Dear Miss U,
My SO have been together for 4 months now, and we’ve talked about many things. We’ve been happy a lot, but we’ve also argued a lot as well. Is this normal? We point out things that hurt or upset us, and then it starts. We usually have great days, but usually, after the sun goes down, something little sometimes will set one of us off – not in anger, but one of us gets hurt, and points it out; she feels like she never does anything right, and I always feel like the whole thing is my fault. I’m probably not doing her side much justice. It’s just I really want this to work, and she says she does too. We’ve made plans for the future already. I know it’s early, but I just really feel a connection. Please help me figure out what to do.
We humans like to think we are disconnected from the rhythms of nature, but we’re not. We’re mammals; and just like other animals our moods and energy levels are affected by weather, season and time of day. You’ve heard some people talk about being night owls or morning larks, right? You might have that one friend who always gets mopey when it rains or a parent who is always grumpy in the morning (so you learned to ask permission for things in the afternoon.)
Obviously, the evening is a weak point for one or both of you. You’re more sensitive and more critical at that time. But knowledge is power too. If you know you’re both not at your best in the evenings you can plan accordingly. For example, I like mornings. I like the promise they bring. I like drinking tea and eating grains and fruit while I look over my “to do” list. But what I don’t love, especially in the morning, is having to answer questions. And if it is a yes/no question you can bet your arse I’m going to say no. Go away, I’m not ready for friends. Mr. E has learned to give me time to myself in the morning so that I’m not psychotic the entire day. If he wants me to be agreeable he’ll ask me later, or via text, because if I have to write a response my “be nice” filter is more likely to activate. In your situation maybe do the bulk of your talking earlier in the day and then either do something non-verbal together like watching a show, or spend that time studying or hanging out with other friends.
Some things, of course, can’t be blamed on climate. Mr E. doesn’t seem to have a favorable time of day and the weather doesn’t seem to bother him unless it gets above 35 degrees Celsius (at which point all bets are off) but he is a very critical person in general. Sometimes I call him on it, other times I get really hurt, but one technique we have learned is to ask for a do-over. Stopping yourself and saying, “Wait that was mean, let me try again,” or, “That came out wrong. What I meant to say was…” can make the world of difference.
Accept your flaws too. Apologise. “Sorry I was a salty beach, I was upset because the kids won’t stop fighting, I don’t actually care that you were three minutes late,” goes a long way as does, “Sorry I was crying over nothing earlier, I’m more tired than I realized, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.” Own your shit!
Another good tip, if you’re having a lot of little fights, is Pick Your Battles. Yes, this advice is about as old as the hills and I’ll bet you have heard it before. But it works. It’s important to pick your battles if you are ever going to cohabitate with someone.
Before you criticize your partner, ask, “Does this really matter?” If you know it’s going to start a row think about whether it is worth fighting about before you open your mouth.
A long-standing disagreement between Mr. E and I is that he will answer messages that don’t require an answer. “K, ” he says. This will give me the mad eye twitch til the day I die. I’ve asked him not to do it, but it turns out it upsets him that I don’t do it, even though most messaging platforms tell you if the person has seen your message or not. Even before technology was there to assist us, I was happy to take silence as a yes. Obviously, if you didn’t reply we’re good. If there was a problem you’d tell me. Back in the day, I used to pay 18¢ for each text message. I’m not wasting money on a single letter or a smiley face.
But as irritating as it is, especially because I’m pretty sure he does it just to annoy me now, it doesn’t actually matter. It doesn’t change my life if I waste a couple of seconds every other day picking up my phone just to see a “k” there. Likewise, it would be great if Mr. E would attempt to get his dirty clothes near the basket. And I tell him that as I put them in the basket myself, knowing that chances are he isn’t going to change this habit. It takes me 30 seconds to gather his clothes from around the house and put them in the laundry. If I pick a fight over it that’s going to be at least 10 minutes, and then we’re both upset. This is not a battle worth fighting.
He does the same for me in other areas. Like buying coffee. I love to buy a good cappuccino. It’s a huge waste of money, we both know it. I don’t do it every day, but I do it more often than I should. I’m very aware how Mr. E feels about it because he used to complain about his mum doing the same thing back when he lived at home. He is critical of people who “need” coffee to live. But he keeps his mouth shut and goes a little out of his way when I need a fix.
These arguments you two are having, what are they about? Are they important things like what holidays your family will celebrate once you live together or how much money you should be contributing to savings each week? Are you fighting over basic morals (because I know if Mr. E was homophobic or racist that would be a deal breaker!) or political views? Are you picking at each other over small annoying things that don’t really matter or are you truly incompatible?
Knowing how to discuss difficult topics is just as important as knowing what is worth getting upset over. Two key techniques are: 1) Using “I” or “we” rather than “you” and 2) the compliment sandwich. I will break these down in case you are not familiar with them.
1) It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it:
“I really get upset when you log off without saying good night,” sounds way better than, “You never tell me good night, you just log off and upset me.” In the first instance, you are reaching out to your partner and making it about your feelings, whereas in the second you are putting your partner on the defensive and making the conversation about their shortcomings.
Another example is “I’m hoping we can start putting more money into our savings so that we could have an extra visit this year” which is more effective than “you should stop wasting money on video games because it’s eating into our visit funds.” The first puts you both on the same team and expresses your desire, the second is an attack.
2) The compliment sandwich:
It’s hard to take criticism with grace, even when that criticism is constructive. You can soften the blow by using the compliment sandwich. Here’s an example:
“Oh Mr. E I love how thoughtful you were to cook me dinner! I don’t actually eat dead animals, just so you know for next time, but I love how the balance of spices are just right in this sauce.” Say something nice, then gently present your complaint using “I” not “you” where possible, then follow it up with something positive.
Lastly, maybe you’re just spending too much time together and need to talk less. You can have too much of a good thing and sometimes we get irritated with people because we are saturated by their company. If you’re talking for more than three hours a day I’m going to say that’s probably a bit much and it’s time to reinvest your attention in other loved ones, hobbies, work, sport or study.