In Gripes and Grievances, we talked about the importance of identifying conflicts—the first step toward resolving differences with your partner. Once you realize what is bothering you, you can use the bother barometer to figure out how much something is bothering you. You and your spouse might not need to discuss things that rank low on your scale. By using this method, you will also know what issues you absolutely must talk about during your weekly meeting.
Harry and Sue spent a lot of their time together bickering and never seemed able to resolve anything. Harry would track mud into the house, and Sue would become angry. She would ask him to take off his shoes and leave them on the porch, and he would say, “Don't bother me now, I'm busy.” Sue would attempt to bring up the topic, but Harry never wanted to talk about it. She was becoming more and more frustrated. Eventually, she would yell at him for that and other things. She felt like he never listened, but she didn't know any other way to get her point across.
Couples often have ongoing sources of irritation that they never take time to discuss. Simple annoying habits can sometimes be resolved in a 10-minute discussion!
On the other hand, Sue would leave magazines all over the house. Harry could not always find the one he wanted to read. He wanted Sue to keep all the magazines in one place, so he would know where they were. Every time he brought it up with Sue, she was busy and didn't want to talk about it.
Harry and Sue both had a habit that annoyed the other person. It wouldn't take much effort for Harry to take off his shoes when they were muddy and for Sue to keep their magazines in the family room.
They could resolve these issues if they would take the time to discuss them. However, because they waited until the heat of the moment, the intensity of their emotions prevented a productive discussion. What would otherwise have been a minor problem built up and became a constant source of frustration for both of them.
Don't just say, “This is bugging me.” Tell your spouse what you'd like him or her to do about it. Otherwise, the issue might not get resolved to your satisfaction.
Have a Clear Goal in Mind
Before you talk with your partner, think about how the problem might be resolved. In the above example with Harry and Sue, the goal is straightforward. But, something might be bothering you and it's not clear what would help. If this is the case, stop! Think it through. Take the time to develop some specific ideas on how to make things right. It will be easier for your spouse to change if he or she knows exactly what would help you. A good discussion has a clear end point; if you don't know what that is, why would your partner?
The following steps will provide clarity and help you focus on what you want your partner to do:
- Write down what is bothering you.
- Use the bother barometer to determine how much it bothers you.
- Try to examine why it bothers you.
- Come up with three different things your spouse could do to help.
- During your next discussion time with your spouse, tell your spouse what is bothering you and what he or she could do to help.