Relationship Trouble? Go Bold, Not Timid

When relationship problems flare, your instinct is to walk on eggshells. Don't.

Posted Nov 19, 2017

Motortion Films/Shutterstock
Source: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

Christie and Sam are having a rough patch: Arguments about little things get blown out of proportion, names are called, and feelings of hurt and anger linger for days. After these blowups, they do their best to make nice — to not bring up the topic again, to back off (as best they can), to let things go, and to act politely. They walk on eggshells until annoyances eventually build up again, setting off the cycle once more.

Christie and Sam are doing what a lot of us instinctively do when our relationship atmosphere is charged: pull back and try to calm the waters. While this makes sense, it also creates the cycle that Christie and Sam are dealing with — with things swept under the rug only to eventually blow up down the line.

The counterintuitive stance is to go in the other direction. Yes, you do want to calm the waters and stop the arguing, but you also don’t want to sweep things under the rug, because the sweeping is often the cause of the problem to begin with.

When I see couples in therapy, they come in with a wide variety of complaints — kids, money, sex, household issues, work issues, drinking, etc. But what often lies beneath these presenting issues are two core problems:

One, they aren’t able to put problems to rest because they fall into this argue-avoid cycle; or they avoid talking about problems at all and constantly sweep everything under the rug. In either case, a host of problems wind up going unsolved, creating ongoing tension and landmines they constantly need to sidestep.

But the other underlying problem is that many couples are going through a stage of individuation. It may be part and parcel of the 7-year itch, or their own emotional wounds being constantly re-injured and reaching a breaking point.

Regardless of the particular cause, what is happening during these developmental stages is that too much of oneself has been compromised away over time or pushed to the side of the relationship. Both partners need to reclaim and bring back into the relationship what they each want; they need to be more honest and stop watering their lives down; they need to change those patterns and routines that no longer work. Both need to break out and reset the everyday focus of their relationship and the lives they share.

Here are some tips to help you take advantage of the opportunities such difficult times can offer:

1. Stop arguing.

You need to stop arguing to intentionally change the emotional climate in your relationship. While this can often seem difficult to do in intimate relationships, the reality is that you are likely already doing it all the time: You undoubtedly have to deal with coworkers or customers who push your emotional buttons every day, but you are able to remain calm, listen, and problem-solve.

No, work relationships are not the same as your relationship with your partner — he or she absolutely knows how to trigger you, and you are more sensitive to what unfolds. But that said, you are half of the argument equation; you know you are capable of staying rational. When emotions ramp up, you want to shift your focus to you and your feelings, rather than the other guy and what he is saying. As soon as you notice that you are beginning to get upset, do whatever you need to do to stop the fire and calm yourself down. You may even need to call a time-out and walk away. It's about breaking the pattern and changing the environment.

2. Start talking.

Now that you’ve lowered the temperature, you need to solve the problem. Resist the inclination to make up and sweep it all under the rug. Circle back and talk about the problem you were going to argue about. Again, pretend you are at work. Remain calm; focus on solving the problem.

3. Don’t pre-compromise.

The current you’re running against is that nice, accommodating frame of mind that can cause you to pre-compromise in any discussion. You don’t need to be controlling or mean, but you don’t want to lapse into the mindset of “I’ll go ahead and propose this, rather than saying what I really want, in order to avoid an argument.”

Instead, take the risk of speaking up and honestly saying what you need, and what you most want to change. This is about updating the relationship in the same way you update the software on your computer. You're both trying to get the bugs out and create a more viable version of the relationship. Say what you need, and let your partner do the same. 

4. Talk about emotional wounds.

Emotional wounds are those emotional reactions that you learned to be most sensitive to in childhood — criticism, micromanaging, feeling unappreciated, feeling dismissed or not heard, not getting enough attention, or feeling neglected. These wounds flare up and are easily re-injured in any intimate relationship. To make this re-wounding stop, speak up and let your partner know what they are doing. While you’re at it, find out what his or her emotional wounds are, and make a deal to stop re-wounding each other.

5. Talk about visions.

This is where things can go off-course, particularly in longer-standing relationships. You want more or less family time, more or less house, more or less dedication to a job, more or less couple time. But step back and look at the big picture of your life: Is it going the way you want? If not, now is the time to speak up and share your vision and your values.

The message here is to use this time of turmoil as an opportunity to get things — all-important things — on the table. It is also a time to upgrade the software in your brain about how you run your life — being more assertive, being clearer about what you believe in, or perhaps being less controlling and more compromising. It's about moving in a direction that you have not moved before. This is a time, contrary to what your instincts may tell you, to take important risks to change both you and your relationship.