You’re deep in the throes of an argument—so sure that the point you’re making is clear, understandable.
You’re so sure you’re right.
Your hands are clenched—somewhere between that classic Italian gesture for “che cazzo” (WTF) and a fist—and you simply can’t see how they don’t agree with you.
How can they not feel what you’re feeling?
Or maybe you’re not arguing. Maybe you’re entrenched in a personal sadness you don’t want to talk about (or don’t know how to talk about yet).
The best relationship advice I’ve ever been given came from an older couple. They were sitting at the bar in a restaurant I used to work at. They were drinking light pink martinis, whispering to each other, kissing, and giggling. I half expected a movie crew to be hiding around some corner of the place because they were too damn cute to be real.
I had just gotten engaged, so we ended up chatting about love and relationships and arguments and communication (all the fun stuff). Between their congratulations and the tale of how they met and have been married for 40 years, they told me their secret.
In an imperfect recount, the man said, “It’s simple: ask your partner what they need from the conversation. Do they want to talk it through? Do they want you to just listen? Do they need some time? Let them think and answer. And then, honor it.”
I remember being drunk on the excitement of my about-to-be-married bliss. I couldn’t even imagine arguing with my now-husband. (This is your cue to laugh. I’m laughing as I write it.)
Still, I listened. I etched it into my memory.
We, humans, are complicated, stubborn, emotionally-driven beings. Certain things that didn’t bother us last week might throw us over the edge today—or tomorrow.
Well, I’m no expert, but I’d wager it’s a great many things. Because life throws a great many things our way. At different times.
We’re all walking around carrying our own baggage, but they’re not always the same “bags.” The texture of our pain evolves. The triggers change their clothes.
The me arguing today is different than the me arguing in the past.
Here is one version:
>> I’m halfway listening because I’m strategizing my response—lasering in on semantics, on each rebuttal, and trying to find the weakness. I call it “verbal chess.” And I always play to win.
>> I’m using my voice as a weapon: tone and word choice.
>> I’m consciously withdrawing: snuffing out the relevance of their words—their feelings.
>> I want to be right. Not just right, I want to be understood. (Because if they could just understand what I’m feeling/saying, then, naturally, my right-ness” would follow. Right?!) So, it can’t be an “okay, fine, Kate.” I want full admission of their wrongdoing. I want them to feel bad for not seeing things my way sooner. I want emotional submission.
I still fall into these traps from time to time, but I’ve come to realize they’ve evolved because of my experiences—my past and present relationships.
Past relationships required a bulldozer-style of communication: I couldn’t get through with calm and logic, so I chose fire. I burned and burned and burned because I felt invalidated, unseen, and misunderstood. I scorched everything—undermined myself and any chances of being heard.
Nowadays, my communication style still has heat (I presume it’s the Italian in me), but it doesn’t seek to make cinders of those around me.
And I have that advice.
It is always in my ear—something I think about to this day. Even in conversations that aren’t “arguments.”
Let’s say our lover feels lost, unfulfilled, and unhappy. Maybe they hate their job or can’t even pinpoint why they’re sad. Our instinct might be to offer suggestions—to try and fix it or show the “positive side.”
What if they aren’t ready to hear that? What if us saying, “But you have X. You’re so good at Y. It’ll be okay because Z” is not what they really need? There doesn’t always have to be a solution. Sometimes the “getting it out”—setting the burdens on the table—is enough. The sharing can sometimes ease the pain—simply having a sounding board. Or maybe they want to express themselves and just talk without it feeling like a game of chess.
Whatever the situation, when we ask our partners what they need from the conversation, we’re giving it a fighting chance (pun intended) at success. We’re tuning in to the same frequency or recognizing that maybe, at that moment, we can’t—we need time. And sometimes, we won’t even know the answer to “what we want from the conversation.” But even the gesture of asking the question itself has proven to be helpful.
I’m sure we all want to be “right,” but the biggest thing is feeling seen, supported, and heard—knowing they care enough to do the work of the relationship with us. Knowing that they’re on our team in this crazy thing called life.