Everybody has aspects of their relationship that they wish their partner would change. The trouble is that merely suggesting those changes often doesn't give us the response we were hoping for. But even though you don't have control over your partner, that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to improve your interactions. Part of the communication problem might be a "harsh beginning" on your end — for example, opening conversations with criticisms, sarcasm or contempt.
Let's say, for example, you wish your partner would do the dishes more. Rather than complaining that he doesn't scrub up, you might want to say: "I've had a busy day and feel pretty tired. I would like to rest, but I’m worried that the dishes will pile up and add to my work load in the morning. I'd like to find a solution; can you pitch in, say, within the next hour or so?"
In this scenario, you're not acting insulting or trying to control your partner, but you are taking responsibility for and communicating your needs to them. Sounds great. But what if he doesn't help? Maybe he tells you he is working against a deadline and doesn't have any time to spare that night. What if that happens several days in a row? Again, the way to begin the conversation is with yourself. Using "I feel" and "I need" rather than "you should" or "you always" statements is a much softer way to start the dialogue:
"I'd like to talk to you about something. Do you have a minute? [Actually wait for a response here!] In the past week, I've done the majority of the dishes. This is not working for me, because I don't have that kind of energy, and it doesn't feel very good. I need some help figuring out how to how we can divvy up the work. If that doesn't work for you, let's hire someone to help us out."
The main difference between this and the more common strategies of complaining, whining, nagging, sighing loudly, eye rolling or giving the silent treatment is that you are clearly identifying and communicating your needs. It is a non-blaming way of speaking that avoids making your partner's defenses automatically go up. We might feel like we "shouldn't have to" negotiate these things, but telepathy is a very unreliable form of communication!
In addition to a softer beginning, in order to get the best results, you may have to reveal more of your personal feelings — especially the more vulnerable ones underneath the annoyance.
- Instead of saying: "I'm sick of always visiting your folks", say: "I feel like spending time alone together. Can we do something special this weekend?".
- Instead of saying: "I hate Christmas. We're gonna be in debt for the next 6 months", say: "I want to enjoy the holidays with you, but I worry about the bills. Can we talk about a budget?"
- Instead of saying: "Why do you never want to have sex anymore?", say: "I've really been missing you. What can I do to get you in the mood?"
Often what we feel on a superficial level is anger, annoyance, resentment, and judgment for the other person. Try digging deeper and getting in touch with what triggered those thoughts and feelings. If you notice that you feel resistant to having a cooperative attitude, this might be a sign that you've been avoiding certain thoughts and feelings for a while. Maybe there is some grudge or resentment you've never been able to admit to yourself, let alone express openly. Did you once have an open heart and became disappointed? Do you feel helpless, embarrassed, or hopeless?Are you worried about being controlled? Are you afraid to trust because of past hurt?
Some couples need a third party to help them navigate these types of delicate conversations. Couples therapy can create a safe space to explore the conflicts in your relationship, providing you with the tools you'll need — both to communicate your own needs, and to listen to the needs of your partner in order to break out of the underlying dynamics and destructive patterns in your interactions with one another.
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