It’s convenient to assume that relationships go into crisis because of the big betrayals: affairs, fights about money, or withholding of emotional and physical intimacy. Those certainly are the headline grabbing reasons but that’s rarely why people call me for help.
I just completed a review of my past 20 relationship consultations and 14 out of 20 (7 out of 10) of these cases had one thing in common: one or both partners in the relationship had just stopped fighting.
One or both partners just started to go through the motions. One or both of the partners got tired of their needs not being met by their partner so they stopped asking. They stopped trying and they got up, took care of the kids, took care of the house, paid the bills, had the obligatory “how was your day conversation” followed by the TV time on the couch after the kids went to bed.
From the outside looking in, it didn’t look like anyone was on the brink of leaving and that’s actually when I got the call.
One or both would wake up one day and simply realize they couldn’t do it anymore. They couldn’t pretend to be happy. They couldn’t pretend not to be bothered. They couldn’t ignore their hurt or disappointment. They couldn’t just wait until the kids graduated, after all. They were worn out, worn down, and tired of living in a façade of a relationship.
The reason for this comes down to one thing.
The people calling me, as well intentioned as they were, tried to negotiate their needs away.
They told themselves a story that it wasn’t worth the fight, that the right thing to do was to just let the other person have what they wanted. They found a host of reasons for no longer speaking up and they just stopped talking.
At one point they did have the fight.
One husband tried to get his wife to remember the agreement they’d made: they were only going to live in the city for two years but then they’d get a house in the suburbs. Four years later, they were still in their city condo and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even brought it up.
Another called me because he got tired of his wife choosing the needs and preferences of her parents over his preferences. He spent Christmases at places he didn’t want to, lost long weekends doing things he didn’t want to do, and went on vacations with them that he didn’t choose. He wanted more time with just his wife and their kids without having to share that time with his in-laws.
She didn’t want to have the fight with her mom and dad so she asked him “to respect them because they were getting old and their family would have plenty of time together later.” He called me when he found himself lying to his wife, telling her time off hadn’t been approved, so that he could avoid another trip with his in-laws.
Men and women alike came to me with complaints that their partners were resentful of hobbies that took them outside of the relationship. Some wanted more gym time. Some wanted more time with friends. Some wanted to pursue more education or a new job but they were feeling held back because their partners were putting up road blocks, limiting their passions and building piles of resentment.
All of them made the same choice.
They stopped talking, skipped the fight, and just tried to move on. No move out of the city, no vacation without in-laws, no gym time, new class, or evening out with friends. On their own, as isolated things, they didn’t seem like big things to give away or compromise.
When I asked them “Does your partner know you’re calling me? That this is bothering you? That you’re this unhappy?” more often than not, the answer was “Probably not. I haven’t said anything in ages.”
These things that “weren’t worth the fight” were actually their needs . In order to be happy and feel fulfilled in their lives and in their relationships, these people needed these things and compromising them away just didn’t work.
If Needs Were Negotiable, We’d Call Them Wants.
This is the simple reality of every relationship; everyone has needs and those needs are non-negotiable. You can try to ignore them, keep quiet, tell yourself that they don’t matter but that’s just the story you are telling yourself to avoid a hard conversation.
It’s fear of that tough talk that keeps people in a stalled pattern in their relationships. The only way they imagine that conversation going is telling their spouse “Hey, honey, I know you’re not a fan of this but I need x,y, or z” and their spouse saying no and suddenly the two of them are having the deal breaker conversation.
This is where I teach people how to have the tough talk. First one’s on me.
Needs aren’t negotiable. How they’re met is.
The hardest part is starting the conversation. I encourage clients to start at a neutral time and to simply tell their partners what they want them to think, to be as transparent as possible. Just speak your truth clearly:
“I have to talk to you about something and this isn’t going to be easy for me to say. It’s probably not going to be a walk in the park for you to hear, either.
It’s just that I haven’t been happy with us. There’s no way you could know because I stopped speaking up. I know that’s on me and I own it.
Here’s the thing: X time ago, you and I fought because I wanted______. I could tell by your reaction that it upset you and I didn’t want to fight about it so I stopped bringing it up.
I just didn’t stop wanting it though.
I love you and I want us to work but I also want:______ and not having it in my life is causing a problem.
Can we work on this and figure out a way for me to have_______ without you then feeling badly?
It’s not going to work if I just get what I want and you end up feeling badly but there has to be a compromise in here somewhere….”
Yes, I know our lives cannot come perfectly scripted. I know, too, that this is a lot of talking. However, good communication shouldn’t be held to a word count. Saying what you mean, meaning what you say and insuring that your partner is on the same page with you is going to take some words!
Hopefully, though, you can get the gist of what I tried to do there:
Clearly state the need
Come from a place of emotion and connection.
Be clear about your goals and intent
Assure your partner that their needs matter, too
Make a plan for it to actually happen so that you don’t just have a “good talk” about it and end up skipping it all over again.
Get clear on what you need and move to the “how”.
By making your needs non-negotiable, you create an environment where obstacles in meeting those needs get problem-solved and met.
Our needs can’t always get handed to us. Often, it requires give and take and obviously, this is true for both of you and both of your needs.
The man who was feeling stuck in the city talked to his wife again. She was afraid a longer commute would mean less time with the kids at night and more time on the road. They worked it out so they moved to the suburbs and she moved to a part time schedule. Being out of the city, they could afford more with her working less.
The husband who was feeling the constant presence of their in-laws burdensome was guaranteed one holiday a year of his choosing and vacations with in-laws weren’t longer than a weekend. Longer vacations were for family only but his wife would take the kids to her parents during his busy work season, when he wouldn’t be able to go, anyway.
Couples have successfully negotiated the timing and expense of their personal hobbies and passions by negotiating schedules, re-budgeting, and scheduling insured couple time. They have re-established ways of communicating about these issues so they are on the same page before things are scheduled instead of storing resentment after things have passed.
Staying silent doesn’t work.
There are just some things in life that we can’t let go of. It’s on us to distinguish our wants from our needs. Once we identify those needs, it’s also on us to communicate them. Not saying anything just doesn’t work. It creates a crisis of its own and a mess that will be harder to clean up than any need you might have to negotiate.