Posts Tagged ‘fighting with your partner’

Your Partner Can’t Read Your Mind

October 4, 2010

Through my work with couples, it has become apparent that many people need to give up the myth that their partner can read their mind and determine exactly what their needs are without them having to say a word. Apparently, many of us have a belief system that if our partner really loved us, they would know precisely what we need to feel loved and cared about, and they would always respond accordingly.  I’ve noticed that I get a lot of resistance when I suggest that one partner get rid of this idea. I’ve found over time that this belief is so ingrained in us and that we really believe this is what love is all about–a perfect partner who can respond perfectly to every want and need we have without us ever having to give them any direction.

One prominent couples therapist, Harville Hendricks, theorizes that this myth exists because when we were babies our parents had to determine our needs without our being able to verbally communicate our needs. Hendricks says that our brains remember this and continue to believe to this day that when someone loves us, they will “just know” how to take care of us. Another well-regarded couples therapist, Steve Stosny, suggests that this myth exists because in the beginning, when we were first falling in love, it was very easy for our partner to please us. Everything they did seemed so wonderful and perfect, and we grew to believe that they just knew how to make us happy. However, as we become more familiar with them, and the giddy “in love” feelings wear off, suddenly we feel disappointed, thinking that our partner changed and stopped doing such loving things. This leads to us feeling cheated and resentful.

Whatever the reason, it seems clear that the belief that our partners should be able to intuit our needs and wants exists, and that it is difficult to get couples to shift away from this idea. There may be two reasons for this. First, we would like to believe that love should be easy and we get nervous when it takes effort to maintain a great relationship. We begin to think we are with the wrong person because the relationship seems like “too much work”.

Secondly, it is much easier to expect our partner to “just know” what we need because then we don’t have to do any work! It completely lets us off the hook when it comes to a) figuring out what it is we want, need, and expect in our relationships and b) communicating this to our partner. But often, when I ask an individual what they need to feel loved and cared about, they look at me blankly.

“If you don’t know, then how can you expect your partner to know?” I ask them.

“Well he/she knew in the beginning” they say, which may support Stosny’s point.

Of course there is most likely some truth in the idea that our partners really do go out of their way more for us in the beginning and become less motivated over time to engage in behaviors that lead us to feel loved and cared about. However, whether we were easier to please in the beginning and everything our partner did just “seemed” perfect to us, or whether they really were behaving “perfectly,” and now they aren’t, this state obviously doesn’t last throughout the course of the relationship. At some point, one partner gets disappointed in the other and feels betrayed.

The problem, besides holding the belief that our partner should read our mind, is what we do with our disappointment. We may get angry and lash out, attacking our partner, “You never put in the effort anymore” or we may get quiet, shut down, and say “Everything’s fine,” even though our behavior shows our partner that everything is definitely not fine.  This is where it would be really great if our partner really could read our mind and know that we don’t mean to be critical or to shut down, but we just don’t know how to come out and say in a non-blaming way, “I feel disconnected from you” or “I miss how you used to _________________(scratch my back, take me to dinner, bring me flowers, call me just to say hi, etc).

What I tell the couples that I work with is that we all feel loved and cared about a little bit differently. What you need may be the complete opposite of what your partner needs. Your partner may need something that is the opposite of what your last partner needed. It’s your job to figure out what you want, need, and expect in your relationship and to let your partner know what those things are. And it’s also your job to be open to hearing from your partner what his/her needs are as well.

If we think back to Hendricks’ idea that our brains believe those who love us will know what we need due to how we were taken care of as a baby, it’s helpful to realize that our parents only had a few, somewhat generic choices when it came to figuring out what we needed, whether it was to be changed, or that we needed a nap, or that we wanted attention, or that we are sick and needed to go to the doctor. As you grew up, your needs and wants became more varied and much more personal to you. Your preferences are most likely different from those of your siblings, and ideally your parents got to know you and were able to respond to your needs in a more individualized way. But this wasn’t only your parents’ job anymore–it was also up to you to let your parents know what your ever-changing needs were so that they could respond more effectively. Or maybe you grew up with parents who were unconcerned with your needs and did little to meet them. That may be why it feels better to leave it up to your partner to figure out what you need, because you don’t really believe deep down that anyone wants to meet them. So why would you put them out there and risk being rejected? It’s far easier to put the responsibility for your own needs on your partner and then blame him/her when they aren’t met. It’s just not effective.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, falling in love involves risk. The risk involved may yield high rewards, or the risk may mean we lose it all. Being in love is risky because we can’t guarantee that our partner will always love us or that we won’t somehow be hurt or betrayed. We will all do better in our relationships when we finally understand that we chose to take that gamble to love our partner and when we are able to take more responsibility for how the relationship is going, and not sit around passively waiting for our partner to “just know”.

Additionally, couples often love their partner in the way they themselves would feel loved and are surprised when their partner doesn’t necessarily feel loved from their actions. This is when I will typically refer clients to read books by Gary Chapman, author of “The 5 Love Languages.” Chapman identified the fact that some people feel more loved through spending quality time with their partner, while others primarily feel loved through physical touch, while still others prefer lots of verbal affirmation. His books help people figure out their style and guides them in being able to let their partner know what sort of things will improve their loving behaviors without them having to rely on the myth of mind reading.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

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You “Shouldn’t” Do This in Your Relationship

February 18, 2010

Whenever we tell someone what they should or should not do, we might as well expect the other person to get defensive and feel resentful. Think about the last time someone told you what you should do. You probably didn’t take it too well either.  We heard all about what we should or shouldn’t have been doing as kids by our parents. The last thing we want is to hear that as adults from our partners.

Some examples of “shoulding” I’ve heard from clients recently include:

“She should let me go out with my friends more often without freaking out about it.”

“He should do more around the house.”

“She shouldn’t get so angry and threaten to break up with me all the time.”

I don’t think that most of us realize how provocative it is when we “should” others. When we are in that state of mind, we really believe that our way is the “right” way and that any reasonable person would see it the same way.  This gives us the idea that it’s OK to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do.  Then we are often surprised when the receiver doesn’t take our statement too well, and now we have a new problem–a fight!

The truth is that even if we are “right” about what someone should do, nine times out of ten, the person who is on the receiving end of the “should” is not going to respond with, “Oh, thank you so much for enlightening me, you are right!”

Instead, they will dig in their heels and fight you on the topic way more so than they may have if things had been phrased a little bit differently.

In an ideal world, the person we are talking to is able to hear the upset and insecurity we are experiencing under the should statement and understands that when we tell others what they should have done, we really mean what we WISH they had done, because it would have made our lives a little bit better.

We would then sound more like this:

“I wish you would do more around the house, such as loading the dishwasher and taking out the trash (be specific).  It would really make life a lot better for me if those things happened more often. What do you think about doing those chores?” (ask what they are willing to do or not do as opposed to telling them what to do).

“I wish that you were more open to me hanging out with my friends. I don’t like having to fight with you about it every time it comes up. Being with my friends is important to me and I would really appreciate the freedom to see them more often without us arguing about it.  I want us to be able to understand each other better and get on the same page about this. What scares you about my outside relationships?” (ask for their point of view and try to understand)

“I wish we didn’t have these awful arguments where we get so upset with each other that you threaten our relationship. It’s scary to me when that happens.  I feel like I’m constantly walking on eggshells, about to lose the relationship with the smallest misstep. Help me understand how things get to such a bad place with us.”

You may have noticed that these phrases also enlist the other person’s point of view instead of simply telling them what we want or don’t want. All of us need to feel heard and understood, and none of us do very well with feelings of coercion from our loved ones.  That makes it important to send the message that you want to know where your partner is coming from, but to also be assertive about your own needs and wishes.

Maintaining a curious stance (Why does it upset you so much when I want to hang out with my friends?) will generally work better than the “should” statement (I should be able to hang out with my friends).

If you are able to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and tell yourself that if they are upset, there is most likely a legitimate point in there somewhere, your response will be more effective. You probably can’t hear the part of their argument that is valid, because their point was presented in an angry and self-righteous way that immediately triggers you not to listen. When we feel attacked, we get defensive or we counterattack.  When we feel coerced, we resist.  That’s human nature.

However, if you are able to put aside the fact that your partner seems to be making a demand on you with their “should” and understand that there is likely something reasonable going on for them, perhaps you will be able to  resist getting defensive, ignore the blame, and hear them out. Then, you may come to an agreement on the topic that both of you can feel OK about.

What many people do is to form a new problem on top of the original problem (housework, going out with friends, etc.) This new problem is the emotional distress, fear and anger that comes from not being in agreement, and this problem almost ensures that we will no longer be able to focus effectively on the original issue at hand.

People go around and around because they are each waiting to hear that they are right, and the other person refuses to say it. I think that we want to be right because we believe hearing it will be so validating. But the real satisfaction after a fight is the closeness that can come from feeling heard, and understood and told that we are making some sense. When both people can talk about their deepest desires for themselves and for their relationship, intimacy develops. That can’t happen when two people are at odds. Being “right” at that point is the booby prize at best.

When we don’t need to be right and when we don’t impose our “shoulds” on another person, then we are in a whole new place. Our relationships feel more mutual, collaborative and intimate.

The best we can do in our relationships is to ask for what we would like, but without the demand. We can let others know how important things are to us without telling them what they should or shouldn’t do and without needing to be right. When you put yourself on a higher moral plane than your loved one by thinking you know what they should or shouldn’t be doing, you are practically asking to be ignored or to be fought with.

If you are the one sending the should statement, try to revise your communication to include what you would like to see happen, while also keeping your partner’s wishes in mind as well. When we are acting assertively, we remember that while our needs and wants are important, so are our partner’s. There is most likely a middle ground that can be reached if we don’t add in that emotional pain from fighting and demanding that things go our way. You can choose to approach your partner with the spirit of collaboration, instead of telling them what to do or talking about how wrong they are.

If you are on the receiving end of the should statement, do your best to understand that you partner is trying to tell you something important. Make the choice to listen and validate their concerns (even if you can only validate 2% of what they are saying). Try not to counterattack with a “should” of your own (“You should want to be with me and not your friends”), or get defensive (“Well, you are no fun to be around so of course I want to be with my friends instead”).

John Gottman, a prominent couples therapist and researcher says that it’s not so much what happens during a fight that is such a big deal, but it’s about whether we can come back later and talk about what happened in a more effective way. Most people let things drop and never really resolve their issues because it seems too hard.

I would say it’s not that difficult, but we are scared to do it because we believe that we have to admit we were wrong and we really don’t want to do that. I think what we really need to do is reach out and let others know that we care and that they may have a valid point, we just couldn’t hear it under the criticism of the “should.” Maybe we don’t help out around the house enough, or maybe we do go out with our friends too much. That can be extremely painful to admit. It’s not about the other person being right, or about our being wrong, it’s about taking responsibility for our actions, and balancing your own needs with the needs of the relationship.

In Nonviolent Communication we talk about hearing the pain underneath others’ blame. A should statement is blaming and that is why it’s so provocative. But underneath the blame, it’s guaranteed that your partner is feeling some distress and probably doesn’t think they will be effective if they confide their vulnerable feelings to you. Try to help them make their point by listening and staying respectful. It’s not about sacrificing yourself or keeping your own wants and needs repressed. It’s about sending the message that you care and that you are willing to work with your partner so that both of your needs get met.

In the moment, you may not care to follow any of this advice. I can understand that because I’m telling you what you SHOULD not do, and you probably don’t like that. You might think that I’m telling you that I am right with my advice and you are wrong with your “shoulding”.

I’m not trying to be right, I’m just trying to help you have happier relationships. And I really don’t want to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, I just want you to be aware of the painful consequences of doing that to others. There is a better way that will get you more of what you want and need in your life.

In your next argument, you might still throw that “should” out there and refuse to modify it. Or if you hear a should from someone you care about, you may get angry and respond ineffectively and kick off a huge argument. That’s OK. It can feel very satisfying to do so. I know from personal experience. Couples therapists make a lot of the same communication errors as everyone else because we are all human.

However, when you have calmed down, go back and try again. Reassure your partner that their needs are important to you and you want to work with them so that both of you are happy.  You can even infuse some humor into the situation by saying, “I shouldn’t have shoulded you.”

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

How to Self Soothe

February 5, 2009

girl-looking-out-window2After a fight with our partner, it’s nice when we can come back together and process the argument, take responsibility for our parts, comfort each other and move on. Often, however, that is not what happens. Instead, couples fight, go their separate ways, and rile themselves up about how wrong their partner is. And when they finally do come back together they usually 1) apologize without really understanding what happened or 2) don’t apologize or process the fight and just try to move on, all the while holding onto resentment.

When you and your partner fight without resolution and you don’t have the chance to comfort each other due to the anger and resentment keeping you apart, the best thing you can do for yourself is to self-soothe. Self-soothing consists of giving yourself care and comfort that calms you down and helps you regulate your emotions. It doesn’t help you or your relationship to go to your own corner and dwell on what a jerk your partner can be. It’s better to remind yourself that both you and your partner are good people and that everyone has conflict.

Here are some more suggestions for self-soothing:

1) Take responsibility for your part. Did you attack your partner? Did you get defensive? Did you name call? Think about the piece that you contributed to the argument. This will give you more of a sense of control. Don’t keep thinking about your partner’s piece or what he/she did wrong. Focus on yourself only.

2) Take care of yourself physically. Be sure to take slow, deep breaths. Often when we are upset, we breath very shallowly, almost holding our breath. This increases anxiety. Take even and slow breaths for several minutes.

3) Do what makes you feel a little bit better. Fighting with loved ones is stressful. I realize that it’s not realistic to expect you to feel good while fighting with your partner. But there is always something you can do to feel a little better. This something is different for everyone. For some it’s listening to music, or even playing music like the guitar or piano. For others it’s going for a walk or jog. Some of my clients say that praying is comforting to them. Also, it’s been proven that petting an animal is soothing, so if you have a pet, cuddle up! Yoga or meditation may help you calm down. Additionally, talking to a close friend or family member can be soothing. Just be sure to reach out to those who will be of comfort to you and not someone who will make you feel worse. Lastly, don’t resort to abusing drugs or alcohol, as that will most likely rile you up or numb you out, instead of actually soothing you.

4) When you come back with your partner, talk about your part and how you contributed to the conflict. Without anger or criticism, your partner will likely be more responsive. Be willing to apologize for your piece and be forgiving of both your behaviors and your partner. Nobody is perfect.

5) Ask your partner for what you need. Focus more on what you want from him/her and not what you don’t want. We all respond better to positives (“Please put your phone down and talk to me,”) than negatives (“I hate when you text while we are out to dinner.”)

If your partner really IS being a “jerk”, see my blogs about how to stand up for yourself or how to take an uncompromising stand. Also, you can still use some of these self soothing techniques if you are recovering from a break up or even if you do not have a partner at all, but just need help managing your own emotions.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

Why We Can’t Just Give In

January 11, 2009

couple4We have a couple of choices in our relationships when it comes to things we disagree with our partner about. We can:

1) Ignore what we want and give in to please our partner
2) Stand up for what we want and ask/insist that our partner meet us halfway

3) Consider what we want, consider what our partner wants, and then decide to go along with what our partner wants

If we choose option #1, we risk disappointing ourselves, feeling taken advantage of, and building up resentment against our partner. In the long run, this option creates a gap in the relationship, which may inevitably kill the partnership. Our partner may not even know that we aren’t happy with what we are doing, especially if we haven’t tried option #2 which is to ask our partner to meet us in the middle and negotiate something we can both feel good about.

I recently counseled a couple who was in this situation. They spent nearly every (non-working) waking moment together. The boyfriend thought this was a good arrangement. She wanted more space just to be by herself and get some quality alone time. However, she mostly gave in to his desire to spend time together and was in turn getting resentful as hell. And her boyfriend had no idea! She hadn’t spoken up and let him know what she needed. He was very surprised to hear how important it was to her to be by herself at times. Her giving in on this was poisoning the relationship and her boyfriend didn’t even have the opportunity to make any changes because she didn’t make her needs clear.

When we choose option #2 we feel entitled to what we want and feel secure that we will be heard. We have no problem speaking up for what we think and what we want. Or we feel the fear and do it anyway, because we know it’s important to our well-being and also to the relationship. If our partner tries to make a unilateral decision that doesn’t include us, we let him/her know that is unacceptable and we insist on our point of view being considered. This is a true partnership. We are never going to agree on every decision and our wants and needs are likely to be different from our partner’s. But this doesn’t mean our relationship can’t work. We just need to be willing and able to negotiate something that both people can live with.

If we don’t feel strongly about the decision, then maybe we don’t make a huge deal about it that this year we wanted a ski vacation instead of a beach one. But if we really wanted the ski vacation, then it won’t work to remain silent and give in on it or even to speak up, be discounted, and inevitably give in anyway out of defeat. We just really aren’t going to enjoy that vacation and even worse, again, we will likely become resentful of our partner. We need to speak up and ask our partner to meet us in the middle about where the yearly vacation will be or any other issue that we feel strongly about.

Couples often believe that they fall out of love. They don’t realize that they let so much resentment build up from giving in and not feeling heard, that they decide, seemingly out of nowhere, months or years later that they just can’t stand their partner anymore. And again, their partner may not even realize that the beach vacation wasn’t a compromise because the other wasn’t clear about what he/she wanted. I saw this with a couple I work with. The husband really believed he had compromised with his wife on a number of issues. To his surprise, she just hadn’t said anything about what she thought because she wanted so much to please him and because she hated conflict. But instead of this being protective of the relationship, as the wife had intended, it actually began to destroy their marriage, again due to all the resentment she had built up against him and how disappointed she was in herself that she wouldn’t stand up for herself.

Option #3 is another form of negotiation that’s a little different than simply standing up for yourself. Back to the ski vs. beach vacation–if there are once-in-a-lifetime waves forming in Costa Rica this year and your partner just HAS to go there for vacation, then even though you REALLY wanted the ski vacation, you may still go ahead and agree to take the surf vacation. In this case, you aren’t giving in and getting resentful. Instead you are weighing your needs, and also your partner’s, and deciding that you can do the beach vacation WITHOUT getting resentful. You are making an investment in the relationship by doing what your partner wants. And you really are OK with the decision. And perhaps you make a deal that next year will be the ski vacation, which really helps you to be OK with surfing.

The point is that we can’t give in when we truly believe in something or really want something. The risk is too great, in that we may actually kill the relationship long term when we don’t require ourselves to speak up or require our partner to hear us. Don’t be fooled that avoiding conflict by giving in is good for your relationship. It’s just the opposite, unless you can look inside and really be OK with the decision you make. Be clear with yourself about whether you are giving in and getting resentful or investing in the relationship without resentment.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.