“Are you talking about me?!”

When I work with couples, or individuals who are struggling in a relationship, something that inevitably seems to come up is the question of, “who is being talked about?”

If we are having an argument and I talk about you and all the things you are doing wrong…serious crimes like you always leave the toilet seat up, you squeeze the toothpaste tube the wrong way or, most heinously, you never put the remote back in its place, I shouldn’t be surprised if you attack me with a list of my crimes or reasons why your crimes aren’t crimes at all…I’m just being overly sensitive.

Problems in a relationship are only problems because one of the partners is adversely affected by the behaviour. “All you do is sit around the house! You never want to go out and do anything!” is only a problem because I want to go out and do things. If I wanted to sit around the house too…no problem! However, when I make you the problem by only talking about what you do or don’t do, chances are, we aren’t going to reach a good resolution. If I do get what I want it will be given with resentment and reluctance and the relationship can become “transactional” – I’ll do this for you if you do this for me.

You can change this by talking about yourself, instead of your partner. “When we sit around the house I feel like life is slipping away, and like what I want doesn’t matter.”

It is hard to argue with someones feelings, especially when you aren’t being attacked or put down.

In order to speak about yourself, you firstly need to get a bit reflective and figure out what it is about the behaviour that bothers you. Is it respect (when I see the toilet seat up I feel disrespected)? Is it a sense of your worth (when I see your wet towel on the floor I feel like a slave)? Is it your values (I hate waste, so when I see day old bread being thrown out…)? Is it fear (I used to get hit by my father for squeezing the toothpaste tube like that so when I see it I get scared)?

When you talk in this way you take blame out of the conversation because you are telling the person that they aren’t the problem….if anyone squeezed the toothpaste tube that way I’d get upset.

For most of us, this is a new way of sorting out problems. It can be scary because we are revealing vulnerabilities but it is worth trying. When our only tool in an argument is to attack the other we are simply building up resentment and creating minefields in our relationship…areas we can’t talk about because we always come out of those discussions angry and hurt.

While it is great if both parties in the argument can take this approach, one might not get it or slip into the habit of blame and attack. If the other person can hold onto who is being talked about, rather than getting into a crimefest they can diffuse things by using questions, rather than justifications or alternative accusations?…”What is it about the toothpaste tube that upsets you?” “How long has this been bothering you?” “How important is this to you (maybe on a scale of 0-10)?” “How upsetting is it (on a scale of 0-10)?” “I wonder why it is a 2/10 in importance but upsets you a 7/10?” By exploring a bit deeper into what makes things a problem several things might happen. You might change your behaviour and start squeezing the toothpaste tube differently, they might stop caring because they feel that their concerns have been heard and thus they have been seen by you (perhaps the reason the toothpaste tube upset them is they are feeling neglected because the household has become busy), or together you may com up with a simple, creative solution…two toothpaste tubes!

Ka kite anō