I was interviewed by a Seattle parenting magazine about the struggles couples have with dividing parenting responsibilities and how they can approach the issues involved. While parenting is certainly one of the biggest issues that can trip up a relationship, resolving those concerns is really no different than how I suggest addressing all difficult conversations. There is a basic approach you can take to tackle the tough topics.
Recognize that difficult conversations are difficult for both of you.
First, it is important that you and your partner realize that the stress you feel is real for both of you. Generally it is true that there are not enough resources (time, energy, and money) to allow everyone to get everything they want. When you start to feel overwhelmed and deprived, you may go into “scarcity mode,” in which protecting your own interests and getting enough for yourself become the goal. This is the time to take a step back, choose to let go of the fear that your needs won’t be met, and invite an openness to best meeting the needs of everyone involved – both you and your partner.
Do your best to stay present and non-reactive.
After you release your tight grip on your own self-interest, it is time to have an honest conversation about the situation with your partner. This conversation will be more effective if you can keep your reactivity at bay, soothe your own anxiety, tolerate the ambiguity of not knowing how you will work out the issues and remain present and open with your partner even when the conversation is hard. If you recognize that you are becoming overly emotional, if you see that you are starting to blame your partner, if you find yourself starting to feel like you are right and your partner is wrong, I encourage you to acknowledge that and take whatever time is necessary to center yourself again and re-engage in the discussion once you can maintain your balance and openness.
Distinguish between thoughts and feelings. Own yours, either way.
There are some skills that can make these talks easier, too. There are various models that describe the process, but I support people to differentiate between what has happened (what would a video camera show), the thoughts you have about it (what meaning have you attributed to what happened), how you feel about it (what emotions have been triggered), and what you want. Discriminating between thoughts and feelings can be especially difficult, but this is important if you want to stay grounded and if you want your partner to participate in the work with you. You might say, “I feel like you don’t value the contribution I make to the family,” but this is not a feeling statement. You probably feel sad and resentful, but you think that your partner does not appreciate you and you think what you do is not important. This distinction defuses the tension because understanding that you have added your own thoughts and meaning to the feelings underscores that they are just your thoughts and meanings; they are not absolute or necessarily correct. Use “I” language as much as possible, describing your own experience and your reaction to is, without making it about the other person. (You might enjoy my colleague’s article “I statements for dummies”) Admit the negative parts of yourself that are involved in the situation; if you feel stingy or greedy or jealous or resentful, say that out loud and own that this is your stuff to deal with. Ask for what you want without expecting that you will get it. Make room for the validity of your partner’s experience, too, and consider his or her wants as your offer your own.
Having the hard conversations is daunting but worthwhile.
Walking into the fire of difficult conversations can seem intimidating, and lots of people avoid it if at all possible. But if you don’t address the things that are eating at you, they begin to eat away at your relationship. If you are not talking about the hard stuff, you often stop talking about anything of substance. This creates distance and disconnection. Tackling the hard stuff, engaging in the process of taking stands and giving ground, living in the discomfort of not knowing the outcome for certain, and learning to keep yourself strong and together while you interact with your loved one, all contribute to a much healthier partnership in the future, one in which both people participate and get their own and their partner’s needs addressed. Keep in mind that it might be time for couples counseling can be very useful if you keep getting stuck trying to resolve an issue.
You might also enjoy my colleagues tips for 5 ways to conquer conflict in your relationship.
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