Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash
Why are these toys in the middle of the floor? Whose turn is it to do the dishes? When are you going to mow the lawn? Our neighbours are giving us dirty looks. Everyday we make decisions whether to ignore things or deal with them. Some challenges are easier to solve, while others, not so much.
When it comes to relationships, quite often there is a dynamic in which one person wants to fix the problem while the other person would feel more comfortable ignoring it. Perhaps because talking about stuff ends up creating more drama or because it never feels like they can come to a positive conclusion. This creates a game of emotional tag.
I think we all know deep down that ignoring an issue and hoping it will disappear rarely ever works. As a matter of fact, it never works. In my experience, it often nurtures frustration, or worse, resentment with one partner that pursues in an attempt for resolution. The solution is twofold.
If you find yourself in the role of fixer or pursuer, you are likely uncomfortable with unresolved conflict. You must first take a step back and understand why this might be uncomfortable for your partner to talk about. They certainly have their reasons for avoiding the problem. Empathy is essential. The more you try to understand the feelings of your partner, the more likely you can handle the discussion with a level head and kind heart. Then, you may approach your partner with what John Gottman calls a “soft approach.” Which means you do not pursue in attack mode, but rather with a respectful assertiveness. The issue must be discussed in a way that does not cause your partner to run and avoid the important issues.
If you find yourself consistently fleeing or distancing, you probably want to avoid conflict at all costs. You may even think this is a very noble strategy. However, as “Dr.” Bob Newhart once said: “stop it!” If you are an adult striving for a healthy relationship, you really do not have the luxury of freezing, leaving or fighting. This will damage your relationship. Let me repeat, this will damage your relationship, if it has not already. It’s time to grow up and deal with it.
The lawn does not cut itself and the laundry does not clean and fold itself. And no matter how much you ignore it, problems will not heal themselves. Yet sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that ignoring relationship problems is the best path. It isn’t. The better way is actually to do the opposite of what your instinct tells you to do. Lean in. Accept that it will cause some short-term pain to talk about those difficult issues. However, something else wonderful happens when you do lean in. Most often, the chasing partner feels less compelled to chase when the other person stops running and hiding.
Do you remember getting chased on the playground? If you wanted the person to catch you, you might not run too hard. In relationships it works best when you allow ourselves to be caught, and then show our partner they matter by caring and connecting. Dealing with things may cause you some short term pain, but it will also give you long term gain. The payoff is well worth the cost.
Kevin-Joel Coupland is a Registered Psychotherapist as well as a husband and father, so he well understands the struggle, and the struggle is real. He also knows that couples can succeed when they learn how to open up and express themselves with kindness and empathy.