It must have been a bit intimidating for Stephanie the first time she and Joe had a disagreement and she realized that she was married to the son of a judge who grew up arguing for fun. How is someone who is naturally conflict-adverse supposed to handle that?
To both Joe and Stephanie's credit, they were able to turn what could have been a major point of friction for the two of them into an incredible relationship growing and learning experience. They are a great example of disagreeing without being disagreeable. In fact, they showed how we can even be supportive of one another when we disagree! Stephanie and Joe definitely give us a great example of how we can support each other, even when it's difficult.
Asking for Support
We all have needs. Unique temperaments and upbringings make us our own special constellation of traits and tendencies. It is important for any relationship to take those into account, especially when you are trying to get something done or an issue resolved. When we are resolving issues it is easy to see our own needs as a fault in our partner. We end up demanding change rather than asking for support. When we have an unfulfilled need we focus on how our partner is not fulfilling that need, rather than on the need itself. When we express it in such a way to our partner it feels like criticism and triggers defensiveness. As a result, the problem only gets worse. When we can use our own emotions as clues to what personal need isn’t being met rather than as a way to identify a weakness in our partner, it is much easier to ask for support. Asking for support is much more likely to be met with a positive response than is demanding change. Our partners aren’t mind-readers and they have needs of their own. We must learn to ask for what we need clearly, with a little bit of flexibility. Check out the Relationship Challenge of the Week below for the formula of how to do this.
Supporting and Encouraging Growth
Encouraging is more than just being nice, or even being nice about our partner’s goals. It’s also about nurturing your partner’s growth as a person. This starts with having a genuine interest, understanding, and investment in our partner's growth. We need to engage with our partners about their interests and goals and learn from them. Being interested enough to learn is in itself very nurturing because simply being seen is a powerful affirmation of worth and connection. That understanding is the foundation of our ability to actually support our partner’s attempts to pursue their goals and reach their potential. Nurturing and supporting our partners in their individual pursuits builds the relationship, even if that means sacrifice on our part. When people grow they are healthier, happier, and they have more to give. The more our partner grows, the more they have to bring back to the relationship. When our partners become more than they are, the relationship can become more than it is.
Relationship Challenge of the Week
Practice discovering and expressing personal needs. When an emotion comes up, start by identifying and expressing that emotion as neutrally as possible. “I’m feeling _____.” After you have identified the emotion, take a minute to find the need that is under that emotion.
Next, express that need in terms of yourself. “I need ____” rather than “I need you to _____.” The second construct often comes off sounding like criticism. If we are annoyed that our partner isn't spending more time with us, say "I feel unconnected. Could you support me in this need by talking to me about my day?" rather than "you spend all day staring at your phone! Can you put that thing down and talk to me?" Be specific about what your emotional need is, and how your partner can help you with this need. We all like to feel needed by our partner; we all hate feeling criticized.
Go through this process at least three times this week. Practice, practice, practice!
Note: It helps to start with something less emotionally-charged. Get some experience under your belt before you jump into the tough stuff! Only when you are feeling comfortable should you try to do it with a “hot” issue. Try expressing a need to your partner that has nothing to do with them. This way you can get used to the process with minimal risk of inadvertently coming across as offensive. And if you do come across more hash then you'd like to? Be kind to yourself! It's a learning process, and we've all been there before.
Also, watch out for have other external discomforts such as being tired, hungry, distracted, etc. This can add an additional level of emotions that has nothing to do with the need you're trying to express.
Things that can help:
Tell your partner what you are trying to do. Ask for their patience as you learn this new skill. If it makes sense for both of you try practicing a few hypotheticals together to get you in the flow of it.
Actually stop the conversation and take a minute to write down the feeling and the need. It only takes a minute and can help you to come across more clearly. If you are doing this, let your partner know that's what you're doing! Just say "I need a moment to collect my thoughts." This comes across much better than just shutting down for a minute while you write.
Don’t expect it to be great the first time. Even if you fall flat on your face, try again!
Look at this list of common needs if you’re having a hard time seeing your own:
I feel scared, I need to feel safe
I feel overwhelmed, I need to calm down
I feel alone, I need connection
I feel confused, I need to talk or write to figure out my thoughts
I feel unlovable, I need to be reminded of the love we have for each other
I feel wrong, I need to take back what I said
I feel intimidated, I need us to take a stand but be gentle
I feel misunderstood, I need to know what you’re hearing and how you’re understanding me
I feel dismissed, I need to remind myself why this is important
I feel cut off, I need space and time to share a complete thought
I feel criticized, I need to separate ideas and opinions from who I am as a person
I feel tired, I need a break, can we come back to this in 20 minutes (or another specific time)?
(Inspired by John Gottman’s list of needs p 173 of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, but we added the feeling part and did some rephrasing)