Converting issues into intimacy in 5 steps

1 400 words = 5 minutes to read

A relationship is live and organic like a living organism/plant. Every interaction we get to choose whether what we do is going to make the relationship better (like nurturing and watering) or worse (like neglect and intense heat). It is an ongoing choice to either help it grow or help it die. You might believe you are right in any situation (placing it on the window sill), but if you want the relationship to thrive, you need to respond to what’s working and what’s not working (when you recognize the heat is paradoxically killing the plant). Pay attention. Raise your awareness.

1.Identify the need:

We get upset or triggered by another person because we have a need we would like to be fulfilled that is not. This need can relate to a variety of experiences like the need to feel loved and cared for, the need to feel heard or understood, to help others, to lead others, to gain clarity or understand something, for peace, for safety, a sense of meaning, clarity, fun, freedom, justice etc. When we are able to unpack our feelings (by reflecting on our experiences) and figure out which need is unfulfilled by our partner, we can then learn how to ask for it. It is not the responsibility of our partner or relationship to make us happy (that’s an unrealistic expectation). It is however their role to add value and increase on the happiness that already exists inside us.

E.g. Scenario: My husband was making a habit of arriving home late and missing dinner with his family. I felt infuriated and disappointed.

Worse: I felt frustrated, hurt and angry and made sarcastic comments about him ‘gracing us with his presence’ as well as throwing in a few attacks on his character for being late all the time.

Better: After some serious introspection I realized he was not fulfilling my need to feel respected, cared for and my need to connect. I concluded that to feel respected he would need to warn me if he was going to miss dinner so I was not left waiting. To feel ‘cared for’ I acknowledged that he works hard for the sake of the family and that is how he demonstrates his care. To feel connected, I let him know how much I value our time together and how important it is for me to share a family meal together and requested that he make an effort to join us more often. He responded well and makes a sincere effort to be on time, always calling if he will be late.

2.Don’t get confused by your feelings:

Initially I confused my emotions as needs. I drew the conclusion that I have a need not to be frustrated, hurt or angry – which is also true, but not the bedrock need or underlying need. Needs are universal and long term. They say more about your character than your personality. They point to your values more than your moods. Happiness is not a need, it is a transitory emotion. It is a state of being which is not sustainable. The desire to be and feel fulfilled is the need. All emotions guide you to an underlying need that is either being fulfilled (positive emotion) or unfulfilled (negative emotion). Being able to recognize feelings and developing a ‘feeling vocabulary’ will help pinpoint needs.

Worse: All feelings are valid. Not all behaviours are. In the past when I felt bad/mad/sad/afraid I made a habit of naming/shaming/blaming. Negative feelings did not give me permission to be emotionally or verbally (or physically) abusive. It gave me permission to let my partner know how I was feeling. It gave me the right to express what I need from him to avoid feeling that way again.

Better: I tried very hard not to get into discussing issues whilst I was still emotional. It is not physiologically possible to remain objective and logical when we are upset. Waiting for the right time (timing), place (context) and holding the intention of resolving issues (appropriate headspace) provided the perfect backdrop for a constructive conversation.

3.Take responsibility for your role in the issue:

There are always three sides to a story. Mine, yours and the truth in the middle. Or rather, my interpretation of reality, yours and the actual reality. Try to accept your degree of responsibility for what happened. How might you have contributed toward the problem? Have you made your needs clear or did you expect your partner to know instinctively what they are? Have you made explicit what you want or do you expect your spouse to be a mind reader?

Making it Worse: At first I assumed I was right and he was wrong. It was clear to me from his actions that he didn’t care about me. Well, assumption is the mother of all stuff ups. Only after we discussed it (when I had calmed down) did I hear his side of the story, which helped me understand that he shows his love by working hard. For us.

Better: After I had ‘gotten over myself’ I realized I had never let my husband know how important our family meal together was to me. If he didn’t know that, how was he ever going to fulfill that need of mine? I learnt to be more assertive about asking for what I need to feel loved and appreciated.

4.Observe rather than evaluate:

If we state simply what we see, hear, notice, observe or remember without evaluating it, it clarifies for ourselves and the other person what we are reacting to. It is neutral and has no blame or judgment attached to it. It separates facts from interpretation. It is the start of taking responsibility for your actions.

Worse: This thing called ‘interpretation’ was just that. It was my understanding based on my perspective. I interpreted his being late, as a sign of disrespect to me and the family. I had also prepared a meal which was not being enjoyed but shoveled down as fuel which left me feeling unappreciated and I assumed that if he cared, he would want to eat dinner with us. I had all sorts of nasty words describing the awful person I thought he was for being so rude. I hadn’t yet heard his point of view, from his perspective.

Better: Instead of me evaluating that my husband was rude and selfish I stated the observation, “You have been home late several nights and I have felt very hurt and disappointed by that”. The observation was that he was late several times. Not that he was selfish, that I was right or that he was a terrible husband. Describing how I felt about the facts instead of drawing conclusions about my interpretations allowed him to hear my position on the matter without him feeling defensive.

5.Turn your complaint into a request:

Make a request and focus on what you want to happen, instead of what is wrong or not happening. This effectively prevents many conflict situations. Our needs are more likely to be met with a “yes” if the requests are specific, offer choice, are positive (do rather than don’t), are do-able (baby steps) and take the other person into account. Complaining sends the message you are unhappy which is more likely to induce a defensive response. Making a request gives the listener a choice to be co-operative.

Worse: Complaining to my partner “You are always late” or “I am so sick of waiting around for you every night” was not helpful for either of us. He felt attacked and got defensive. I became antagonized and angrier with his reaction. A downward spiral of conflict began.

Better: First I decided I wanted a healthy relationship more than I wanted to be right so I took the initial step in reconciling. I acknowledged the fact that my husband was working hard for all of us and that it was really important for me to have him share dinner with us so that we could connect as a family. “What I would really love is for you to eat with us at least a few nights of the week or create some other way to connect as a family”. My husband was only too happy to suggest other ways of hanging out if he was unable to get home on time. We have found that there are many ways to ‘skin the cat’. My need to feel cared for, respected and to connect does not necessarily mean he needs to be home for dinner. Everyone is happier. And we are closer for it.