It’s inevitable that every relationship will run into some persistent problems. Persistent problems are ongoing, resistant to change, and are often a cause of an argument.
They can be trivial such as your husband forgetting to take care of the dishes when he promises, or more profound such as your wife drinking excessively at social events. When we first start dating our partners, we might find these imperfections somewhat charming, but as times goes on and they persist, our frustrations begin to grow. At the slightest hint of the persistent problem, we can fly off the handle, and explode in a hurricane of fury on our unsuspecting partners.
As we unleash the blame and criticism, our partners usually respond with getting their defenses up by unraveling their list of what they think is wrong with us.
How do we stop this cycle of the same, persistent problems?
1. Identify them: The first thing is to pause and identify what are the persistent problems in your relationship. Perhaps it’s one partner’s excessive smoking or difficulty putting a cell phone down for another. Whatever it is, you need to know what the triggers are. Write down the top three triggering behaviors by your partner. While I am sure there many more than three frustrating things that your partner does, making a long list can make your feel overwhelmed and can make you get lost in petty details. Instead, we want to identify top three priorities as this will be more manageable to work with.
2. Reframe: Second, let’s reframe how we are thinking about these persistent problems. Language is a lot more powerful than we think. I would like to invite to paraphrase your persistent concern, so it points to the behavior being a problem rather than the person.
For example, I find it frustrating that my partner keeps on the quiet side and doesn’t engage much in a conversation with me when we are out on a date night. When it happens over and over, I notice myself getting more and more agitated. In the past, I would think or say out loud “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you just talk to me?” As you can imagine, that kind of approach isn’t gonna get anyone talking.
The biggest problem with this way of thinking or talking is that it portrays and communicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with your partner, their character is flawed. But what really is happening is that we are annoyed or frustrated by our partner’s behavior. It’s the behavior that’s the problem and not your partner. With this in mind, we can reframe by starting to think and communicate our concern in a new way. Perhaps even inviting humor on board.
For example, I now reframe my concern this way: “You know that silent thing that we talked about before. It seems to be making itself a guest at our date night again. What can we do about it?”.
Stating it this way, it becomes clear that the problem is the problem and not your partner who might be struggling with changing a habit or behavior. The reframing reduces some of the emotional intensity we feel and provides us with space to add some humor to it as well. Humour is a known elixir that defuses tension and strong emotions inviting creativity and lightness to your conversations.
3. Check your tone: Another big concern with my initial phrasing of my frustration, “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you just talk to me?”, is that it also carries a hostile tone that comes from a place of believing, perhaps not consciously, that your partner is doing this or not doing something on purpose. That’s as if they are walking around thinking of ways to piss us off. Let’s be realistic, for most couples; our partners have no intentions of hurting us.
A common automatic belief for many people is “I told him/her this is bothering me. Why can’t they just change this for me if they love me.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Some things our partners will change with ease for us, while others, although they might be totally forthcoming, they will struggle to change. The main reason is that we are often asking them to change their habits. And let’s be real, old habits are hard to break, while new ones take their time to stick. To learn more about the science and art of what needs to happen for new habits to take root, check out the book ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg.
Not that you know that the problem is the problem, you can be allies, rather than foes, in finding new and creative ways to tackle these habits together.