Meg Luce: Steel your nerves and steady your relationship
Has your partner ever said something that made you go ballistic? It could be anything from “I felt like you were snarky” to “I thought you were flirting at the Super Bowl pod party.“ It could even be as mundane as, “You mixed up the bath towels.”
You might feel offended and react with, “This is pure nonsense. I did no such thing! You might decide, “I don’t have to listen to this!” On a bad day, you could even think, “I can’t take it anymore!”
Couples often struggle with moments like these and get confused about what they can and should do. They often think, we just can’t talk about this stuff! In worst-case scenarios, they may decide they will either have to live together in misery, ignore each other, or split up. There may even be a fantasy that some other wonderful dream-partner would never say such annoying things. Unlikely.
When you think about instances when your partner says something you don’t like, it may not dawn on you to wonder why you become so reactive about such things. You may instead be thinking that the whole problem is that your partner is so difficult.
But we know it is impossible to always agree on everything and occasional hurt feelings are a part of any relationship. Isn’t it worth bolstering your ability to listen without defensiveness and agitation? Why not figure out how to manage your partner’s complaints with more ease for yourself and grace for your partner?
It takes a good self-concept to consider your partner’s complaints. It takes a solid sense of who you are. It means that even if your partner says something they don’t like, it will not shatter you. You can handle it! It’s a strength to listen with steady calm. And it doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with what they are saying.
Here is an informal quiz to self-assess. What would you do if your partner said they “didn’t like how you spoke to the grandchildren,” “were bothered that you left your dishes in the sink,” or “felt hurt that you didn’t bring flowers on Valentine’s Day.”
How would you respond? 1. Lash out: “You never get ME anything for Valentine’s Day! 2. Collapse: “I guess I’m just a terrible person.” 3. Dismiss: “Whatever” or 4. Hear them out: “You sound upset; do you want to tell me about it?”
The question is, can you steel your nerves and calm your emotions when your partner has a complaint about you?
Dr. Ellyn Bader, who trains couples therapists from around the globe, says, “Get curious, not furious.” You can get curious about your partner in these instances without throwing yourself under the bus. How do they wish you would speak to the grandchildren? Why is it important to them? Did anyone speak nicely to your partner when they were growing up? How does this piece of history play into their present-day wish?
In the case of Valentine’s flowers, go ahead and get curious. Were they hoping for a high-end bouquet, or would a bargain bunch from Safeway do the trick?
How about the dishes; how do they feel when you leave the dishes in the sink? Disrespected? Okay. It doesn’t mean this is true for you. By listening, you are letting your most important person in the world tell you how they feel. It doesn’t have to kill you!
Get curious not only about your partner but also yourself. If listening to your partner’s complaints feels insurmountable, what’s that about? It could stem from many things, including past trauma, relationship insecurities, a fragile self-image, or maybe that’s just not the way your family did things when you were growing up.
Whatever gets in the way of holding steady can become something to discover about yourself and share with your partner. In this way, you can each grow as individuals as well as a couple. And the better you are at staying steady during the occasional challenging moments, the quicker you can get back to enjoying all the good times in between!
Meg Luce, M.S., is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Grass Valley specializing in helping couples create satisfying relationships. You can find her contact info at https://NevadaCountyTherapist.com.
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Shelley first attended our cancer support group just a day after she was diagnosed. When another participant gently asked her if there was anything she’d like to say, she only cried.