Relationship toolkit: Stick to the subject!
Bill and Mary started discussing their plans for the weekend. Bill wants to go to a Silvertips game and Mary wants to go to the movies. Their kid’s favorite babysitter was actually available Saturday night! Woohoo!
But then, Mary says: “You always get your way when we have a free night!”. Bill replies—“ Not true! Two weeks ago we went to your sister’s house!”. She rejoins—“And when are you going to clean up after yourself. You leave your stuff all over the house!”. His voice is rising, like the high tide during a full moon—“Aw come on. Get off it. What about your desk! It looks like a dump truck unloaded garbage on top of it”. Mary is shouting now—“And what about your mother! She is always criticizing me!” She storms out of the room and slams the door.
Now what were they arguing about? And what about that evening out without the kids?
When you read the above paragraph, it seems obvious what is transpiring—and it’s comical. But how often have you and your partner started a discussion about a neutral topic and ended up yelling at each other about something entirely different?
Perhaps it’s just human nature. But when one person feels defensive about something, they are liable to go on the offensive. Past wrongdoings are brought up that have nothing to do with the subject at hand. Now each person feels criticized and on guard. Watch out!—the barbs are flying. Most often, these “discussions” resolve nothing. Each adult ends up with hurt feelings.
Let’s be honest. We have all been guilty of dumping dirty dishes from the “kitchen sink” on our partner.
Sometimes, when I am guilty of this offense, Diane will ask me “So, what does that have to do with what we are talking about?” That question usually stops me in my tracks. Certainly, she is right—my bringing up the high cost of fancy cat food for our cat has nothing to do with her wanting to buy opera tickets next week. Sigh-- I am guilty again, as charged.
So what can couples do?
Avoid the temptation to go on the offense. I know this is hard. Take a deep breath, count to five (ten takes too long), or pinch yourself and stick to the subject at hand. If your partner goes off on a tangent, GENTLY, ask them “What does that have to do with what we are discussing?” Good question! It might just bring them back to the issue at hand.
Stick to one topic! When you have a hot issue to discuss (usually about money, sex, time, housework, in-laws, or children)—propose a specific date and time to talk about your concern. Pick a date when you both have the time and space to have a reasonable dialogue. AGREE to stick the topic and not bring up other issues. If one person does veer off course, gently bring them back to the subject.
Prepare in advance. I am not talking about planning your argument! Instead, focus on staying calm, breathing, and most importantly—trying to understand your partner’s point of view, feelings, and perspectives. If each person seeks to understand the other, you will both find that common ground we call compromise: Something that seems to be in short supply lately.
Look for progress, not perfection. When couples make small “baby steps” in an agreed upon direction, both partners feel hopeful and positive. This paves the way for future cooperation.