Communications going from bad to worse.
August 29, 2011 12:21 PM   Subscribe

What are some tips for turning around days where you and your SO just don't seem to be communicating or getting along well?

Everyone once in a while, my lovely wife and I will have a day where we just seem to be constant stepping on each others toes, getting snippy with each other, or generally just not communicating well. It can be caused by outside factors (such as work problems) or internal factors (a joke that I took too seriously). It doesn't happen really often, but when it does, it throws us both off of our game all day, and we can never seem to get enough momentum to get over it.

For example - today, we were both working from home. Our internet went out, which affected her work and made her frustrated. We went out to go run an errand, and she made a joke about an expensive purchase I'd made earlier this week (in context of also having to get an unexpected new set of tires). I thought she was laying into me and took offense. We got back home, and she feels bad about making me feel bad, and I still feel hurt by that. Compound that with the internet not working for her, and neither or us just seems to be able to communicate properly.

It's like a cascade of small bad events caused us both to just be super sensitive or right on edge today.

How do you and your SO turn around these types of days? I'd rather not let the entire day just descend into apologies, sighs, and walking on eggshells on both of our parts. We try stuff like, "Ok, start this whole thing over," but I seem to have more trouble working through things like this than she does.

Again - this happens rarely, like less than once per month. It's just that it completely screws up our momentum for the day.

Any tips? Ideas on how to stop these days from turning into spirals?
posted by SNWidget to Human Relations (40 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Any time this has happened to me, I remove myself from the situation and *gone and done something relaxing*. This last part is crucial. You're too immersed in the situation to see it objectively, and you NEED to give yourself enough space to look at things for how they are.

Only after you've gotten some perspective is it worthwhile trying to re-engage.

Go game, or go for a run, or listen to music or take a bath something. See how you feel after.
posted by LN at 12:25 PM on August 29, 2011

For me, there is usually a legitimate underlying cause: one of us is either hungry, tired, or not feeling well. When I find myself (or him) getting cranky or snippy, I back off and think, "OK, when was the last time I ate or slept? Do I have a headache?" All attempts at communication cease until after the need is met.
posted by phunniemee at 12:31 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Find a way to inject a little (non-hurtful) humor. When I realize this is happening, I usually stop and say, "You sure are cranky today." Usually Dr. Tully Monster will bare his teeth at me and snarl, we make up, and the tension is gone. At times like those, you just have to get over yourselves.
posted by tully_monster at 12:33 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I try to think of it in terms of asking myself, "will what was said change the dynamic of this relationship from now on?" 99% of the time the answer is no. Tomorrow it will be forgotten, nothing has changed for the worst in the relationship, so it doesn't matter.

Remembering this puts things into perspective. Don't worry about "fixing" it in the moment. Just get out of each other's way and reset tomorrow.
posted by halseyaa at 12:33 PM on August 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sit together for a while, in physical contact (or at least close proximity), SAYING NOTHING. Not a damn word. Give backrubs or foot rubs if you can do so freely without it becoming a quid pro quo but don't say anything until you can both take a deep breath and relax. Don't rush it.
posted by jon1270 at 12:34 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

My wife and I do the "countdown from five" trick - she (or I) holds up five fingers, and slowly counts down. When she gets to one, we kiss, and we have agreed that whatever the problem was, it is now over, because the countdown says it is over. This is a contract we have with one another - there is no problem or bad mood or whatever that can survive the countdown.

Done this for years, and the effect is positively magical. It sounds silly, but it works for us.
posted by jbickers at 12:37 PM on August 29, 2011 [17 favorites]

Having sex always seems to work for us (once we get to the "start this whole thing over" stage).

Seriously, some physical contact (hugs, holding hands, cuddling), being "present" with the other person for a few minutes, and saying "I like you!" (or "I love you" or "You're my favorite!"). The other person just has to be ready to meet you halfway.
posted by amarynth at 12:37 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Along the lines of phunniemee, we solve a lot of problems by stopping what we're doing and drinking a big glass of water. It provides a little break, and the world (and your partner) looks a lot better when you're not mildly dehydrated.
posted by juliapangolin at 12:41 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh and if you still want to be right, or argue your case, you should just remove yourself from the situation. Being right is good when you're taking a math test but it is bad news in a relationship.

These are generally less about being right, and more about miscommunication, and then getting on tiptoes for fear of doing it again. It's a bad joke that leads to being hurt that leads to the other person being overly apologetic which leads to the other person feeling bad which blah blah blah...

For me, there is usually a legitimate underlying cause: one of us is either hungry, tired, or not feeling well. When I find myself (or him) getting cranky or snippy, I back off and think, "OK, when was the last time I ate or slept? Do I have a headache?" All attempts at communication cease until after the need is met.

We usually do the HALT thing (don't fight when you're hungry, angry, lonely, or tired), but let's be honest, it's almost impossible to find a time when we've both got all four areas covered. One of us is always one of those things, be it when we're happy together, or we're getting snippy.
posted by SNWidget at 12:43 PM on August 29, 2011

When I realize that those dynamics are going on, I tell my husband that I need to go be by myself. And I go sit on the bed or walk around the neighborhood and try to figure out why I specifically feel like bickering. When I get back (takes about 15 minutes), I tell my husband about the tiny, silly, stupid things that made me lash out at him. He's usually had time to figure it out on his end too by then.

Then, we talk about it. But it's usually a lot easier communication because by simply identifying the moodiness, I realize that I don't want that to mess up any more of our day. (He does too.) So we're actually trying to communicate, compromise, understand. And then physical contact and all the happy stuff seals the deal.

For me though, I really have to take a break. I am passionate and drama-ey and love to argue. If I don't give myself a time-out, nuclear wars tend to break out. And it doesn't work just to start with the touching & hugging b/c then I feel like the issues are being glossed over. And no, it's not ok to be mad for ages over a spouse's snarky comment, but it is ok to explain why the comment was snarky.
posted by Kronur at 12:46 PM on August 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is the perfect time to step away from each other. Not to cool down, but to reorganize and work through your frustrations. Go out and work in a coffee shop. Finish up work, start to relax and meet her at the bar for a drink. After a drink or 2, joke about what a crappy day it was.

At this point, trying to talk through it or actively fix it could cause more tension.
posted by TheBones at 12:46 PM on August 29, 2011

Removing yourself from being directly around each other for a little while is probably the best way to go. Although, I have to say, I think you are too sensitive. Your wife made a comment about an expensive purchase you made earlier in the week. When it comes to expenses, my wife and I(newly weds) have agreed to always discuss any purchases that are greater then $100. This way there's no surprises. Not sure what kind of communication you have about purchases but make sure it's clear. Beyond that if it's something that you feel wasn't a big deal, wasn't that much money, or was something you sincerely needed, and you discussed need to have a joking comeback line for your wife in situations like this. And you need to just let her comments slide unless she comes to you to have serious talk. Otherwise, keeping things light and more sarcastic without letting comments get to you will help your overall relationship. For example. Let's say you bought a new awesome grill so you could barbeque meals outside. She says, "Well maybe if someone hadn't spent so much on their new grill, I'd be able to get new tires without worrying about going broke". You then respond with something along the lines of, "Oh well I guess you won't be eating any of the amazing meals I'll be cooking on that super expensive grill. Sucks for you". Joke around. Have fun. There are times to be serious and times to learn not to take things so seriously. Try to feel it out. As a side note...some people don't deal well with sarcasm. My wife and I base a lot of our relationship on it. And as a result we rarely ever have a real fight. But if you or your wife aren't into it, that could makes things challenging. But it's a suggestion in addition to not being directly around each other for a bit. Hope this helps.
posted by ljs30 at 12:50 PM on August 29, 2011

A simple unexpected hug. That's what always works for us when we have days like that.
posted by Sweetmag at 12:52 PM on August 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: As a side note...some people don't deal well with sarcasm. My wife and I base a lot of our relationship on it. And as a result we rarely ever have a real fight. But if you or your wife aren't into it, that could makes things challenging.

Oh, we speak sarcasm fluently. This was just a sore spot from earlier in the week that she tried as a joke (that I didn't take well). I was already feeling a little defensive about it, and when she joked, I thought it was a swipe and got pissy.
posted by SNWidget at 1:04 PM on August 29, 2011

Shift your environment. Go out to eat, go to a movie, go for a walk, a bike ride, anything. Ideally this would be together, but if you can't say anything without it devolving into a fight, then do these things separately. But don't sit and mope, and don't endlessly review what happened. Stop doing errands and normal routine stuff until you both feel better.
posted by desjardins at 1:07 PM on August 29, 2011

It doesn't necessarily fix the problem immediately, but keep doing little nice things. Even when you're pissed -- especially when you're pissed! Like, pick up your partner's favorite cheese when you pass by the grocery store. It will reinforce, in the back of both your heads, that even though you are both "grar" you do indeed love each other. Do this without expectation of immediate visible effect or of reciprocation; you are just changing the atmosphere ever-so-slightly for the better.

And then, once the mood has passed, if you noticed your partner did things for you -- thank them! "Hey, partner, I wanted to say that when we were so grar yesterday, it really meant a lot to me that you brought me that cup of tea."
posted by wyzewoman at 1:20 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

A hug, and a break from routine things/the day's chores. Watch a funny movie together.
posted by cp311 at 1:30 PM on August 29, 2011

Is the problem that even when you both realize you're in this place, you have a hard time snapping out of it? Or is the problem realizing that you're in this place?

When my husband and I get crossthreaded, I've had good success with just stopping and having each person say 5 things they like about the other person.
posted by KathrynT at 1:34 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I usually go for a 30 minute run or a swim or a bike ride and magically all the things that were so.fucking.annoying disappear or at least turn into little things that can be dealt with unemotionally. It's magic.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:05 PM on August 29, 2011

Also, SNWidget, I wish you the very best of luck with any/all of these strategies, and I hope your day gets better.

My answer to this, which I can't swear will work for anyone other than me, is listening to my favorite music while angrily doing housework. Every time I catch myself thinking, "I can't believe the boyfriend did..." I turn the volume up another notch and scrub harder. The problem with this is that it's not me doing something with him to get past the problem. But 30 - 45 minutes of angsty cleaning makes me realize that I can be over-sensitive and ridiculous sometimes.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 2:16 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, we speak sarcasm fluently. This was just a sore spot from earlier in the week that she tried as a joke (that I didn't take well).

This sounds like a factor, and if it is, my advice is the exact opposite of ljs30's. Tone down the sarcasm. Even if you can normally roll with it, it's really easy to misinterpret it, or to step over the line between cheeky and mean. You can still joke and play around, but lay off the swipes at each other. Ideally, you'd both agree to work on this, but even if you silently decide to reduce the snarking, she'll pick up on it.

If you're already in that spiral of frustration, take a break, give each other space, and do something to clear your head. Changing your location can help a lot, so take a walk. If you start to dwell on what was said, remind yourself that you and your wife are ultimately on each other's side, and that soon enough you'll be fine and happy again.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:35 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great advice, all. My wife's a MeFite, so she'll look over it as well when she gets a chance, and we'll see what we take from it.

She's doing better, but I let it get away from me and spiraled out. I'm going to try to clear my head somehow in the next hour and try to salvage this day, both with my wife and the shit I was supposed to get done today.
posted by SNWidget at 2:51 PM on August 29, 2011

We don't have many snippy days, but when we do, Mr jshort and I find that doing one of our favorite "together" activities helps us break the pattern. Preferably something that requires mental/physical focus - golfing, rock climbing, playing games, etc - so we are too consumed in the activity to continue being snippy.
posted by jshort at 2:56 PM on August 29, 2011

Wrestling! A silly, playful physical struggle trumps all verbal ones and makes you laugh.
posted by rmless at 3:11 PM on August 29, 2011

Even if I'm still prickly, even if I feel like he started it, I'll try to calm down a little, get centered and then smile at him, or lay my arm on his shoulder or otherwise make contact, and say something along the lines of, "I'm sorry I was so snippy. I love you." And then I let it go.
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:15 PM on August 29, 2011

We both always act from the assumption that we didn't mean to hurt/irritate each other, so when we feel hurt/irritated we say that we feel that way and apologize for acting sulky (or whatever) because we know it's irrational. Then the one of us that inadvertently triggered the irrational feeling will smile and say they're sorry, and give the other a hug, and tell the other they love them and never want them to feel bad and are glad to have them. If external factors are causing stress -- for example, right now we're working on moving and it's stressing my husband out -- this might happen a few times a day, as one of us will seem cranky and explain we are stressed or hungry or whatever. The moment itself is almost never awkward and it's over in less than a minute.

Seriously, my parrot often says, "I love you Nattie I'm sorry babe" just because it's a tactic we use a lot.

If you guys are both devolving to walking on eggshells behavior, I wonder if you're really getting the issue sorted out immediately or if you both kind of flee at the first hurt feeling and speed through the apologies/explanations? When someone feels hurt, they really do need the reassurance to feel secure again even if the other person didn't mean it. Or I wonder if you secretly don't believe the other person when they say they didn't mean it? For example, none of what I said would work at all in that case, especially if they DO say passive aggressive things. If that's not the case, remember that once the reassurance has been given it's also the other person's responsibility to actually believe it and quit sulking, and I say that as someone who used to be a sulker. Generally working on self-esteem can help with that, as can being sure that the other person is doing an adequate job of reassuring -- a lot of sulking happens because someone wants reassurance or attention they aren't getting. Also make sure you're not sulking to subtly punish each other or reassure yourself that they do love you because you can see how upset they are about upsetting you; that could be a sign you either aren't getting adequate reassurance or you have low self-esteem, or you could be modeling some twisted (but common) behavior of your parents, or maybe that was the only way you could get your parents' attention, etc. Stuff like that can seriously factor in.

I think what it comes down to is this, just as an example: when your wife apologized, why did you still feel bad? Because if you still feel bad, she is going to walk on eggshells. Did she not reassure you fully? Did you not believe her, and if not, is that because she actually is passive aggressive or because you were feeling raw and wanted to sulk? Or did you want attention from her? Or did you want to see that she was actually upset about hurting you -- and if so, why was her apology inadequate to demonstrate that? Or were you just hungry or stressed about something else? Or is your handling of financial stuff a button you're sensitive to, and you're smarting because you feel the dig you thought you heard was accurate, even if the dig didnt actually exist -- i.e. you feel bad because you fear you suck at handling financial things, not because of anything your wife actually did? It can be anything, but you need to find the reason these feelings linger and address it. What will actually fix the problem is going to depend on what is causing it.
posted by Nattie at 5:33 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also make sure neither of you initially reacts negatively or defensively to the other getting upset; if the other person gets pissed or makes you feel stupid or oversensitive, you're not going to feel secure even once they apologize.

Also make sure neither of you is accusatory or angry when you initially get upset, because it will make the other defensive and they'll feel sad and ashamed and wary to engage with you lest it provoke another explosion -- after all, they didn't see the last one coming.
posted by Nattie at 5:41 PM on August 29, 2011

Eeesh. At the risk of sounding humorless, I would try to stay away from sarcasm as much as possible, even in making jokes. It's one of those things that may seem rather harmless at the outset but tends over time to slowly morph into outright hostility.

John Gottman, the psychology researcher who observes couples' interactions with each other and claims to be able to predict fairly accurately whether or not they will divorce, says that couples whose interactions are frequently sarcastic are likely to have serious problems in the future, not least because the recipient of the sarcasm at some point ceases to be able to differentiate between a joke and an insult.

It sounds like something like that might have happened to you, even though you didn't intend to hurt your wife's feelings. Over the years, we've found that making sure all our interactions are loving and respectful has kept our marriage that way.
posted by tully_monster at 5:48 PM on August 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Apologise, forget it, have sex.


Go out of the house for the afternoon but come back with a bunch of flowers.
posted by joannemullen at 5:49 PM on August 29, 2011

At my house, this would be an occasion for a Snuggle Nap.
posted by beandip at 5:56 PM on August 29, 2011

Ooops...I'm so sorry. Rather, I should say, when your wife hurt your feelings, even though she didn't intend to. Regardless, maybe you should both agree to declare a moratorium on any and all sarcasm and see what happens.
posted by tully_monster at 6:16 PM on August 29, 2011

I have no good solution, but I wanted to share that I love the pinky swear idea. When I get all tangled up with my SO, I often think it's because I'm taking life way too personally and seriously. I think a goofy reminder would help me remember to try to get over myself.
posted by lillygog at 7:18 PM on August 29, 2011

Oh I have this too. (And it's usually my fault! Ugh, I hate being the jerk.) What we seem to do is: go to a private space for 15 or 30 minutes, and then one of us yells "HONEY! GET IN HERE!!!" and then there's hugging or mocking or playing or whatever—but engagement, and introduction of a new topic. ("Look at this thing I saw/read/made/heard/etc. while I was alone.")
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:23 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've tried variations of most of the suggestions above, but what I've found works the best is:

"I'm sorry, I'm cranky." [pause] "Got anything that needs sucking?"
posted by MexicanYenta at 4:01 AM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

In retrospect:

If I am wrong, I am subtlely herded over to 'right' by her quietly and calmly and without me even knowing.

If she is wrong I blow up - far too quickly - and we have a row. And then she also admits the wrongness, but makes me feel bad for being a dik and blowing up in the first place.

My point is, I think we have worked it out now and this is just how it is. And I am happy with that. Hold on a second.....

I just asked her and she says she is happy with that too.
posted by fatmouse at 7:36 AM on August 30, 2011

We step out of the dynamic a la Pierrot le Fou [SLYT], and talk to him as if we were the audience in our relationship.

Something like...

You: GRAR your joke wasn't funny and life sucks
Me: GRAR internet doesn't work and life sucks

***some one breaks the fourth wall***

You: Hey, let's start over and have a good time. We're having a day together away from the office, after all!
Me: Yeah, we were being so whiny!

You and Me go have a coffee with a chill pill, and the day improves like crazy.
posted by Tarumba at 8:06 AM on August 30, 2011

*him = the other. (I was doing the example in first person first)
posted by Tarumba at 8:07 AM on August 30, 2011

I'm surprised more answers don't include touching. Personally I'm not one to have sex to get over being angry/disappointed with my SO but touching always helps. (Incidentally, it often leads to sex but by that point, the problem has been solved.)

Studies have shown (sorry for a lack of reference - it's been a while) that people are significantly more understanding when touching the person they're trying to understand.
posted by at 7:32 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

We sometimes go for sarcasm here when one of us realizes it's a totally pointless argument: "hey we should get into a big fight about this." "I just want you to know that being right about which crackers are cheaper is really, really important to me."

Then there's also extreme earnestness that gets at the totally "embarrassing" "childish" and basically real emotional core. It might help to couch all of these with "there is this tiny part of me that feels totally ___ because it is thinking..." "...what if we have five more tire emergencies this week and end up with no money," " must not love me if you don't consult me about buying yourself a fancy guitar," or "...just because i spent a lot of money doesn't mean I'm a bad person whom nobody should love!" I think this second approach -- say what really matters to you -- is better, but it's easier said than done.
posted by salvia at 7:32 PM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

The book "Anger" by Thich Nhat Kanh has many useful tips for positive communication to be applied in situations such as this, I recommend it to you.
posted by masters2010 at 8:38 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

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