Written by Adam Martin, LPC,
Mental Health and Relationship Counselor
We’ve all been there; we’re having a good day and then we feel the climate unexpectedly shift within our relationship. Why? What happened? What caused the sudden change in emotion from positive to negative? Why did their behavior impact me so much? Should I say something?
These are just a few of the numerous questions that come flooding into our minds as we sense a change. Either a change in our own feelings due to our partner, or when we sense a change in our partner. Along with these questions can come fear; fear about if and how we should deal with it. So the real question becomes: What can I do about that paralyzing fear?
In many relationships, there is an underlying theme of fear in communication. When something happens, one party is playing 20 questions in their mind and seem to more often than not fall into the “play it safe” mentality. This can be for many reasons: you’ve been dealing with some stressful issues lately and don’t want to add to the number of things that need to be addressed; things have been going well lately and you don’t want to derail the progress; you want to avoid an argument; you don’t want to hurt the others’ feelings; you are tired of hearing how “all you do is complain”, or you convince yourself that “talking never works”. For one reason or another we choose day after day to let these changes go unaddressed, but at what cost?
Allowing these issues to go unaddressed can do many things to a relationship, and they are rarely positive. Without immediately realizing it, resentment starts to build, doubt gets infused into the relationship, emotions run higher, irritability and frustration are more easily triggered, and couples start drifting apart. Often times one of the people in the relationship is completely unaware that there is an ever-growing void developing until it has reached critical mass. This means that there is one party in the relationship that feels they are carrying the entire emotional burden alone, thus furthering the buildup of resentment towards the other for not caring, helping, or noticing. In the meantime, the other person ends up feeling stuck due to feeling totally blindsided by this information.
Before things get that far, those questions that seem to have no end, believe it or not, serve a purpose. They are present to alert you to a potential issue before it gets out of hand, much like a “check engine” light for your car. This little light is there to minimize the potential damage to something very valuable and important. When your engine breaks down, it increases the difficulty of day to day functioning much like the fear in communication does the same for your relationship. Yes, you can ignore the light and continue to cruise along day after day, all the while convincing yourself that everything is fine because your engine “seems” fine. But there will be a time you will desperately need your engine and you will start to wonder why it’s not working the way it should.
So how do you address these questions without causing the very thing we are afraid will happen? Here are a few helpful hints that may make it easier: First, there is no rule that requires us to approach, discuss, and solve the problem upon its immediate presence. So, take your time. There is no rush. It is much better to approach issues correctly rather than swiftly. Second, do not give in to fear. This allows you to be in control instead of at the mercy of your emotions. The importance of taking your time to approach the situation will really help here. Eventually the fear will diminish. After taking your time and thinking it over, you can approach the topic with less emotion (frustration, fear, anxiety, etc) thus increasing your chances for success. One of the worst times to address issues is when one or both people involved are emotionally elevated. Last, make sure that you are addressing the situation (behavior) and not the person (your partner). We want our partner to know that the behavior is bothersome and not them as a person. Make sure that you put thought and effort into your approach, being sure to communicate with the right heart and tone. Failing to do so may only reinforce fear in the relationship. If your partner feels loved and supported as a person they can better deal with the
behavior, eventually showing you that there is nothing to fear in communication.