What’s the problem?


Why are we as women often not willing to express how we’re really feeling until the situation has got so bad that we can’t contain ourselves anymore, until it comes pouring out in tears, or anger, or weird passive aggressive BS?

A few days ago, with memories of our particular fight still fresh (but resolved 🙂 ) Lacey and I were eating dinner at a great Japanese restaurant when a couple next to us started to fight.  It’s NYC, the tables are very close together and you can’t help but notice it, as discreet as you try to be.  Seemingly out of nowhere the woman started laying into her husband, very angrily, with a lot of emotion and tears.  I say “seemingly out of nowhere” because it became apparent that she had to of been keeping these feelings bottled up inside her for a long time.  It was one long stream of consciousness.  She didn’t pause for breath. She gave him absolutely no opportunity to respond or to participate in the ‘discussion’.  He, for his part, seemed completely blindsided at first, tried to respond a couple of times. When that had no effect he basically checked out of the conversation and sat there looking a little like Homer Simpson does when Marge is ‘nagging’ him, only hearing “Blah, blah blah” not absorbing anything she says and merely waiting for the noise to stop.

Now I use this example not to apportion blame, or to take sides. I firmly believe that the only two people who truly know what is going in a relationship are those two people themselves.  My point is that however justified this woman’s anger and upset was, the way she had let it build up and then come pouring out was completely unproductive and inherently upsetting and unsatisfying to them BOTH.  I know; I’ve been very guilty of it myself.  I’ve let unexpressed anger and resentment build to a point where I lose my love and affection for the person, to the point where they only hear about it as I’m breaking up the relationship. In my mind it was “beyond saving” but in truth I hadn’t even given them a real chance to rectify the situation.  Sometimes it can be the other person who wants to leave because they can no longer bear the sniping, the passive aggressive, “tit-for-tat” behavior and dishonesty that the long-term inability to communicate your feelings to your partner often results in.

Here’s the thing; arguing with each other for the sake of it, or because you’ve had a bad day is missing the point. If we need to vent we need to ‘phone a friend’ and vent, not head home and pick a fight with our partner about something completely unrelated.

But expressing our genuine hurt, feelings of inattention, of being disrespected, or an outright difference of opinion is VERY IMPORTANT.  I would go so far as to say that it’s essential 🙂

Your feelings are valid, my feelings are valid, but here’s the kicker…. So are theirs!  If we hope to gain any clarity, any real resolution, any true chance to move forward in life together and not apart then we have to see it as a process.  There’s a reason why the other person is behaving the way they do.  Often when Lacey and I talk things out we discover that the upset has resulted from us having different opinions, different perceptions of what something is OR isn’t.

So it’s all very well and good for me (and I’m using hypothetical examples here people!! 🙂 ) to say that I’m feeling insecure, or that I’m angry because I feel disrespected, but unless I can go further and say what WOULD help me to feel differently, and actually to think about how much of that is Lacey’s responsibility and how much is MINE.  I also need to hear what Lacey’s understanding of what security in a relationship feels like.  It may be very very DIFFERENT!  She may be doing absolutely everything that her life experience tells her a relationship is about.  So her understandable response to me being inexplicably angry about that could be frustration and a feeling on HER PART that I don’t listen to HER or that I don’t pay attention to all the GREAT stuff that she does and the way she makes me feel.

Unless we’re able to talk THAT out we don’t move forward and we just run around in ever smaller and more frustrating circles until someone bails out. 

So we talk it out.  And then we talk it out some more.  And short term it can kind of suck because it means that we BOTH have to take some responsibility for our actions and inactions.  There’s no blaming the other person wholeheartedly for everything that is wrong in our life.  Unless your partner is emotionally/physically/sexually abusive… in which case YOU GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THEM STAT! Then there is no right and wrong.  If they regularly behave disrespectfully towards us, then unfortunately WE have allowed an environment to be created where that is OK. It’s not.  But by choosing to stay we are communicating that it is acceptable on some level. We deserve more than allowing ourselves to be treated that way.  It’s your life, so TAKE IT BACK.

I know what is non-negotiable for ME, what I as a woman need and want and DESERVE from my relationship.  And I accept that that means I have to treat Lacey as I would wish to be treated myself, because to me that is the single most effective way to judge if something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  If I lost my temper because I was tired ad sick, would I want to be forgiven?  Yes.  Would I be OK with my partner dogging around on me? HELL NO, so you better believe I know that means I can’t and won’t do that to her.

Love and lust and fun are all wonderful and amazing and kind of essential to a good relationship, but I don’t think that any of those things are enough to make a relationship last happily without COMMUNICATION.  We’re all just people trying to do the best we can, and that includes them, not just us.  So we have to TALK to them and just as importantly if not MORE so, we need to genuinely LISTEN.

So why is it so hard?  What mind shift do we need to take within ourselves to make honest, respectful expression of our feelings something that we take pride in as women and men, instead of something to fear??


4 Responses to “What’s the problem?”

  1. 1 Stephanie
    February 5, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    How do you build that foundation for communication? I think it’s important to establish that avenue really early because as I’ve learned, it’s all about “norm setting.” And if you don’t set the norms for the relationship early, you make it much harder to establish them later because it requires so much change to something you’re already used to. Communication was a major problem in my last (and only relationship). We didn’t confide in each other and I think we were afraid of hurting each other’s feelings by discussing the weaknesses in our relationship. And then when we did talk about, no real behavioral adjustments came out of it. Any advice on how to surpass those barriers?

  2. 2 jessica clark
    February 7, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Hi Stephanie 🙂
    I couldn’t agree more that early positive norm setting is important and definitely eases the journey of a relationship. However, I think that in any long term relationship there will be periods of readjustment as the two people grow and change (which is itself is a good thing).

    The key is communication as you said yourself. In terms of the communication being effective, my thoughts are that it is all about creating a safe space for that honest, open communication to happen. By this I mean a spoken, and MEANT commitment that the information that is shared will not be used to manipulate the other person, gossiped about with friends, or thrown back in their face during an argument etc. SHaring your innermost thoughts and fears can and does create a feeling of vulnerability, which can either be a wonderful thing that brings the two individuals closer together in a shared trust and intimacy, OR it can be a weakening experience because the information is not received in a loving caring way, perhaps because it then creates a fear in the OTHER person.

    It’s the reassurance in the consistency of someone’s actions after the fact that create an increasing level of trust and which can, if nurtured, mean a much stronger, honest relationship.

    You mention that it was hard to see any real behavioral adjustments in your relationship. Firstly I would say that for anybody in the world, the ‘first’ is usually a real doozy because we’re not used to the feelings and sensations of our emotions being partially wrapped up in someone else. It’s a risk and it is scary and it does take getting used to.

    I would say not to be too hard on yourself about what happened. Lacey and I both say that each relationship that we had prior to meeting each other had value and meaning, not least because we learnt and grew and became clear on and ready for the kind of relationship we truly wanted.

    What I would suggest though, as something that has worked well for us, is that during the discussion/debate and communications we try to figure out what it is that we feel we’re looking to change, why we want to change that, and also how much of it is fair and realistic… because every relationship is a two-way street and there are almost always two perspectives (I don’t say two sides because that feels divisive, and we’re looking to come together). Then we try to identify some SPECIFIC thing that we think would help… whether it’s a change in the actual behavior or a change in how that is communicated to the other person.

    We’ve found that specific is REALLY helpful because then both people are clear on what is needed. I think that confusion often reigns supreme in relationships and can cause more arguments than anything else.

    Is this helpful? Let me know what your feelings are on this…. I’d genuinely love to know 🙂

  3. 3 Stephanie
    February 8, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Well, I definitely think many people (especially those who haven’t been in many relationships) hold this misconception that a relationship should “flow naturally” and that it doesn’t require any work if you’re with the “right” person. I’ve learned that this is so far from the truth because like you said in your original post, you can wait and wait and let the resentment build until your relationship “flows” straight into shit river. At that point, you’ve developed this large negative schema about the other person and your bond, and it’s hard to both put in the effort to fix anything and to let the positives overcome all the negatives you’ve built up in your mind. Hence, I think it’s important to address the negativity right as it arises rather than waiting for it to cultivate and spread its roots in your mind.

    And “addressing” doesn’t just mean making it clear to your partner that you’re pissed off about something. See, that’s what I would do. I would be irritated, hope my girlfriend caught on, and then let her reason in her own mind what she did wrong and what she should do to fix it. Looking back, that sounds like a pretty-one way street to me! I think my train of thought was, “She made ME mad, so it’s HER responsibility to undo it.” So actually discussing TOGETHER why one person is unhappy at the time is crucial.

    And the thread that holds this all together is SECURITY. I was with an insecure person, and subsequently, she didn’t want to share her failures and concerns with me because she didn’t want me to think less of her. In turn, I didn’t want to say anything that would hurt her self-esteem. I also think we both fed off each other’s insecurities and we didn’t have the confidence both in ourselves and each other to think we could change.

    So what you said about knowing yourself and what you want/need out of a relationship really resonated with me. I have definitely learned from my last relationship what makes me happy in a relationship and the kind of person I need to be in order to make a relationship stronger.

    That being said, I’m a relatively shy and reserved person. I HATE confrontations and being assertive is not one of my strong suits. What are your thoughts on how someone can break out of their own shell? Lately, I’ve been using “fake it till you make it.” I realize that sounds semi-stupid but I really do believe your actions can feed back into your mind and make you feel a certain way.

  4. February 24, 2009 at 5:26 am

    Very well stated Jessica. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve checked out of conversations before & have had it done to me. It’s sometimes hard to stay engaged when the obstacles seem to never be resolved. I think somewhere we all know what is acceptable to do in a conversation with a significant other, but actually putting those “right” things to do in place is the challenge.

    To genuinely listen and genuinely talk… It takes both people working just as hard as the other also — wow, what a trip relationship are! I’m getting a headache just thinking about it. LOL

    I always love what you, Jessica and Lacey have to write. The relationship advice is always so truthful & brings me back to lessons. I appreciate you both.

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