Have you found yourself avoiding conversations you really want to have with your spouse for fear of starting an argument? Is timing for those difficult conversations not right? Does the timing never seem right? Based on my conversations with others as a life coach, many couples shy away from initiating heart-felt and meaningful conversations because of the emotional repercussions. Some dating, engaged, and married relationships have developed unhealthy behavior patterns, where one or both suffer to some extent with what I refer to as “walking on egg shells.” The couple fails to realize the long-term damage that avoided conversation, verbal eruptions, and hurt feelings have on the relationship. Empowered with awareness, communication strategies, and practice, any couple can turn “walking on egg shells” into “walking on sunshine.”
This coach has walked on egg shells too!
Is it achievable that couples can have no filters and be able to fully express themselves to their partner? The answer is yes. Commonly, life coaches have walked in the same footsteps as their clients. I have crushed a few egg shells in my life walk. I have journeyed from conversations with my first husband, which were limited to daily tasks, childcare, and surface level talk to avoid anticipated arguments, to freely bringing up meaningful and difficulty subjects with my second husband at any time without concern. I am not suggesting you need to change spouses to experience healthier conversation, but both spouses need to commit to choose mindsets and communication approaches that honor themselves, spouse, and the marriage.
Conflict should be viewed as an invitation to create greater intimacy where both can be vulnerable, open, and honest. How successful couples are in sustaining a happy and fun-filled marriage will be grounded in their willingness to deal with relationship conflict as well as manage emotions and relationship expectations. How does a couple get from “walking on egg shells” to feeling respected, accepted, and loved? It all starts with first understanding what you are really arguing about.
What was that argument really about?
“We seem to always fight about small, unimportant stuff!” and “Our issues never seem to get resolved!” are two common complaints expressed by couples. What is really going on? Although every couple’s circumstances are unique, for many couples the underlying dynamics are typically twofold.
First, when most couples argue, they are often unaware that trigger events are masking unresolved relationship issues, which may include those fundamental differences in views, beliefs, and expectations regarding money, sex, communication, religion, recreation, careers, parenting, and household chores. For example, arguments over a clothing purchase may be unresolved conflict over how each spouse views the role of money in their relationship. The wife may be a saver, who typically shops discount stores, because she favors financial security. She becomes anxious and argumentative with her status-driven husband purchases a $100 designer tie. This couple has not discovered their personal drivers which are affecting their views of money stewardship or found a compromise position they could mutually live with. The argument may be centered around an expensive tie purchase, but the issue which should be explored is how each spouse views the role of money in their lives.
On a deeper level, hidden issues focus on needs such as acceptance, safety, love, respect, and control. In another example, despite his wife’s repeated request to put the toilet seat down after use, the husband continues to forget. He does not understand why this is so important to his wife, especially since he has no issue with lifting it up. His lack of consideration results in an emotionally charged response, “If you only cared enough, I wouldn’t have to remind you all the time to put the toilet seat down!” The event that triggers the argument is the position of the toilet seat; however, the underlying issue that may need to be discussed in how well the wife feels loved and respected by her husband. You should differentiate between an event and the underlying issue, so you know what you need to constructively address.
Second, many couples find themselves having the same arguments over and over, because they never resolve the relationship need. In some cases, couples may understand the relationship issue acting at the heart of their arguments but lack the skills to resolve it. These couples fall into a behavior pattern where they avoid discussing the issue during times of peace, leaving it to get raised during a crisis event, where it becomes difficult to resolve. Markham, Stanley, and Blumberg (2010) found that most couples avoid being proactive in bringing up the issues when situations are calm, because they want to enjoy the good times. Hence, couples typically enter a cycle of petty, emotionally-charged arguments again and again.
How do you start having those difficult conversations?
Some couples find themselves in an anxious pattern of avoiding conflict, which ultimately leads to “walking on eggshells.” Markham et al. (2010) found that marriage health suffers when spouses do not feel relaxed around their partners. How can you get back on track so you are having those important conversations, getting the issues on the table, and resolving conflict? Consider adopting these attitudes and communication strategies for your next conversation.
- Schedule a relaxed time to talk about hidden issues in your relationship where desires, expectations, feelings, and needs can be shared, and you can feel truly known.
- Self-reflect on what you need from your partner and marriage to feel loved and accepted. Be prepared to ask for what you want without the expectation of receiving it.
- Be receptive and non-judgmental in hearing authentic messages from your partner. Your goal should be to learn, understand, and respect your spouse’s point of view, even if you do not agree with it.
- Listen not only to your spouse’s words but the underlying feelings. Refrain from defending yourself and your position, but instead paraphrase back to your partner what you heard, because it affirms your spouse and confirms your understanding.
- Own your feelings. Attacks start with “You make me mad when you leave your dirty socks on the floor, and I have to pick them up” and ownership starts with “I feel overwhelmed when I come from work and still see your dirty socks laying on the floor.”
- Approach the conversation with the intention of glorifying the marriage and not winning your position. Husband and wife are teammates who sacrifice and support each other for the benefit of the marriage.
- Adjust your expectations. Reflect on whether your expectations of your spouse are realistic given his/her personality, strengths, and weaknesses. What adjustments are you willing to make? What are your negotiables and non-negotiables?
- Do not bite off more than you can chew. Start small by setting a simple agenda for one topic you will talk through thoroughly. Take turns explaining how each of you have contributed to the problem, share your perceptions, facts, and feelings. Do not try to solve the issue until both parties have fully expressed themselves.
- Brainstorm options on how to solve the problem. Compromise or in some instances concede to the desires of your partner. One wife I know said, “I let him win when it’s really important to him, and he lets me win when it’s important to me.” Although marriage conversations are not about creating winners and losers, her point illustrates the gracious giving that one spouse can give to the other.
- Get specific with examples. If you share how you would feel more loved from your spouse, provide examples. Instead of saying, “I want more surprises to feel loved by you,” instead plant the seed, “I would feel more loved if you surprised me twice a year by sending me flowers at the office.”
- Agree on specific actions. Take turns summarizing what you agreed to, and ideally, commit those actions to paper to avoid future disagreements caused by faulty memories and misinterpretations.
- Practice, practice, practice. Adopting new communication behaviors does not come without challenges as you try to break old behaviors. Do not give up, because the health of your marriage is at stake. If needed, call a time out if you feel yourself getting too emotionally charged. A time out includes agreement on when you will reconvene, whether that be 15 minutes or 2 hours. A time out is not designed to avoid the conversation but to give space for emotions to calm, so both spouses can continue speaking and listening respectfully.
Give yourself and your spouse plenty of patience and grace
As you work through each of your hidden relationship issues, keep in mind this is a journey. In some cases, the conversation may not ultimately resolve an issue, but conflict can be managed just by letting the issue be fully and respectfully aired. What is important is for both a husband and wife to feel truly heard and be able to authentically express themselves, their worldview, and their feelings within the safety of their marriage without the pressure to agree. As two individuals, you may agree to disagree.
Embracing the right attitudes and approaches will help a husband and wife manage the inevitable conflict that every couple has without damaging the relationship. Avoidance or emotionally charged conflict can harm the marriage, because hurtful words or avoidance can lead spouses to redirect their time and energy away from their partner toward other relationships with children, friends, extended family, careers and hobbies to get their needs met. Friendship is one of the strongest bonds for a happy marriage and pursuing that friendship is critical to a healthy marriage. Friendship is co-constructed in healthy conversation and getting each other’s needs met.
Taking marriage to the next level
If you find you and your spouse have worked through most of your relationship issues, you may want to take your conversations to a new level by creating a marriage mission. Marriage excitement and commitment build when a couple takes a longer term view of their relationship. A marriage mission statement can help define the purpose of your marriage and guide it by defining activities, behaviors, and goals that you live out as a couple. Marriage mission statements can also help couples with decision-making, because decisions should align with the marriage purpose. If you decide to create a marriage mission statement, you can post it on the refrigerator as a daily reminder on why you both are in it together.
Markman, H., Stanley, S., & Blumberg, S. (2010). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a professional coach, consultant, and mentor with an extensive background in business development, leadership, and ministry which provides her with the experience, relational skills, and proven processes to move individuals, couples, and leaders to higher levels of personal awareness, effectiveness, and goal achievement. She coaches in a variety of areas including life purpose and plans, business, finances, and premarital/marriage.