10 Jan Mistakes Partners Make When Discussing Emotional Issues, And How To Avoid Them

I was heading straight into dangerous territory and I knew it.

What had started as a peaceful afternoon riverside walk quickly changed into the equivalent of a stroll through a relationship minefield, as hubby and I stumbled upon an unresolved issue that had been hovering in the wings for a week or two, refusing to go away.

Unlike minor relationship challenges and gripes, which are sometimes better off “let through to the keeper,” I knew that this issue, if left unresolved, had the potential to influence our relationship in a negative way.

Well, more specifically, I knew this unresolved issue had the potential to influence ME in a negative way.

Over the past few days I’d already noticed myself shutting down – nothing obvious to the naked eye, just a slight shift of my relational energy from “leaning in” to “leaning out” of our relationship.

I knew that unless I could find peace with this issue on my own and get back into a connected headspace and a spirit of “leaning in” (I couldn’t), I owed it to our relationship to speak up.

So, there we were, walking by the river, speaking.

I was aware of my body. I felt tense all over. My voice was tight and choppy. My breathing was shallow, my pulse rate fast, and I was finding eye contact difficult.

Yet what I was noticing in my head was even more interesting.

Silhouette of a angry mother and daughter on each other.

Inside my head were two very different parts, both with very different agendas:

Firstly, there was a rational part. Let’s call her my “functional adult”. She knew that we are two adults who love each other very much and who owe it to each other to resolve our issues sensibly and without any risk of inflicting collateral damage to each other’s hearts.

Then there was another part. Let’s call her my “inner child”. She didn’t know how to behave like an adult, because she isn’t an adult. She wanted to stamp her angry little feet. She felt hurt, unheard, and wronged. She was pissed off and didn’t much care whether relationship damage ensued.

Each of us, regardless of how grown-up and mature we are, carry our own “inner child” inside us. And we are most likely to be hijacked by him or her when relationships stress rises.

Fortunately, in addition to being a wife who at times gets triggered by normal relationship challenges just like the rest of you, my work as a marriage and relationship therapist means I’m regularly hearing about how all sorts of couples make all sorts of relationship mistakes. It’s my job to help them try out alternative solutions.

Here are the most common mistakes that partners make when discussing emotional issues. Are you making any of these mistakes yourself?

1. Allowing your “inner child” to hijack your “functional adult”. This results in you saying and doing things that no rational, mature, loving adult would do.

2. Indulging in self-righteousness expression, fuelled by the faulty belief that “I am hurt, therefore I am allowed to say whatever I want, regardless of whether it hurts you.”

3. Believing you’re right, and closing your mind to the possibility that your partner is right too.

4. Trying to control what happens, including controlling your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

5. Trying to retaliate or point score. Never ever a healthy relationship strategy.

6. Shutting down, withdrawing, pretending that everything is OK, and/or refusing to speak honestly.

And here’s what partners in healthy, happy marriages and relationships do instead:

1. Stop. Breathe. (this regulates your nervous system and prevents you from becoming emotionally flooded).

2. Resist the temptation to communicate from your triggered “inner child” (He or she has the maturity of a child and is incapable of building a healthy adult relationship)

3. Make sure you’re engaging with, and communicating from, your “functional adult” (This is the adult version of you, and is rational, mature, and sensible).

4. Speak for yourself, using “I” statements to communicate your thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs, about the issue.

5. Understand that your point of view is subjective and can only be yours alone.

6. Listen very carefully to your partner’s point of view, understanding that this is subjective too. Ask questions with openhearted curiosity if you don’t understand something, or when you need to know more.

7. Yield where you can, by looking for your part in the issue. However small. Acknowledge, take responsibility, and apologise for what you can.

8. Shift from complaint to request by clearly asking for what you want, and/or what you want your partner to change. Invite the same back.

9. Revise and review potential next steps and solutions as you both raise them.

10. Thank your partner for the discussion. Share a kiss, hug, and/or words of affection and love. Then let it go. There’s no room for grudges and resentments in a healthy marriage or relationship.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For the past 25 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Credit is due to Terry Real of the Relational Life Institute for inspiring some of the material in this post. Contact Pamela here.