When Marriage Problems Build Up, Here’s How to Break the Ice
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Does this problem ring a bell? You’re nursing a grievance. You didn’t bring it up at the moment because there was too much going on. Or you were afraid things would go south. Or you thought maybe it was one of those times in a marriage when you should just cut your partner slack and move on. Except this time you just can’t and it’s still eating away at you.
You know you need to clear the air, but how? If it’s been more than a week or so, you feel awkward going back and saying, By the way, there’s this thing you did that you probably don’t even remember, but it still bothers me.
I really resent having to do all the work for the Kim’s party last month, said Terry. I had to come up with the ideas and pull the whole thing together. I’d like to enjoy the kids’ parties but it’s hard when I feel like things are so unfair.
Terry knows her feelings are not going to go away on their own. But it feels so negative to start talking about something that’s over a month old. She really dislikes negative people. And she definitely doesn’t want to start a fight. A couple of times she psyched herself up for it, but then her husband had to work late, or one of the kids needed help with homework and it just never happened.
The trouble is, when resentments fossilize, they drive a wedge between you. If you let them build up, you’ll find you start drifting apart. Keeping silent almost always causes more harm than the original issue ever would have. In fact, it’s the number one relationship killer. I can always tell when a couple walks in with this problem because of the lifeless feeling between them.
You probably have a good idea of the dangers already. In our self-help culture, here’s a lot of talk about how destructive not talking is! But just knowing this doesn’t show you how to get unstuck and move forward.
When you’re afraid to break the ice, or for that matter, afraid of anything in your life, you need small steps. Ask yourself: What’s the smallest step I could take to open things up between us?
This idea might not feel natural. When your resentment is big (and growing) you can get into an all or nothing mindset: Either I keep quiet or let it blow. And if you don’t quite feel entitled to speak up, you might unconsciously work yourself into a fury to get yourself over the hump.
Another pitfall is feeling like you have to say everything perfectly. You have to make a water-tight case for your position in order to feel justified in advocating for yourself. That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder you put it off!
Often the best small step is to name what you see going on, before you even get into what’s bothering you:
We haven’t been talking much this week, have we?
This way you’re inviting your partner to address any issues he might have, too. If you’re frustrated, he’s probably frustrated, too. Of course, you have make good on your offer. If you’ve been chewing on your feelings for awhile, it might come as a shock that your partner has complaints about you, too! And even if he’s unaware there’s any issue, it’s still a winning approach.
Then you can go a half-step further:
I’ve been pretty frustrated and my guess is you’re not feeling great, either.
When you do bring up your issue, mention your fears as well. For Terry, it went like this:
I have some things I want to say about how Kim’s party went. I’m afraid you’ll think I’m holding a grudge because I’m still thinking about it. I haven’t said anything before because I was afraid we’d end up in a fight. I hope we can just have a good conversation about it.
It will be hard for your partner not to feel at least some concern for you.
There’s no point in planning what you’re going to say beyond this point, because who knows how your conversation will go? Not the way you imagined, usually. That’s another way people work themselves into an aggressive mode, by planning out the whole conversation.
After you float your invitation, do your best to be patient and allow the conversation to unfold. When you’re uncomfortable, you want to wrap things up as soon as you can and get onto something more pleasant. Plus, if you’re a high-achiever like so many of my clients, moving fast is just your mode. But when you’re tending to the business of emotions, forget about trying to close the deal quickly. A slow pace creates the safety that emotions need to show themselves.
Knowing I didn’t have to get to the bottom of everything in one sitting was a big help, said Terry. It brought a lot of relief to both of us just to open the door a little bit. We feel a little closer, and not so adversarial. We’re still figuring things out, but at least now we’re playing on the same team.