It's Not About the Dishes: How to Identify Your Feelings and Improve Your Relationship

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I could tell she was having a bad day. My colleague, along with myself and another therapist, were standing in the kitchen which served as our unofficial break room and impromptu spot for unofficial meetings. I asked her what was going on, when all your colleagues are therapists it’s easier to open up, and she did.

The day before when she came home from work she stepped into the kitchen to see that the dishes in the dishwasher were still waiting to be put away. She turned to her fiancé at the time and in a frustrated tone said “you told me you were going to put away the dishes.” It wasn’t long until this turned into an argument. It was a familiar argument even if it wasn’t always about the dishes. As arguments tend to do, it got more intense the longer it went on. The argument changed in tone when he said in frustration and anger, “They are just dishes. Why are we arguing about this?” And she responded with her tone matching his.

“We’re not arguing about the dishes!”

“What are you talking about?” He said in bewildered disbelief. She calmed down and said the things she had not been able to before.

 “We are arguing about how I feel like I can’t count on you to do what you say you are going to do.”

These feelings were an ongoing theme in the relationship. Many times in the past he would say he was going to do something only to let her down. This time she was able to express her feelings to the person she loved, but he was unable to validate or understand what she was going through or how his actions impacted her.

Five years later, I see this all the time in my office. Couples arguing about something that happened over the weekend, at a friend’s house, or on the car ride home. They spend time telling their side of the story and soon they find themselves arguing again, except this time with me as their audience, and I think to myself;

“You’re not arguing about the dishes.”

Disagreements and arguments have the ability to drive couples apart and build resentment. They also have the ability to build a stronger connection and a better understanding of your partner. Working with couples I have noticed three reasons why couples get stuck in these argumentative cycles, and what they can do to turn their arguments into opportunities for growth. 

Try to recognize and express your feelings

Often couples stay in negative patterns because they never work through what they are actually arguing about. Couples find themselves having the same argument over and over again, each time getting more frustrated that the other person hasn’t changed or is still doing the same thing. Being able to recognize your feelings can help you find out what you are actually arguing about. Suddenly arguments over dishes, money, friends, family, jealousy, turn out to be about feeling minimized, unappreciated, unloved, disrespected, and more. When you are able to examine what is going on inside at that moment, words like disrespected, minimized, not validated, unimportant, not a priority, unloved and countless others pop up. These are powerful words because if you are feeling unloved, no matter how long you argue about the dishes it won’t change that. So when you find yourself in a familiar argument take a minute to examine what’s really going on and try to have an open discussion about how you feel instead of what the other person did.

Avoid putting blame on your partner, by using “I feel” statements.

“You never listen to me and you would rather look at your phone then talk with me” probably won’t be as well received as “when you’re on the phone when we are talking I feel like I’m not a priority or important.” It’s easy to argue about semantics, but you can’t argue about how a person feels.  I mean you can if you want to be incredibly insensitive. I like to believe that when a person tells the one they love that they feel minimized and disrespected, that the other person will respond in a reassuring way. Spending time on the phone might not feel like a big deal, but when your actions make your partner feel like they are not a priority then that is something that should be talked about and worked through, and it’s hard to do that when your statements do not get to the heart of the matter or put the other person on the defensive.

Don’t get defensive

This is easier said than done and hard to master, but if you can, you will find your relationship taking leaps and bounds in terms of communication. When your partner doesn’t recognize how they feel or are unable to articulate their feelings it can be easy to go on the defensive. Going on the defensive usually results in falling into the same argumentative cycle you have been in. It’s hard to have a conversation of understanding when your initial response is to get defensive instead of trying to understand the other person’s point of view. Not getting defensive can also help you to examine your own feelings, and remind yourself that the argument can change to a discussion as soon as you realize you are both working towards the same goal; to build a stronger relationship of trust and love.  

I recognize that these steps are not easy and take time, and if you find yourself unable to do it in the moment I would encourage you to revisit the argument later when you have both calmed down. Try taking a break and using that time to process your feelings. Then try starting the discussion again, but this time understanding your own feelings, using I statements and approaching it with the objective of understanding where your partner is coming from. Doing this even after the argument can help strengthen the relationship, and over time help you to recognize when you are falling into the same cycle before it is too late.