Can you help my boyfriend and me deal with our occasional small disagreements better? We are both quite conflict-averse, timid almost, and most of the time it means we are well matched.
But we both take criticism – or anything that might be construed as criticism – deeply to heart, and so if we try to explain why we said the thing we said, which the other person thought was impatient or unkind, we just make it worse. We never get into a full-blown row but just sulk for a few hours, by which time everything seems OK again.
The thing is I don’t think it would be very healthy for us to argue more freely – a previous partner was extremely fond of a row and it just made me feel browbeaten and a little abused, to be honest.
I know lots of people make a big fuss about it being better not to beat around the bush but I think many, or even most, of those people just say things like that to make a smoke screen for their own malicious tendencies. There must be an honest and kind way of working out these differences – but what?
— Anne, Gloucs
Your letter reminded me of that famous spoof headline by veteran journalist Claud Cockburn: ‘Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead.’ In other words… exactly what’s the story, here?
Don’t get me wrong, Anne – I’m not dismissing your concerns in any way. Not at all. But I do think you (and your partner) need a little perspective. I think you’re in danger of elevating a relatively small problem into something it isn’t. I have friends – and family – who would give their eye teeth to be able to quarrel on the level you and your boyfriend do. What were the words you used to describe your rows? ‘Small… occasional.’ Well, lucky you!
Let me put it like this. Supposing you had friends who were in a relationship marked by endless, exhausting confrontations? Imagine they went for therapy, and their arguments were initially defined as ‘frequent and explosive’. But after a few months of counselling, that definition had shrunk into ‘small and occasional’. Result!
It seems to me you are extremely well matched. Neither of you is happy with conflict, which is why you’re both so good (usually) at avoiding it.
But conflict in any relationship is unavoidable, Anne. And when it occurs in yours, your shared instincts are to damp it down, minimise it, mute it. Sure, that may mean a few hours of repressed frustration and sulkiness, but look at the payoff. You haven’t said damaging, hurtful things to each other. You haven’t been horribly destructive. There’s no smoking rubble, just the odd cracked window.
In other words, a small earthquake – not a seismic catastrophe. So I honestly don’t think you have a problem, Anne. In fact, on reflection, I actually think you’re rather blessed. Like a lot of my readers I’m sure, I envy you!
You can find more of Richard Madeley’s advice here or submit your own dilemma below.