As a counselor in Plano, TX, I’ve witnessed my clients struggling with the usual suspects of anxiety, depression, body image problems, and disordered eating during the past several months. But they also find themselves arguing more with loved ones. Most of my clients who are in relationships didn’t expect to be spending this much time together until they retired! And most of the time, they talk about what a gift this is.
In reality, being in such close quarters for a prolonged period of time, even with someone we love, is hard. Add to that the chaos of the pandemic, the stress of childcare and restarting school, and the general uncertainty. It’s no wonder that I’ve been speaking to so many people struggling to communicate. At a time when it’s most important to be on the same team.
We’ve probably all heard the social media conversations about divorce and increased partner abuse during quarantine, but divorce attorneys have been predicting this for a while now. It’s not a crazy prediction, after all. Relationship issues that we might be able to distract from in normal times can’t be ignored in a quarantine. Research has long demonstrated that relationship trouble is very common after spending lots of time together.
Pushed to the Limits
If you already struggle with an eating disorder, body image distress, depression, or anxiety, these past few months have likely pushed you to the edge. When you’re irritable and overwhelmed, it’s harder to be a good listener and express feelings calmly. Your mental health challenges may have worsened during this time. Poor communication with your partner only adds to the challenge, which then makes it even harder to communicate effectively! It’s a vicious cycle!
Poor communication isn’t just a problem addressed in marriage or couple’s counseling. Improving communication is a valuable skill when learning to improve mental health. We can all benefit from learning to express feelings and listen better. We can also learn to monitor our emotions and body to decide when it is or isn’t a good time for a tough discussion with our partner.
If any of this sounds like you, you’re not alone. (Even though maybe sometimes you wish you were!) Kidding. Sort of 🙂
In any case, read on for some of the suggestions I have for clients in similar situations.
The Home Team v. The Visiting Challenger
First and foremost, whatever communication formats, words, and techniques you might use, it’s important to approach the conversation from an framework of being a team against the problem, instead of thinking from the mindset of You against Your Partner. You are partners fighting to survive in what feels like the end of days.
This means being truly open to their suggestions on how to reach your collective goals, expressing empathy and support for some of the challenges they might be facing, and avoiding scoreboarding as much as possible. These are all actions that communicate being on the same team, and will actually make it more likely for your partner to be receptive to your requests and concerns.
Just for example, a few of my clients have struggled with their partner’s alcohol use during this time. This can be especially difficult when they’ve done their own work in therapy to cultivate healthier coping skills for stress. They want to see their partner enjoy the benefit of a similar path. But as you can imagine, making well-intentioned suggestions and trying to control their behavior has yielded no change, except maybe more tension in the relationship.
Approaching this challenge from the stance of “me against you” might look something like, “You’re really going to have another drink? You should try meditating. I’ve been doing it for months and it really helps with stress. Plus, no hangover!”
A teamwork stance, on the other hand, would empower you to take a big-picture view of why their drinking bothers you so much. You can then get curious about different ways to meet your needs. For example, maybe you’re worried that they’re numbing their feelings, and you know from reading therapy blogs that doing this only leads to more issues down the line. In this case, since your hope is to create a culture of processing feelings, you might say something like, “Hey, it seems like you’ve been drinking more than usual. Is everything okay? What’s been going on for you?”
This shows that you want to understand your partner and support them to be their own best version of themselves. It also demonstrates that you trust them to know what that “best” looks like from moment to moment. It also helps you to take responsibility for getting your true needs met, rather than depending on a hypothetical solution.
On the other hand, if your gripe is more about wanting more support with the household tasks, you might frame that as the goal and have a conversation about different ways to get there. “Honey, I’m pretty overwhelmed. Can we revisit the chore wheel idea?”
In both cases, we see that drinking (or really any behavior that bothers us) is not a problem in a vacuum, so figuring out what we really need will help us collaborate more effectively. To this end, it helps to think of you and your sweetie in a three-legged race together instead of competing in a 100-meter dash.
“Wait a minute, Danesa,” you might be thinking. “Maybe communicating this way is healthier than criticizing or controlling my partner. But what if they still don’t figure out that changing a habit is the best way to achieve goals?”
Yes, what if indeed.
To some extent, it sucks not being able to wave a magic wand and change anything we want to. On the other hand, how boring would that be?!
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might be familiar with the concept of radical acceptance. It encourages us to let go of changing something that challenges us, even if we don’t necessarily like it or agree with it.
If you think about it, listening to our partners can be a form of meditation. When we’re not trying to convince, defend, or change what our partner thinks, we get the opportunity to notice what believing and honoring their thoughts would mean for us.
What would be especially difficult about this? What fantasies would I have to give up? How can I leave space for their version of reality to be valid?
Of course, there is a difference between active listening and people-pleasing. There’s a difference between accepting that you and your partner bring different strengths and philosophies to your relationship, and accepting poor treatment. And especially for my clients who grew up in high-conflict households, it can be hard to know whether to address an issue independently, in the relationship, or a mix of both.
In my next post, I will write more specifically about this question. I’ll offer specific tips to encourage productive and empathetic conversations.
In the meantime, if you do set out with the framework provided above, and want more support, let’s talk!
If you’re ready to work toward communicating your needs better, I’d love to help. I OFFER VIDEO COUNSELING FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE!! If you’re looking for counseling in Plano, Texas contact me here or at 469-850-2420 or email@example.com for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include anxiety, depression, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, and body image issues. My counseling office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.