Friday, January 17, 2014

Dismaying Story #139: Why Are We Having Petty Arguments?

Dear Andrew,

My boyfriend and I have been together for six months. He travels for work and has already been away twice, for a month at a time. The long distance sucks but I think we handle it fairly efficiently. We also have a seven year age gap, although he says it doesn’t bother him.

I have undoubtedly brought some issues to our relationship. I have pushed him by moving things more quickly than he desired and I can be insecure. Having said that, we are great together. We don’t disagree on much, have a lot in common, and we both enjoy spending time together. I can tell he cares by the way that he looks at me and how he acts toward me, but the lack of verbal reassurance can be difficult. Sometimes I feel distant and find myself wondering how he feels.

We also have a lot of trouble having effective arguments. I try to fight fairly (though not always successfully) and I don’t think he even considers it. I really try to understand where he is coming from but sometimes it seems he isn’t trying to understand my side.

The following is a recent text message conversation that has driven me to write to you. We have exchanged some photos of ourselves since he has been away. I sent him one and didn’t receive a response. Two hours later, my Facebook homepage was filled with him liking / commenting on things. Thus began our argument via texting:

Me: Hitting Facebook ahead of answering a picture of me?

Him: You would say that

Me: Well lol doesn’t exactly feel the best when you notice that your significant other has found time to do things on Facebook but not to respond to a picture you took for them

Him: Ever read a text and forgot to respond? Of course not

Me: I didn’t say that. Of course I’ve done that. Although, I’m not sure I’d forget about receiving a picture of you. But I’m sorry if that’s the case in this situation. It was a little difficult to see that come up on my homepage and not feel like I was being ignored

Him: Whatever

Me: This is exactly what I meant about feeling shut down. I’m trying to express how I feel and all I’m getting is shut down.

Him: I have other things on my mind than my girlfriend being upset that I didn’t respond to a text picture before I went on Facebook. I have bigger issues to deal with. Shut out or not, this is ridiculous.

Me: Ok

Him: It’s times like this that I find our age gap really shows

Me: Pulling the age card here is pretty unfair. I have every right to have feelings, and when I’m hurt as a result of something that you did (or didn’t do), I should be able to express myself in a constructive manner. I’m trying really hard to understand where you’re coming from, and I don’t think I’m receiving the same courtesy. I understand that you have a lot on your mind right now, and forgot to answer. So yes, it kind of hurt me, but I’m completely over that. I just don’t like that it seems like I’m not receiving any understanding, and that everything is my fault.

Him: It’s a childish conversation and I’m not having it. I’ll just delete Facebook so this doesn’t happen again. I hate these stupid little arguments.

It seems like he was first trying to make this issue my fault, and when that didn’t work he threatened to delete his Facebook to make it go away. I just don’t get it. Am I doing something wrong? What can I do to help our situation? How can I make him see that there is something seriously wrong with the way we argue? Is there any way to help him make the necessary changes?


Dear Frustrated,

I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that the two of you use some of the most common less than optimal habits when it comes to resolving conflict. The good news, however, is that you can replace those habits with more effective ones once you understand what is happening and realize there are better alternatives.

Conflict resolution is a complex topic. I’ll focus on a few key ideas that occurred to me when I read your email. Let’s start by translating part of your conversation into underlying messages:

You: Hitting Facebook ahead of answering a picture of me? (Underlying message: I’m accusing you of doing something wrong and I’m upset at you.)

Him: You would say that (I’m ignoring the issue you raised and instead accusing you of also doing something wrong.)

You: Well lol doesn’t exactly feel the best when ... (I’m accusing you of doing something wrong and I’m upset at you.)

Him: Ever read a text and forgot to respond? Of course not (I did nothing wrong. I’m accusing you of being unfair. I’m being sarcastic so you’ll know I’m upset too.)

Me: It was a little difficult to ... feel like I was being ignored (I’m accusing you of doing something wrong and I’m upset at you.)

Him: I have other things on my mind than my girlfriend being upset ... this is ridiculous. (I’m frustrated because I don’t know how to resolve the conflict.)

Notice that the underlying messages all start with “I.” Each of you expresses your own needs at every turn, rather than addressing your partner’s needs. I don’t think either of you are trying to be selfish, but the focus is clearly inward rather than outward. This leaves both of you feeling like the other doesn’t care about you, and you end up with exchanges that go like this:
“I want this.”
“Well I want that.”
“Yes, but I want this.”

You began the conversation with exactly this type of message, by stating something you wanted (for him to respond to your picture) and implying you were upset that he didn’t provide it for you. As an alternative, what if you had first considered the situation from his point of view? Were there other possible explanations for the sequence of events other than him not caring about you or your picture? Could you have given him the benefit of the doubt, at least until you talked with him?

When you have an issue, a more effective way to broach the subject is to find a positive spin. Instead of saying you’re upset about something you view as negative, turn it around and predict something great if the opposite were to happen. You might have tried something like this, which could have led to a different exchange:

You: Did you get my picture earlier? I was excited to hear what you thought of it. (Underlying message: You value his feedback and attention.)

Him: It was great

You: Glad you liked it. I was kind of disappointed you didn’t respond before but I figured you must have just forgotten. (Underlying message: You noticed the lack of response, but you’re being reasonable and understanding, and you’ve clearly considered the situation from his point of view.)

Him: Yeah sorry I was busy then and when I got back to my phone later I just forgot. It’s great though

By opening the conversation in a more positive manner, you’ve dramatically increased the chances of getting what you really wanted all along, which was for him to show appreciation for you via your picture. And because you haven’t made him feel attacked, he is more likely to apologize without feeling the need to defend himself.

His responses to you in the original conversation also left much to be desired. He employed a classic defend and deflect strategy. “I’ll explain how I’ve done nothing wrong, so the argument must be her fault for unfairly criticizing me. Besides, she does plenty of things wrong too.”

To many people this feels like a logical and appropriate response to an accusation. “If I can show that I haven’t done anything wrong, then I won’t be in trouble anymore.” Unfortunately this type of response usually makes the situation worse. When he says, “I haven’t done anything wrong,” then you hear him say, “Your concerns are invalid. There is no problem. Don’t expect me to contribute to a solution.” This tends to frustrate – and even more likely, infuriate – the person who raised the concern. You believe there’s an issue or you wouldn’t have brought it up. With this type of response from him, it’s no surprise that you sometimes feel like you’re not being heard.

Let’s look at a more effective response to your original opening salvo:

You: Hitting Facebook ahead of answering a picture of me?

At this point he needs to fight down the urge to become defensive and angry about the accusation. With a bit of practice, he can learn to ignore the manner in which you state your need and focus on the fact that you have one. He could figure out that you are feeling ignored and unappreciated, and make the whole problem go away with something like this:

Him: I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to ignore you. The pic was great! I was just busy when I got it and then I forgot when I got back to my phone. My bad.

He might feel that a response like this would make him look bad, like he was opening himself up for further criticism by admitting fault. On the contrary, this is an effective way to make himself look good. By acknowledging his own role in creating the situation, he is now making it clear he heard your statement of need and he cares enough to address it. You’re now more confident that a solution is on the way and that he will help in creating the solution.

Here’s a good rule that both of you should use. When one of you states a request for change, the other must resist the urge to respond with a counter-accusation. Stick to the first request without muddying the waters with other topics.

The two of you are also dealing with a gender gap issue. You’re very interested in talking about feelings, whereas he’d be happier if the topic never came up. To you, feelings are what relationships are all about. He, on the other hand, feels no need to tell anyone about his feelings so the issue feels trivial and “ridiculous” to him.

This is another area where each of you approached this conversation from your own point of view rather than your partner’s. You could be more effective by realizing that talking about your feelings is likely to make his eyes glaze over. I’m not saying that’s fair to you -- it’s just that he doesn’t seem to have the empathy at this point to deal with extensive discussions about feelings. You’re likely banging your head against the wall by explaining your position in that manner. As I described earlier, try stating your need in terms of a possible positive outcome.

He, on the other hand, could be more effective by recognizing that you being upset is, all by itself, enough of a reason for him to help. It shouldn’t matter if he doesn’t understand or agree with your apparent reasons for being unhappy. It shouldn’t matter if you state your unhappiness in an imperfect way. In my world, if my wife thinks there is a problem, then there is, by definition, a very real problem and it’s my job to help make it go away. (...unless she just wants me to listen and stop short of going into Mr. Fixit mode, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Often all it takes is for one of you to be the hero and respond with, “Yes, I understand. I’m sorry.” That’s usually enough to start draining the tension away.

With both of you using less than optimal strategies, it’s no surprise that your conversations sometimes degenerate into bickering. Obviously you can choose to make changes on your side, but you might be wondering how to get him to change his ways. There are a few things you can try. One would be to get him to read this article. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if he is less than excited about reading a post by some Internet relationship guy. If that approach doesn’t work, I suggest you focus on your own behavior, not his. The simple reason is that you can’t control how he acts. You can only control your own actions.

If that sounds like bad news, it isn’t. Making choices regarding your own behavior provides all the control you need to initiate change. You are half of the relationship. He acts, you react, then he reacts to what you just did. In other words, you’ve just influenced his actions. The question is whether you’ll influence his actions effectively, in directions that will strengthen your relationship.

The next time you’re tempted to say something negative that he might interpret as a criticism, first try thinking of the situation from his point of view as well as your own. Bring up the topic in a way that makes it clear you’ve looked at it from both sides. Use positive messages more often than negative. Hopefully this will encourage him to do the same.

Finally, don’t lose hope when your change process takes time. It took many years for both of you to develop your current strategies for dealing with conflict, and it will take time to ingrain new habits.

Hopefully that gives you a few ideas to get the two of you started in a better direction. Good luck!

All the best,

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