A lot of my work with couples circles back to questions like “What are my dreams?”, “Where am I going?”, “What’s important to me?” and “What’s my purpose?” We want our relationships to reflect our values and the direction our life is headed in. We want our partner to get what’s important to us, especially when we argue. But first we need to figure out what these are, and what better time to start than the new year?
Often there is a mundane “inciting incident” that is a prelude to an argument that is really about values. I’ve talked to two heterosexual couples recently who have had a memorable disagreement about how to chop a pepper. In one case, the man criticised his wife’s method as being wasteful of small amounts of pepper. In the other, the instruction by the wife to “cut the pepper really small” was taken too literally by the husband. Yes, it’s easy to laugh about other people’s seemingly trivial conflicts.
The conversations that they had with me and with each other exposed some dreams and values. In the first case, the man’s habit for relieving stress was to try and control his domestic environment by increasing efficiency and reducing wastage. These were important to him but under stress he took those values to an extreme. Not surprisingly, the woman valued feeling supported and appreciated for her cooking skills more than she valued efficiency in that moment. Couples enjoy discovering what the underlying values during an argument were: that curious approach feels less threatening and they can get validation from each other. Then the healthy conversation they might have with my help goes something like this:
“So when I criticised your pepper-chopping method I was really fixated on not wasting food and being precise and 100% right.”
“OK, interesting, so accuracy and efficiency are really important to you?”
“Yes, exactly! I think it was because I was feeling stressed and that was the only way I could think of to try and relieve it.”
“Right, so you were feeling really stressed.”
“Yes. I lost sight of something else that was more important – appreciating you.”
“Thank you. When you criticised my pepper-chopping skills I felt you didn’t trust or respect my expertise in the kitchen.”
“So you felt me criticising your pepper-chopping skills meant I didn’t think you were a good cook and didn’t trust you to make your own decisions about how to chop a pepper?”
“Yes, exactly! I also felt like you prioritised accuracy and efficiency over our relationship.”
“I’m really sorry you felt that. Right now it seems obvious to me that staying close to you and loving and appreciating you are more important to me than how a pepper is chopped. I’ve got to find a way to remember that in the moment!”
“That would be good. And tell me what you were feeling so stressed about?”
This conversation might sound a bit contrived, but that’s mostly because it’s not familiar (and, of course, less authentic than it might be if YOU said it in your own words). Learning to argue better feels awkward and hard work at first, just like when a tennis coach teaches you a new way to serve and you have to unlearn old habits. But with practice and some good laughs with your coach, this post-argument conversation can become embedded. What seem like intractable conflicts become something to laugh and stay relaxed about. Peppergate becomes a story you tell your friends.
The next step might be to explore where your motivations and drives come from. Mostly they come from childhood and the beliefs we internalise. Why do you feel a desire to control your physical environment? Why does it feel so good to have everything cut and dried (or just cut in the case of peppers)? Why is it so important to you that you are proved right? Why do you criticise your partner when you’re stressed? And why do you take your partner’s instructions about pepper chopping so literally? (You could try writing a healthy conversation for the second couple as a coaching exercise.)
Coaching is a great way to explore these big questions about purpose, values and their origins. It’s a collaborative project which gives you tools and support. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s uncomfortable – that’s how we grow. Exploring who you are and who you want to become in a safe space with someone you can trust and be yourself with, where you feel heard and attended to, is one of the most precious human experiences there is.
And learning to have those conversations during or after arguing with a partner is a way to deepen your connection as well as being an essential skill for a successful relationship.