How to Know What to Bring Up to Your Partner and What to Let Go
This means the difference between happy couples and unhappy couples is not that the happy couples have found a way to resolve most of their conflicts, even if they are able to solve more of the solvable problems than unhappy couples.
Rather, happy couples are those who have learned to discuss issues in a way that leads more often to deepening connection and understanding than to anger and resentment. Part of this is what I call learning to skip like a stone.
Being in a relationship is like a stone that is skipping across the surface of a lake. Every time the stone hits the surface of the lake is like every time a couple has a moment where a fight could potentially break out.
In unhealthy couples, almost every time the stone hits the surface of the water, it sinks -- they get in a fight, and it gets deeper and deeper and darker and darker. Healthy couples know most conflict is not solvable and, when their stone hits the surface of the water, have learned ways of getting it to immediately skip back up into the air and keep moving.
This means they learn how to pivot away from tension and move back to positivity again. And yep, this means what it seems to mean, which is that healthy couples simply choose to let a lot of things go in favor of maintaining their connection to each other.
But this doesn't mean they don't discuss issues.
I know, confusing, right?! You might be thinking, "How do I know what issues to bring up to my partner and what issues to let go?"
There's actually a fairly simple answer to this.
Since most problems are not solvable, you're going to simply choose not to engage in most arguments you might otherwise have. The issues you need to bring up to your partner are areas where they have wittingly or unwittingly hurt/upset you deeply, and you need them to know this so they can make important changes so as to not continue to hurt you.
He comes home after a long day at work. His wife, a homemaker, greets him. "Hi sweetie, welcome home."
"Thanks," he says. Then he looks briefly around their messy house and says, "So, what'd you do today?"
Immediately he can see hurt and anger forming on her face and, though he's not sure exactly how, he can tell he has upset her.
So he gently approaches her and says, "Hey, have you and the kids had dinner yet? Want to go grab a bite?"
Still smarting from his words, she nevertheless responds, "Sure, that would be good." In the above exchange, the couple's stone hit the water, and they launched it back into the air again. They both decided not to have the argument.
So they go to dinner. They get the kids home and put them in bed. At that point, the wife decides she really does need to talk to her husband about how he hurt her feelings. After they have relaxed for a few minutes, she says, "I need to talk to you about what happened earlier." She's no longer as hurt and angry, so she's able to be less critical as she explains how his question affected her.
"When you get home and the house is a mess and you ask me what I did all day, I feel like you don't think I did anything. I need you to be aware of that. That's probably not your intention but I'm sensitive about it."
He says, "You're right. That's not my intention at all -- I'm just trying to express interest in you and in your life. I'm sorry my way of doing that is sometimes hurtful. How would you prefer me to ask how your day has been?"
Then she might say, "Maybe like that! 'How has your day been, sweetie.' So you're not asking what I did, but how I've been, how my day went, how the kids are doing, stuff like that."
He says, "I understand, and that makes sense. Won't happen again. I love you. I'm sorry."
If you read this exchange and think "This could not possibly be more unrealistic," that's likely because you and your partner, every time your stone hits the water, ride it all the way down. You have it out. There's a lot of anger, and neither of you feels heard or understood by the other.
Now let's look at an example of when a couple launches their stone back into the air and then just lets it go.
He says, "Have you seen my keys?"
She irritably responds, "What's this, the tenth time this week you've lost your keys?"
This is obviously not helpful and he's hurt by this comment.
She sees the hurt look on his face and says, kindly, "You know what -- let's not worry about it right now. We'll take my keys and look for yours when we get home."
Issue over. He takes her keys, and that's the end of it.
Of course he could bring this up to her again at a later time, like she did in the first example with him. But here the husband realizes he just caught his wife in a bad mood. He could tell she felt bad about what she said, and he decides he wants to just forgive it and let it go. And she could apologize, of course, which would be nice. But she could also just accept the grace he has chosen to show, and move forward with him. Unlike the first example where he knows she's upset but doesn't know why, the wife in this example knows why her husband is upset and already feels bad about it. A deep discussion doesn't need to be had about it.
Any of these options are perfectly acceptable, and preferable to letting your stone sink at the moment and descending into negativity, criticism, defensiveness, and anger.
Before I summarize and wrap up this post, I want to give you examples of ways an unhealthy couple might handle our two examples above.
He says, "So what'd you do today?"
She says, "What, you don't think I do anything all day? You think I just sit around playing on my phone and drinking or something." "I didn't say that, I'm just asking how your day went."
"But that's not what you asked, is it? You asked what I DID today, standing there with your eyes bugging out at the clearly messy house that's clearly my fault."
"That's not what I meant. And my eyes weren't bugging out. C'mon."
"You think you're the only one whose work is worthwhile, but I work just as hard as you do."
"I didn't say you don't work hard. But for the twentieth time, your job and my job aren't the same. I have a boss and I'm accountable to him."
"Well apparently I have a boss I'm accountable to also."
"Why do you always end up demonizing me and making me into some monster?"
"Why do you always treat me like I'm your employee instead of your equal?"
He says, "Do you know where my keys are?"
She says, "What's this, the tenth time this week you've lost your keys?"
"Thanks, that's really helpful. And it's like the third time. Sorry I offend you when I lose my keys.
"You're right -- I'm sorry, I'm in a crappy mood. Why don't we take my keys and I'll help you find yours when we get back?"
"Never mind. You run to the store yourself and I'll stay here and find my keys."
"I said I'm sorry."
In both of the above examples, partners just refuse to allow the conversation to move into healthier space. At least one partner is determined to let the stone sink, and to ride it all the way to the bottom.
1. Learn how to keep your stone in the air. The comments I have placed in italics above are what Gottman calls "repair attempts." They are little remarks one partner makes expressing their desire to not get bogged down in an argument. It's critical for the other partner to recognize and accept these attempts. If the receiving partner instead says, "Forget it buddy, the damage is done. Don't think you're just going to skate out of this by taking us to dinner," then the stone is going to sink on the spot. Repair attempts must be both made and received. Happy couples do this consistently.
2. Just because a repair attempt is received and the couple moves on at the moment doesn't mean issues don't ever get addressed. If one partner still feels upset after a few hours, then later, when both are in a better mood and have the better perspective that comes from a little time, they'll be able to have that talk in a way that will lead to understanding and connection instead of misunderstanding and isolation.
3. Notice, then, that repair attempts are not about ignoring issues, they are about making sure 1) not every single issue becomes an argument and takes up your emotional bandwidth; and 2) if you're going to need to have the conversation, you get enough perspective on it that you can have it in a healthier way.