Have you ever tried to bring up an issue with your partner only to have them respond with a question or a correction?
When did that happen?
It was Thursday you asked me, not Tuesday…
I never said that!
When we respond in this way we have only one goal in mind, to prove that we are right! The discussion turns into a ping-pong match, each person defending their position, and criticising the other, and so it goes on.
Sometimes I ask couples to describe a typical fight. I don’t ask because I want to know who’s right, and who’s wrong – that’s not for me to decide. What I’m looking for is the specific pattern of behaviour the couple are engaging in.
The ping-pong argument is often like a passing storm. It brews for a while, has a huge thunderous impact, and then leaves again.
Occasionally, couples that argue like this are able to work through an issue without too much damage. This is good for the short term, until the next issue comes up and the same patterns emerge.
Instead of staying locked in this pattern of behaviour here are my best tips to get your communication back on track so you can start enjoying the relationship again, and hang your ping-pong paddles up once and for all.
Step 1. Create a sense of safety
Slow the conversation down. Think about what you’re going to say before blurting out hurtful comments that you’ll later regret. Staying connected in the conversation, rather than talking at each other, creates a sense of safety so you can both let your guards down and talk about what’s really going on. If possible, make time and space to have the conversation without any distractions.
Step 2. Watch what you’re saying
Blame, shame or criticism will very quickly weaken and eventually kill connection. When our partner is doing something we don’t agree with we often feel the need to point it out in the hopes they’ll change their ways. But no one can take feedback on board if they feel attacked.
The best way to make sure your partner understands you is to frame things from their point of view and then let them know how that makes you feel. It’s also helpful to ask yourself, what am I actually feeling? How does their behaviour impact on me? Understanding your own feelings before having a difficult conversation can help you feel less frazzled and more likely to stay on topic.
Think about how you can reframe your words.
Instead of: don’t you know how stressful this is for me? Try: I feel frustrated
Instead of: why do I have to do all the work? Try: I need some help with this
Instead of: you never help with the baby! Try: I feel like I’m drowning in dirty nappies!
Using this type of language will help your partner empathise with you instead of going straight on the defence.
Step 3. Stop talking and start listening
This can be the hardest step for a lot of people. It takes courage to really listen. What if I don’t want to hear what they have to say? What if the conversation is about something that’s really painful?
Listening to your partner, really listening, means putting aside the desire to run, fight back, argue or defend. Your partner is separate to you. They view the world differently to you. When they’re talking to you from their heart, your only job is to listen, and to try to keep an open mind.
Getting defensive only creates a rift. Hopefully, your partner is helping you out by talking from their own point of view and not criticising your behaviour or actions.
A word of warning: when we sit in a space that is heartfelt and open, we can sometimes finally see where our partner has been coming from, and ultimately how we have impacted on their feelings of self-worth. This can be painful and you might want to push back against it. Don’t. Not only will you break the connection between you, you’ll miss the opportunity to learn more about yourself, and grow from the experience.