People sometimes make contact with Birmingham Counselling Services because they are unhappy in and with their most important relationship and they are not quite sure why. Their dissatisfaction is related to disappointment and frustration and to feeling let down, but they can’t identify a precise cause other than some sort of communication breakdown. After all, the person who has got in touch and his/her partner are still talking to each other, although frequently a conversation will deteriorate into an irritated sparring match. Their partner might well be in an equally confused and unhappy place, and be equally unable to identify what has gone wrong. Sometimes, and this can happen particularly with someone we feel we know well, one of the two has become ineffective at talking about their needs and asking about what they want. We start with a belief that our partner will know what we want and need, and talk with the assumption that so much doesn’t need to be said. We couldn’t be more wrong.
Does this sound familiar to you? You know that something is wrong with your relationship, and really want to do something about it, but everything is so vague that you don’t know where to start.
You might be feeling uncomfortable because you suspect that you are being compared unfavourably with your partner’s adored mother or father, or their previous partner. This is very delicate ground to be walking on, for both of you, and how to bring it up and discuss it needs very careful thought and preparation. And what you can’t do is to leave what is worrying you unsaid, as it’s not going to go away and might well get worse as it grows in significance for you while your partner remains in ignorance of what is worrying you.
First of all, think very carefully about what is causing your distress. Is it a specific thing – you are not as good a cook as X or Y, who deserves a Michelin star (and sometimes contributes home-cooked food to your home); your management of money leaves a bit to be desired while X or Y could single-handedly clear the National Debt (and sometimes offers you unsolicited advice); your career is not progressing as far or as fast as X’s or Y’s or Z’s, who should be managing director of the company s/he works for? Or is it that you feel you must be lacking in the qualities and skills that you need to succeed in this relationship, and the comparisons are all in your mind, not your partner’s?
Think even more carefully about what you need from your partner and how you are going to communicate this need. Is it that you want your partner to tell you clearly that s/he is not comparing you unfavourably with X or Y or Z? Is it that you need to believe that your partner really has left home now, rather than regularly going back to ask for advice when you believe you should be sorting things out together? Do you need to feel that this relationship really is a partnership, where the worries and chores are shared as much as the good times and the occasional blazing rows? These issues are all so important for the health of your relationship that you need to find a way of introducing the subject without undermining what you already have together.
a) You have experience of saying things to your partner which have triggered an unwelcome response – you can avoid these. Try to distinguish whether that unwelcome response is to the content or the way you have presented it.
b) You have experience of judging your partner’s mood, to find a time when s/he will be receptive.
c) These two skills mean that you know what not to say and you know when not to say it.
Now you need to find a positive way of engaging both of you in solving the problem:
a) First of all, try not to assume that you are being compared unfavourably with anyone. After all, you are the one your partner chose, the one s/he is with now.
b) Then ask yourself why you are so nervous of talking about it. Is it because of an occasion in the past when saying what you wanted evoked a frighteningly negative response from someone else, perhaps one of your parents? That was then, this is now. It could be that all of your hesitation and reluctance is because of something within you, and not about your partner.
c) Check with yourself whether you have ever raised this sensitive issue before, and if so, what you said, when you said it and how your partner reacted. You don’t have to repeat the same pattern of poor communication.
d) Write down what you want to say and read it back to yourself. Ask yourself how you would feel, hearing this from your partner. Perhaps your reaction will suggest that what you have written needs revising – if so, that’s fine. Revise and revise until you feel comfortable both as speaker and as hearer.
e) If you just don’t know where to start, try the classic approach of saying calmly: “Because our relationship is so important to me it worries me that when I hear you say . . . I feel that you must be comparing me with X or Y or Z and I feel inadequate/undervalued/a failure”. This is about you and it is true and it does not accuse your partner of anything, so it should be easier for him/her to hear and respond to.
f) You can then ask your partner to try to find a different way of saying whatever it was, or even suggest “It would be easier for me if you were to say . . .” This does involve your partner, but not in an accusatory way – you are asking for his/her help. Perhaps you can work out ways of helping each other to deal with the issue.
g) If this approach seems inappropriate, you might like to suggest that you and you partner find a time to discuss how to divide up or share responsibility for e.g. financial management, household chores, elements of bringing up the children. You can emphasise that you really want to know what your partner thinks and feels about this. And you really need to listen carefully while s/he is telling you. You are in a relationship.
You might feel that it would be easier to talk this through with someone else first, almost to have a rehearsal. Or, having said it and heard it, you and your partner might decide that relationship counselling would be a positive step for you both. In either case you could get in touch with Birmingham Counselling Services, where there are appropriately qualified and experienced counsellors ready to work with you. You can contact us via our website: www.BirminghamCounsellingServices.co.uk or by calling us on 0121 314 9903.