Couples always ask us to teach them communication skills. Usually they are having trouble understanding where their partners are coming from. Their communication breaks down quickly when the broach a topic they disagree about. They cannot understand how they get caught in what we call “the 0-60 ramp up phenomenon”: it takes a minute to go from calm to extremely frustrated, and another to go from frustrated to livid.
Are you communicating in the present?
Of course, there are a number of common ways communication can break down. Frequently, the issue is more about past hurt, anger, resentment, and unresolved conflicts than about anything in the current conversation. These negative emotions form a polluted haze of energetic smog that grows thicker the longer the issues remain unresolved. Communication skills alone will not clear the smog. First, the negativity that created the wall needs to be dissolved and cleared out.
What’s really behind the argument?
We have to identify the source of the problem. Typically this is an annoyance not central to the relationship, not core but polluting. To illustrate this, let’s take a look inside Suzie and Peter’s relationship:
Suzie reaches into her shopping bag and pulls out a shoe box. She opens it and proudly displays the sparkly sandals she bought to go with the dress she plans to wear to his brother’s wedding. “I got these shoes for 60% off,” she beams.
Taking a cursory glance at the shoes, Peter says “they’re nice” and turns back to the television. Susie feels an edge to his reply, a snippiness in his demeanor and expression.
Disappointed in his reaction she asks him “What’s up?” He shrugs and says nothing, continuing to look at the television. Suzie feels like she’s losing him, that he doesn’t care about her and begins to get angry. She tells him she doesn’t believe him and she is tired of the way he’s been acting, that he always seems to be annoyed, irritated, upset about something. She doesn’t understand why.
Peter realizes she’s right, that he has been acting annoyed with her. He has avoided speaking with Suzie about how it bothers him that she seems to constantly be shopping. It feels like every day she walks in with a shopping bag, or he finds a box from Amazon on the front porch. He doesn’t mind her spending money; they can afford it and she doesn’t spend much. However, he realizes by comparison he is a minimalist and goes for years without buying new clothes or other things for himself. He understands Suzie is different and wants to accept the difference; but he can’t.
He’s bothered by the constant consumption, especially since she has run out of room for her clothing and shoes. They share a closet and she takes up 90% already, leaving him hardly any space for himself. Peter realizes he hasn’t said anything to her because he doesn’t want to come off as a cheapskate. He has always felt ashamed of his father’s curmudgeonly ways and sorry for his mother who was actually deprived by his fathers refusal to let her buy things she needed. And he was suffering from the internal conflict of wanting to be generous with his wife while also disliking her materialism. Peter was taking his internal conflict out on Suzie, without discussing it with her.
If left unresolved for a longer period, Peter’s growing and unexpressed dissatisfaction with Suzies’s spending, coupled with his distancing himself from her, had the potential of eroding the relationship to the point of crisis. Their poor communication about difficult feelings was causing a build up of a smog wall between them.
It would be a shame since Suzie’s shopping was not a relationship deal breaker. It was a manageable problem that could be resolved through mutual understanding and compromise.
So Peter talked with Suzy about his feelings and Suzy felt better as the distance gap closed. Once she knew about how he felt, she was able to make informed choices about her purchases. She would always spend more than Peter – they both accepted this – but she didn’t need to be excessive , especially if it interfered with her relationship. Her relationship was more important than shiny shoes. She felt ok curbing spending if she knew Peter accepted her as she was and wasn’t trying to change her to make her act like him.
What can you do about this?
If you see a pattern of arguing about the same issue over and over again, or having arguments that end without being resolved, chances are there’s some older unresolved issue behind it. This may relate to one or both of you in the relationship. The key to clearing out the smog is using your communication skills to find the source of it. Is there a hidden belief you haven’t shared with your partner? A hidden fear, perhaps? Was there a pattern you recognized in your parents that you’re trying to avoid with your partner? Or maybe you have a conflict in your own priorities – two things you value highly that don’t mesh with each other.
The first step is to take time to think about it. See if you can identify your part in the disagreement. Then admit it, out loud, to your partner and talk it through together. Chances are that once you’ve cleared the air you will find that you understand each other and can resolve the issue together.