If you feel something, say something
I’ve been noticing a theme in my conversations with couples recently. I think it’s safe to say that many of us are familiar with the minor disagreements with our partners about something seemingly small, like dirty socks getting left on the floor, that somehow escalate and spiral into all sorts of other grievances. Like that time eight months ago when they didn’t stand up to their mother on your behalf!
I loved the way one couple summed up their strategy for dealing with those arguments as, “if you feel something, say something.” Meaning, rather than allowing things to build up over time, if something strikes you as genuinely hurtful or upsetting, let your partner know.
We have a tendency to pretend like we’re letting something go when really it festers and grows. The issue sits there marinating, waiting for the opportunity to pounce on our partner at a later dispute. Relationship expert, author, and lecturer Esther Perel provides some tips for how to handle this behavior that she calls, “kitchen sinking.”
Picture the sink with just a dirty cereal bowl and coffee mug sitting in it- manageable, right? Now contrast that with the sink that’s overflowing with pots and pans that need to be scrubbed, several plates stacked in their own grime, used glasses, and filthy silverware. At that point, you may think it easier to just burn the place down!
That is exactly what we do; rather than addressing issues as they come, we burn the lines of communication down. Instead of seeing the disagreement of the moment, we see that “entire sink” full of hurts, upsets, disappointments, and sadness. All the unaddressed pieces overwhelm us so we just start throwing them all out there.
Now that we know what we’re doing, let’s look at what we can do about it…
- Stick to the issue at hand. Bringing in examples and proofs of other wrongdoings will only be met with defensiveness. Your partner is also unable to handle the entire kitchen sink.
- Avoid laying in on the “yous”: you always do this, you never stop to think, you obviously don’t even care…
- Focus on their behavior, not their character. Don’t assume that the behavior must be evidence for the type of person your partner really is. Start off with a clear statement about how much you really do like your partner as a person. Then, identify the specific behavior with which you are struggling. This gives them something positive to hold onto while receiving the difficult message of how they have hurt you.
- Share your own experience in the situation without attacking or defining your partner. Be aware that often times the content of the problem (the specific behavior) is less significant than the resultant emotional experience of feeling unloved, disregarded, disrespected, unimportant, etc.
- In the moment when you notice yourself connecting incidences and compiling the evidence for all the ways your partner is no good – combat that internal dialogue by identifying all the good qualities you know your partner possess, all the things you appreciate about them, and all the ways they have shown up for you the way you wanted. This gives you a more holistic and complex view of them rather than getting stuck in the narrowness of defining them by their current behavior.