I think it’s safe to assume that if you’ve been with your partner for more than a few months, they probably have a few habits that you find mildly annoying – yeah?
And it’s probably also safe to assume that if you’ve been with your partner for a reeeeally long time, then some of those little things are driving you completely bonkers by now. Am I right?
But this isn’t about what your partner is doing to drive you crazy – it’s about how you’re expressing your frustrations to them – and how you go about expressing yourself in a relationship can make or break it.
It’s easy to get on our high horse and start pointing the finger. Blame starts to creep in when we stop taking responsibility for our own part in any issues that come up. The issues only get bigger and a vicious cycle of fighting and blaming continues.
What started out as ‘he always leaves his wet dirty towel on the floor’ becomes ‘he’s selfish and doesn’t respect me at all’ or ‘she tells me I don’t do things “properly” has turned into ‘she nags me constantly, I cant do anything right!’
There’s a natural stage in any relationship where the rose coloured glasses come off and we start to see our partner for who they really are, warts and all.
Often in therapy, couples will present me with a long list of items their partner does “wrong”. They believe the relationship would be “better” if only their partner would just “change”.
While your partner may very well be engaging in truly irritating behaviour, truth is, you’re probably irritating them too – hard to believe, I know!
So who’s ‘right’, and who’s wrong?
Well. You both are, and here’s why. In the words of relationship expert, Harville Hendrix, “Your partner is another person – get it!”
When we coexist with another person for a long time we can start to forget that they aren’t us. They have their own views and opinions. They see the world differently to us, sometimes very differently to us.
We often assume our partner will automatically agree with our own views on big issues like parenting, finances or the best flavour ice cream to buy. We can start to make assumptions about our partner and place meaning on their actions without ever having had a real conversation about it or knowing what’s really going on.
The first step to getting back to a place where you’re enjoying each other again is to eliminate blame from your relationship altogether. Blame, criticism and accusation are all relationship killers. Here’s what I mean:
Ben is late for work, he rushes to make coffee, but there’s no milk! He’s annoyed and says to his partner, Jenny, “bloody hell Jen, why can’t you at least keep some milk in the house?”
Jenny only hears Ben’s criticism (he’s accusing her of being lazy and too unorganised to buy milk) and instantly gets angry. She thinks, “As if I don’t work hard enough already? How dare he accuse me of being lazy!” She gets angry. Rather than replying in a way that defuses the tension, she gets defensive. “You know, Ben, I work too.” She throws back an accusation. “ Since when are you so important that you can’t buy milk yourself?”
Ben is really stressed at work, and Jenny’s accusation angers him. “I’m working 12 hour days and you expect me to stop and buy milk?!”
And from there, the argument only gets worse.
Underlying Ben and Jenny’s fight about who should buy the milk is the core issue of trust. Because Ben is dealing with work stress, he forgets that Jenny is trying to do her best. She’s human and in this case, she’s forgotten to pick up milk. It’s a small oversight that’s turned into a much bigger issue because they have both made their own meaning of the situation.
We can all get caught up in making our own meaning. Your partner leaves their wet dirty towel on the bathroom floor, apart from the fact it won’t dry and all the other hygiene related consequences of this act, you might start to tell yourself a story about why he’s doing this.
You might think, he’s lazy; he’s inconsiderate; he knows I’ll pick it up; he just takes me for granted; he doesn’t really love and respect me, and so on.
Instead of it simply being one of his annoying habits you start to think his actions are deliberate and a clear message about how he feels about you.
So you respond initially by making throw away comments, “Of course it’s left up to me” which then leads to full a blown attack. “Bloody hell, what’s wrong with you? Pick up your damn towel!”
You have to ask yourself, is my response coming from the towel being left on the floor or is it coming from the meaning I’ve made of the towel on the floor – that “He’s done that because he doesn’t really love and respect me?”
Imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of those comments. How would you interpret the feelings of your partner, if they were saying that to you?
Harsh words are usually a sign that your partner has a deeper desire that you’re not hearing or picking up on. By the time you notice what’s going on, you’re only hearing the anger being directed towards you, and you blame your partner for their harsh words without looking at the part you played in the situation.
It can be hard to see things clearly when you’re locked in a certain pattern of behaviour with your partner. That’s why counselling can be so useful in clearing all the clutter in your relationship and seeing things for what they really are.
What happens in your relationship when there’s an issue on the table? Do you sit down and discuss it? Or do you avoid tricky conversations because it’s just easier not to bring things up?
If you and your partner are caught in constant fighting, try my top tips to put a stop to the arguments, or book a session with me, it could make all the difference.
In the meantime, when you catch yourself blaming, or thinking about blaming, your partner for even the smallest offence, ask yourself, ‘Do I have a part to play in this, and how can I reframe the discussion so we can deal with it calmly and move on.
Give it a go. I’d love to hear how it changes things around for you.