You’re lying awake in bed. You just had a blow up with your partner and now the sound of their rest-filled breathing is pissing you off. After a series of miscommunications and mismatched needs you somehow ended up here, rattled and disorganized, rehearsing what you should have done instead. Maybe you’ll “accidentally” wake them up with an elbow to the ribs …
Just take a deep breath and relax. Scratch that, them’s fightin’ words. So hold your breath. Clench your teeth. Lean forward and ball up your fists. Squint. Hold it. Hoooold it … there, now you can breathe.
Let’s call a do-over and see where things went wrong. Instead of practicing your take-down method the next time they open their eyes, here are seven ways to navigate towards less conflict and more cuddling in your relationship.
Communicate sooner rather than later
You’re frustrated. Your partner is giving less attention to you and more to their phone. You offer a little touch but it mostly goes unnoticed. Your unmets needs and insecurities are becoming a cocktail of resentment. You’re communicating mostly non-verbally; seething until you randomly explode because you kept letting things go. It’s not a great long-term strategy for keeping the peace. If you’re feeling overextended or undervalued, calmly let your partner know. Don’t wait for them to keep failing while you silently build a case against them.
Check your stories
Humans are storytelling creatures. We like to make up stories about each other where we’re the center of every interaction, then unilaterally act as if our fantasies are true. You’re wondering if your partner is taking you for granted. You have been wearing sweats a lot and sending more grocery lists than sexts. Do they think I'm boring?! These heavy stories make us doubt ourselves and our relationships. Instead, check what’s true: “Hey bae, I’d love some screen-free time so we can connect.” You never know—their response might just be, “I’d love that, let’s plan a date.” (Awww.)
Ask for what you want
Have you already given up before trying because you know what’s going to happen? Ugh, why bother? Have you been withholding affection in the hopes your partner will notice the dry spell and get thirsty? You’re not going to be the first one to make a move, because you’re not going to beg for love. Except now you’re getting even less of what you want. Stop building up so much resentment and resignation. Start fighting to win instead of fighting not to lose.
Your partner is doing the dishes and you burst out, “You always ignore me!” They’re confused by the drive-by and hit back with, “Am I supposed to be a mind reader? You never tell me what’s up and now you’re yelling at me for no reason!”
Uh oh. Now you’re in a fight.
You’re feeling confusion and guilt on top of irritation—fire on gasoline. You complained while they were doing something nice and now both of you are mad when what you really want is connection. Once triggered, we emotionally flood and feel an urgency to solve the problem. We move fast hoping to solve the problem quickly, but rushing is a shortcut to never feeling seen, heard or understood. We talk faster and louder, trying to defend ourselves and prove our point. Our culture loves over-processing. We have a fetish with being good communicators and forget that sometimes, less is more. Forcing your partner to keep talking in order to fix your agitation leaves everyone exhausted and disconnected. Instead, self-regulate: Go for a walk, drink a mug of hot tea, scream into a pillow, whatever you need to stop taking it out on your partner. Trust that there is plenty of time to figure it all out.
Listen: Sara offers more advice for de-escalation and defining boundaries on The Kyle Thiermann Show.
Hold your own boundaries
We really want other people to hold our boundaries for us. We want them to want what we want and when there’s a difference, they are supposed to change to prove how much they love us. But why should someone else hold your boundaries if you’re not willing to? Instead of insisting your partner get off their phone, stop talking when their eyes drift towards the screen. Rolling your eyes and sighing is less effective than walking away. Wait for their undivided attention if that’s what you want. (Caveat emptor: You might need to trade some quantity for quality.) If you’re not willing to change, stop requiring someone to change in order for you to be okay. If something doesn’t work for you, take some space, negotiate new agreements, extend less. Or forgive yourself for sacrificing some of your needs in order to get others met.
Feel your feelings, but don’t wield them like weapons
Your emotions are valid. But that’s not a free pass to use your emotional response as a way to dominate the situation. You can be angry, hurt, sad and lonely. You can also express your feelings in a way that your partner can hear, rather than needs to defend against. In a cooperative relationship, we need to be a safe place for each other’s truth, wants and needs. If you go Super Saiyan, or collapse when there are challenges, your partner is going to be reluctant to share what’s really going on for fear of persecution.
Take care of yourself first
As Jean Yang said, “If you think everyone hates you, you probably need to sleep. If you hate everyone, you probably need to eat.”
How you think and what you want are dramatically different when you're depleted. A poor night’s sleep, eating junk, or paying attention to whatever Mercury is doing makes you more rigid and less generous. Honestly, look at how worn out you are before trying to put out another fire. When running on fumes, you’re able to give less, while taking things too far. You can love each other and still take some space when you’re fighting without it meaning a crisis for the relationship. Most of us are systemically exhausted and one conversation isn’t going to solve a chronic scarcity of self-care. It’s easier to find solutions to any problem once you’re replenished. If the plane is going down, you need to put your oxygen mask on first, or you won’t be able to help anyone else.
Trust me, your animal body is going to be snarling and whining at my suggestions. Your instincts want you to fight, run or play dead and hope it goes away. But your wise observer knows the only way out is through, and that building a life beyond our baseline impulses requires effort, intention, innovation and cooperation.
Sara Russell is a relationship coach and Taoist practitioner who helps her clients analyze behaviors, relationships and systems to see where old habits are no longer serving them. Co-conspire with Sara on Instagram.
Header image by Steven Haddock via Unsplash.
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