Unfinished business, unresolved issues, emotional baggage, irreconcilable differences, misunderstandings—call them what you will, but they’re not good for relationships.
We call them incompletions, which seems like a fitting term since their presence leaves us feeling like there’s something missing, unfinished, or incomplete in our relationships. What's missing is the feeling that things are okay between us, that our connection is complete as is, and that nothing needs to be done or said in order for each of us to feel secure and at peace at this time.
When we feel incomplete, there is a gnawing sense that something is not okay and we don’t feel a sense of ease, trust, and connection.
Some couples experience a pervasive sense of incompletion because they have failed to adequately address and come to terms with the broken places between them and now believe that feeling to be the norm—they no longer even expect to experience anything else. This perception is not only unfortunate and painful; it's also dangerous, since it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that solidifies that belief into a permanent reality.
Incompletions occur whenever an issue isn’t sufficiently addressed in a way that both partners feel that it is, at least for the time being, settled. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is resolved and reconciled once and for all; rather, there is a sense of acceptance of things as they are and there are no unspoken feelings of resentment or disappointment being withheld.
When an incompletion doesn’t get addressed in an open and timely way, it impairs our ability to experience deep connection, intimacy, and empathy in our relationship. Like an undisposed bucket of garbage in the kitchen, the longer it sits there, the more foul it becomes. In our efforts to avoid opening up a can of worms, many of us instead build up a tolerance to the smell rather than taking it out. Developing this tolerance, though, diminishes our motivation to clean up—and the vicious circle remains unbroken.
Getting complete requires the willingness to risk upsetting the apple cart, something we are more inclined to risk if we trust that we can repair any harm or damage caused in the process. If we are inexperienced in the skillful management of differences, though, we’re not likely to have much confidence that the process will lead to a successful outcome. All the more reason to learn how to handle incompletions. Although there may be uncomfortable moments, we are much more likely to become more skilled in this work by addressing issues directly when they arise, rather than avoiding them.
Here are 8 guidelines you might find useful:
- Acknowledge to your partner that you have an incompletion. This can be a simple statement, such as “There’s something that I feel unfinished about and I’d like to speak with you about it. Is this a good time?”
- If your partner says yes, go to step 3. If he or she says no, seek agreement on a time convenient for both of you. Be specific and make sure that you both have adequate time available to do the matter justice. Assume the conversation will take longer than you think.
- To begin the conversation, state your intention. It should be something that will ultimately benefit you both, such as, “My hope in having us both address my concern is that I can feel more complete and that we can both experience greater trust and understanding with each other.”
- Provide your partner some guidance to help him or her to know how best to support you in this process, such as: “It would be helpful to me if you can just let me explain to you what I’m feeling and needing without interrupting me. I don’t feel that I’ve been successful making my feelings and concerns clear and I’d like to try again. When I’m done, I’d like to hear your response and I’ll do my best to understand your take on things. I really appreciate your willingness to have this conversation with me now.”
- Express your feelings, needs, and concerns and make any requests that you would like your partner to respond to. Try to speak in terms of your experience, as this will diminish the likelihood that your partner will feel blamed or judged and will be less likely to become defensive. If he or she does become defensive or interrupts you, ask if you finish first, so that you’ll be able to be much more open to what he or she is saying after you feel that he or she has heard you.
- Show the same respect you’ve asked your partner to give you by listening attentively, not just to his or her words, but to the feelings that underlie them. Resist the temptation to “correct” anything that you disagree with. Keep in mind: Not disagreeing with someone does not necessarily mean that you agree with them.
- Go back and forth until you reach a point at which it feels that the energy between the two of you has lightened up and you both feel more relaxed, understood, and hopeful. An incompletion doesn’t have to be absolutely resolved in order to create a positive outcome. Some incompletions require many conversations before they become reconciled to the satisfaction of both partners.
- If you hit an impasse that despite your best efforts becomes intractable, rather than trying to push through it, take a break in the conversation or agree to resume the dialogue at another time, after you both have reset your intentions.
Regardless of the outcome, thank your partner for joining you in your commitment to deepen the quality of trust and understanding in your relationship.
This is admittedly an abbreviated version of the process of getting complete; you’ll learn a lot more in making the effort by noticing the consequences of your interactive patterns. To the best of your ability, try to be respectful, non-judgmental, non-blaming, and responsible in your words. Most of us are much more sensitive to blame, judgment, and criticism than we seem to others to be. The less defensive and reactive you can be, the more open your partner should be.
Becoming skilled in the process of getting complete is one of the best things that you can do for your relationship. There is a learning curve, but it doesn’t take a genius to master it. So go for it: You’ve got nothing to lose but your incompletions.
Linda and Charlie are co-authors of the bestselling book, 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married: Simple Lessons to Make Love Last (over 100,000 copies sold) and Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truth from Real Couples about Lasting Love.
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