instead of putting on your problem-solving, fixing, plumber hat… just slow down and listen. In fact, listen a lot, and repeat back what you’re hearing so your partner knows you’ve been paying attention and understanding. And if the problem isn’t fixable, simply offer a hug and say, “I’m so sorry. Tell me how I can help.”
3. The unrelenting optimist.
Clara is feeling hopeless about the future because she and her partner Jamie have tried several rounds of fertility treatment with no success. She can’t help crying each time she gets a negative pregnancy test. Jamie thinks he needs to be the emotional rock of the relationship, to be optimistic enough for both of them. Each time Clara voices a fear or doubt, he immediately counters: “I know for a fact that we’ll get pregnant.” “Third time is the charm, remember?” “I’m not worried at all, because we’re meant to be parents.” Clara wonders if she’s crazy for feeling so hopeless, or if Jamie is not taking this seriously. Eventually she stops talking to him about her feelings, and feels even more alone.
This one is similar to the “plumber” problem above. Jamie is trying to solve the problem of hopelessness by countering it with unrelenting optimism. I understand—you’re trying to pull up the average positivity. You’re trying to lead by example. But what’s really happening is that you’re driving your partner away and leaving them feeling isolated. The two of you are farther and farther from being on the same page. Often, situations are truly bad—perhaps not totally hopeless, but it would be a lie to say “I’m sure everything will turn out well.” In these cases, your unrealistic optimism makes your partner wonder if he/she is crazy, or feel guilty about dragging you both down. Or they may simply feel like you don’t understand the situation or don’t care.
Instead of being blindly optimistic… acknowledge the difficulties you face together, tell your partner that you understand why they feel so down, and simply offer, “We’re in this together. I’ve got you.”
4. Apples vs. oranges.
Paul asks Mimi if they can review their finances—he’s worried that they haven’t saved enough for a rainy day. As they come across a big purchase from last year, Mimi is reminded of how embarrassed she was by Paul’s scolding on that occasion. Paul remembers this too, but he doesn’t want to go there (“what’s past is past”). Mimi says she’s upset that he hasn’t apologized. He’s frustrated that they can’t just figure out the current budget. They end up putting down the spreadsheets and accusing each other of having bad intentions. Paul never brings up finances again for fear of triggering another meandering fight. Mimi thinks he’s incapable of talking about emotions.
Often, couples will say that one of them is the more “emotional” of the pair, while the other is more “rational.” This is a false dichotomy. Almost everyone has emotional needs. Almost everyone is capable of rational thinking. Often, the problem is that during one particular moment, one person is trying to prioritize emotional processing, while the other is trying to prioritize problem-solving. Both can be achieved! But you have to take turns. If you agree ahead of time on the rules of a particular engagement, both parties will rest assured that their needs will be met, and will be able to focus on the task at hand.
Separate emotion-processing conversations from problem-solving ones. Instead of sitting down to a serious conversation that is totally open-ended (“I think we should talk about the future”)… propose a specific goal for the conversation. For example, “I feel that we ended our conversation last night with bad feelings. Can we set aside problem-solving today and just talk through our feelings about that?” Be generous with your partner’s goals too, for example, “I know we need to talk about our budget—how about we set aside 30 minutes tomorrow after dinner to look over spreadsheets?”
Of course, all of these good communication strategies are based on a foundation of good faith and mutual respect. If you care for one another, then open ears, generous empathy, and a little bit of pragmatism will be all the glue you need.