You’re Bothering Me; Now What?
Kate Feldman MSW LCSW
I was in a restaurant not long ago. My husband and I were having a much needed evening without cooking, cleaning up, TV, snow shoveling, phone calls, or late night to-dos which seem to be ever present when two people run their own business. I looked around; it was the weekend and there were several small groups of people laughing and chatting, somebody celebrating a birthday, another group of colleagues in animated but lighthearted discussion. I was delighted to be in an atmosphere with others who were lightening up at the end of the workweek. I was looking forward to a long, leisurely evening over a glass of wine, a great meal, and some good conversation with my best friend and life companion.
We were seated in a cozy corner near several other couples. I was immediately struck by the silence at the table to my right. A good looking couple in their mid fifties were eating in silence. Not contemplative, gentle silence that accompanies the enjoyment a delicious meal, but stony, angry silence. It was as if I was sitting next to a stone wall. They didn’t look at each other even though their faces were less than three feet apart; they were each turned slightly away from one another. The man was slumped in his chair; the woman had her elbows on the table. You know the scene.
I was feeling open and relaxed. I didn’t have anything particularly heavy on my mind, and I wasn’t going to let myself be bothered by what I perceived as the silent war going on next door. I felt like my boundaries were intact and I could be myself and let these folks do and be whatever they were even though the “vibe” wasn’t that pleasant, and we were practically sitting in their laps. We ordered wine and settled back to enjoy our evening.
A Sad And Angry Interchange
About ten minutes into our conversation, the woman at the next table begins to speak.
“I am so sick of the way you are!” she exclaims. The man slumps even further in his chair.
“You go away on your trips, you don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t even get in touch with the kids. You come back; you expect we should pick up just where we left off. I haven’t heard from you for two weeks. You want me to come up to the Berkshires with you, have a happy ski weekend, and pretend like nothing happened.” She stops for a breath of air. Her husband (I assume) looks away and says nothing.
She is a bit loud, and by this time, I can’t help but feel somewhat annoyed about my fantasy evening being interrupted, but also somewhat curious as to what is going to happen. I wonder if this same conversation hasn’t happened between them hundreds of times already. I feel sad for them. I imagine how lonely and painful it must be to be involved in a relationship where problems are brought up in such a blaming, shaming manner.
She continues. He hasn’t even looked up. “Why does this always happen? Why do you act like it’s not important? Why can’t you be more decent to me?” Her voice has taken on a desperate tone.
“For goodness sakes, lower you voice, “ he says, “the whole restaurant is listening.”
“See, there you go, you don’t even care what I’m talking about. All you care about is what other people think about how we look!” She is furious. He crosses his arms over his chest and turns his body away from the table. My husband and I look at each other, and try to go on with our conversation. I am acutely aware of the stress, disconnection, and anger at the table next door.
“I think we should leave”, says he. “Let’s at least continue this in the car”.
“Oh yeah sure, in the car. When have we ever resolved this conversation? Forget it. Forget I ever brought anything up. You don’t want to hear what I have to say anyway.” She stands up and puts on her coat. He finishes paying the bill. And they are gone: silent, stony, angry, and hurting.
Of course, I don’t really know exactly what they were feeling because neither of them made any statements about their feelings. I only imagined what they might be feeling. And I only imagined that this was a “typical” interchange. However, I’ve worked with enough distressed couples to recognize this as a familiar scenario; many of them tell me this sort of interaction occurs over and over again in the course of many years of partnership.
Resolving Conflict And Working Through Difficult Feelings
This is one of the most important skills we relational (human) beings can learn. Because we are hard wired for intimacy and connection, the breakdown of our communication with one another often feels devastating. When we don’t have the skills to manage our feelings or communicate our needs, we usually respond with anger, resentment, and criticism. This is very unfortunate because anger and criticism are not not ever effective tools for inspiring change in anyone, nor do they usually result in long-term connection. Research shows that when partners engage in continuous criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, the result is an overload of emotional negativity to which the nervous system responds by shutting down the good feelings of connection, love, and pleasure. This syndrome is a sure predictor of the eventual end of the relationship.
However, the good news is that we have the capacity to manage our feelings and work through conflict. It is a learned skill, just like walking and talking. Unfortunately, we don’t learn skillful relating from an early age unless the people around us modeled it. As adults we have to intentionally practice skillful relating and develop ourselves in relationship. It’s simple, but not easy. No body can do it for you. You have to learn the skills, practice them and become the best person and partner you can.
The couple I described above obviously had a problem that needed resolving. One of them has a grievance or complaint about the way the other’s behavior has impacted them. It is fair and necessary in any relationship to have conversations with one another about frustrations and/or unmet needs. Skillful feedback to our partner or loved ones is important and useful. After all, we live with one another, our behavior impacts each other, and there has to be room in a relationship to discuss what works and what doesn’t work. How else would we grow and change?
How NOT To Resolve A Problem
However, most people think that the way to resolve problems is to accuse the other of doing something wrong. Somewhere inside our primitive brain, we imagine that if we “cry” loud enough, or have a big enough “tantrum”, express enough displeasure, our partner (or friend, or boss, or children) will respond by accepting our point of view and changing. The problem is that this technique (complaining loudly, having a “tantrum”) works only when we are very little babies. Babies cry and someone usually responds by meeting a need. In adult relationships this never works. In fact, it creates just the opposite: defensiveness, anger, and unwillingness to respond to our needs.
In adult relationships where there is mutual respect, people are free to talk about their frustrations but they do it in a grown up way. The art of skillful feedback is especially important if I am trying to talk to you about one of your behaviors, which impacts me in a negative way. I must be willing to take 100% responsibility for the way I feel and what I need. I must be willing to make a request from you, but let it go if you can’t fulfill my request. Perhaps you can, perhaps you can’t, but that is up to you. This is not easy. But here is the model. To communicate responsibly and with integrity in intimate relationships, this is one of the most important skills to practice.
If The Couple In the Restaurant Had Relationship Skills
Let’s use the restaurant couple as an example; I’ll call them Len and Ruth. If Ruth were able to skillfully talk about her needs and frustrations with Len, she would begin this way:
R: “Len, I need to talk to you about the way one of your behaviors is impacting me. Is now a good time?” Notice, that she is asking for an agreement from Len to even have the conversation. She is not launching into an attack; she is not even beginning the conversation until there is a contract. This way, there are no surprises, and Len has to decide whether he is willing and able to engage in dialogue about one of his behaviors. If he wants to say no, he can, but if he is responsible to the relationship, he’ll say no responsibly, meaning, he’ll suggest another time for the conversation and he’ll explain why he doesn’t feel able to have it now. Let’s assume he says yes so we can go on with the model.
Ruth then says, “Thank you. Here is what is what is frustrating to me. Last week when you were gone, I didn’t hear from you either on the phone or by email…” She states what happened from her point of view, just the facts, as she knows them. Then she continues, “ I felt hurt and deprioritized, and over the week I started getting angrier and angrier. Just thinking about it right now makes me really angry”. Now she states her feelings. She is even feeling angry but she is not blaming, shaming or name-calling.
“I imagined you were so busy, you never thought of me or the kids once. I imagine your business is more important than your family”. Now Ruth is telling Len what went on in her head, what she made up about the meaning of his actions. She doesn’t know for sure what it meant because he hasn’t told her, so she is giving him the benefit of the doubt by saying, “I imagine your business is more important than your family”.
Meanwhile, Len (who we’ll assume is also skillful at this point) is listening. He is not reacting out loud, although he may have his own opinions and feelings. He is making time and space for Ruth’s world: her perspective, her feelings, her needs, and her requests. In adult loving, each person’s reality is as valuable and real as the other’s, even if they disagree or don’t like it.
Ruth finishes her feedback with a request. “ I need you to know that it is difficult for me when you are away. I need to hear from you. My request is that we make several agreed upon evenings when we can talk by phone, and right now, I’d like to hear what was going on for you while you were away.
The model that Ruth used is specifically for the times when we have a behavior change request revolving around a behavior of the other person that is impacting us in a negative way. Here is the outline
Step #1. Contract for a conversation. Let the person know that you want to talk about a way in which their behavior is impacting you.
Step #2 State the observable facts as best as you can. “When you are away and don’t call”
Step #3. Talk about how you feel or felt: Sad, hurt, angry, disappointed, upset…
Step #4 Talk about what you imagine the other was doing, thinking etc. Remember that you never know what is going on inside someone else, unless they tell you. Don’t hold on to being right about what you think. Give them a chance to tell you what was going on.
Step #5 Make a specific, realistic, time-bound, doable request, e.g. “Please call me two nights during the week you are away at 9pm”.
Step #6 Listen carefully to the response of the other person. They may have their own point of view; they may need to talk to you about their feelings and imaginations before they answer yes, or no. They may not be able to meet your request. That is not your business. You can always keep talking about it and ask again. Let go of the results. This is the most difficult step of all.
The Difficulties AND Benefits of Practicing
The reason this model is sometimes difficult is that most of us don’t really want to take responsibility for our needs, wants, and feelings. It is easier to blame our loved one or partner for not giving us what we want. Blaming, and making the other person wrong is easy but it is not the solution to getting our needs met. And it certainly doesn’t build trust, or intimacy. However, the rewards of taking responsibility for your needs, frustrations and requests are immense.
1. You can feel connected with another person even if you don’t see eye to eye.
2. You can ask for what you need and possibly get it.
3. You give the person you love an opportunity to get to know you better by inviting them into your world in a non-threatening manner.
4. You give them the benefit of the doubt and invite them to tell you more about themselves.
5. Most importantly, you grow out of old ways of relating to others that might have created unsatisfying relationships in the past.
“I Don’t Feel Like Doing This. I’m Angry. I Just Want to Tell It Like It Is”
I have heard it said that relationship skills are gimmicky; that they are really just tools of manipulation. “Why would I do this when what I am really feeling is furious and my impulse is to blame and shame and then leave the situation. That is more real for me. I don’t want to lie just to manipulate my partner into meeting my needs by being nice and using some technique.” I agree. It is a terrible thing to have to hide (lie) about one’s feelings. Any healthy relationship makes room for deep feelings of frustration and anger as well as joy and passion. But hidden in the statement above is the assumption that the only way real feelings can be expressed is by acting them out. Shaming, blaming, and running away are ways we behaved when we were angry children. Adult loving cannot be based on acting out. It doesn’t work.
Adult Loving Includes Expressing Difficult Feelings In a Skillful Way.
Adult loving definitely can include feeling and angry and expressing the impulse “ I feel like leaving this conversation right now I am so furious”. But two adults who want to build intimacy and trust for the long term have to learn how to behave skillfully so that both people can stay “in the room” and work through the difficulty. This is not manipulation; this is skillful relating. If starting out with a little “script” can help transform old behaviors into skillful ones, hey! Why not? After awhile, you’ll find your own language and make the dialogue natural to your particular way of relating.
Len and Ruth are a typical example of many couples. The sad thing about such relationships is that they do not have to go this way. With some education, skill practice, and self-awareness a relationship that is stuck in anger and blame can be transformed into a joyous, fun, passionate friendship. There are basic principles, and simple tools that really make a difference. The ingredient the partners must bring to the tools is the willingness and intention to learn and practice. The intention is what we each need to invest into our relationships. Ask anyone who has done even a little practice. They will tell you how rewarding it is.
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