Dealing with differing problem-solving styles.
January 4, 2012 9:58 AM   Subscribe

How do my girlfriend and I deal with differing styles of communication? I'm a wait to talk it out person, and she's a talk it out now person.

When one of us is upset, I like to take time to think about how I feel about the situation, gather what I'm going to say, and try to identify the real issue and possible solutions. Then I like to come back and talk about it so I can say "This situation bothered me because X." or "I'm sorry I did X, that was wrong of me because Y and I won't do it again."

I might try talking it out at the time but if emotions get too high or I feel like I'm going to cry or something I prefer to take time to cool off. If she starts crying or getting angry, I instantly freeze up and want to leave the situation until we've cooled down. I know this means I totally suck at comforting her at times, and yeah I need to work on that.

If we decide to talk later I'm perfectly capable of going about my day and cheering up and not really thinking of the issue and talking about things later, or just not talking about them if I find that after some time I'm no longer upset about the issue.

My girlfriend is the opposite. She likes to talk things out at the moment, express how she's feeling and get the conversation over with. She feels alone when I avoid the conversation, and while I'm off taking time to cool off she'll be upset and beating herself up until we can resume the conversation. It also tends to make her more upset if we wait to talk about things because she believes in talking things out and not going to bed angry. If I start to cry, I'll generally try to leave and she'll wrap her arms around me and won't let me go until I cry on her shoulder because she wants to be there for me and hates to leave me alone when I'm upset.

She's told me that when we leave an issue alone she'll often end up going to bed crying and feeling alone that night. She likes to solve problems by getting all the emotions out there, solving the problem or apologizing or what-have-you at that moment and then cuddling together while we make sure we've gotten everything out there so there's no lingering anger/upsetness.

The differing styles have caused a problem with solving things. A lot of the time, I'll want to talk about it later but she won't leave until I talk about it. I feel pressured to have the conversation, which generally results in me not really contributing much to the talk and her feeling worse because of it. When I do talk about it, I'll either hit a point where I feel like crying and want to leave the room, which doesn't go well, or we'll make up but I'll feel resentful about being "forced" to talk about something when I wasn't ready.

On the other hand, when she agrees to let something go until later she usually feels like I didn't care enough about her feelings to try to resolve what was upsetting her. Or she'll feel like I'm making things about me and what I need at the time (to be alone.) It really, really upsets her if we're having an argument and I ask her to leave, which is what I tend to do if I find myself getting too upset. She's told me she feels like she has to be upset alone.

We're both really happy with each other otherwise. We talked about the possibility of just not being right for each other and both agreed that we want to stay together. However, we really need to find a compromise for this issue. She suggested a compromise that if I don't want to talk about something until later that's fine, as long as I give her a hug when she's feeling upset instead of trying to exit the situation. I agreed, but I feel like that's not fair to her because in the end we're still not talking about it.

I'm sure we're not the only couple with these differing styles, so what are some compromises you've found?

Additional maybe relevant info: We're both women. I'm 21 and she's 22. We've been seeing each other for eight months. I've tried to describe the communication styles equally so hopefully I don't come off as biased! I love this girl so much and really want to work things out.
posted by Autumn to Human Relations (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
She suggested a compromise that if I don't want to talk about something until later that's fine, as long as I give her a hug when she's feeling upset instead of trying to exit the situation. I agreed, but I feel like that's not fair to her because in the end we're still not talking about it.

She suggested a compromise that works, why are ignoring what she explicitly said was ok? She's reassured, ya'll will talk about it later, once you've sorted through your feelings, so that's a WIN WIN right?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:04 AM on January 4, 2012 [20 favorites]

I think the problem is that when you defer your emotional reaction and communication on the issue, there's really no way for her to know how big a deal it is for you, or to know with any certainty whether you indeed intend to circle back around and deal with it later. And if can be infuriating to be going through something and watch someone (whom it also affects) blithely going about their business as if they haven't a care in the world.

If you need to buy time to sort out your feelings, then I think that EVERY TIME THIS COMES UP, you need to try to let her know clearly that:

A) it is a serious thing for you, too
B) you will get back to her on it at x time on y date (yes, be specific so that she feels this will really happen)
C) If her thoughts or feelings change significantly in the meantime or become too much to bear, she is welcome to approach you about them

That last one is important. It won't help your own process any if she ends up storing all sorts of emotion and then unleashes it on you like a firehose when you're finally ready to talk. Better to have a lower-stakes discussion earlier than you counted on than a higher-stakes one when you're at you're best. If you have to talk about it sooner than you'd like, then maybe try reminding her as you talk that you are still sorting out your own feelings, but that if they change you'll let her know right away.
posted by hermitosis at 10:06 AM on January 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm a 'talk it out now' person and my husband is more like you. I've basically come to realise that I need to back off more because looking at it objectively, I think the need to analyse an issue trumps the urge to just hash things out. More often than not, I've found that resisting that urge has paid off- in the heat of the moment I tend to make poorly worded points or generally serve to further frustrate my partner, and end up feeling like I'm berating him since he's not ready to respond. This makes us both feel worse than we often did to begin with!

I know this isn't a great answer for how to compromise from your end, but adjusting to the dynamic has helped me a great deal. I found that once we'd established our different approaches to communication, we were better able to cope with them clashing, and he tends to be more receptive when I can't help but press an issue right then and there. Clearly, it's give and take. I do find I have to compromise my needs more, but only because I tend see them as more flexible anyway, as I said initially. The fact is I'll still be just as ready, if not more, given time to think about the issue, but he won't be ready until he's ready, so why not wait unless it's immediately important?
posted by sunshinesky at 10:09 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Find a good relationship/marriage counselor. You both seem to want to work through it, you've identified the problem, so you're like 75% of the way there! It sounds like you just need a neutral third party to mediate, maybe guide you a bit, help you both settle on a solution that works, and help you follow through with developing that solution.

(Don't be afraid to fire your counselor, either. Your first might turn out to not understand you or is just awful at their job.)
posted by introp at 10:20 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Getting The Love You Want suggests following a particular dialogue structure when discussing difficult topics. Standard-issue active listening, which is a commonly suggested technique that involves having one person saying something while the other listens as carefully as possible and then reflects what they've heard until they get it right. The "couple's dialogue" is an enhanced version of that.

When one of you needs to talk about something, the first step would be to approach the other and say, "I have something I need to talk about. Are you available?" The other can say yes or no, but if the answer is no then they're required to specify a time that they will be available to talk, and they're to try very very hard to make sure that time is within 24 hours. So, you get some flexibility about when you talk, but only within the 24hr constraint which helps the other person feel confident that their important issue isn't just going to be ignored. There's more to this particular structure (careful listening, reflection of what was heard, validation, empathy and, when the other person is ready, feedback), but the start is most relevant to your question.

The bit about feeling overwhelmed and being unable to keep talking is what John Gottman calls being "flooded." When that happens, it should be okay to stop and do what you need to regain your emotional bearings. You can say, "I'm getting flooded," and follow with a request like, "I need a hug," or "I need a minute to calm down," or whatever.

she won't leave until I talk about it. I feel pressured to have the conversation, which generally results in me not really contributing much to the talk and her feeling worse because of it.

At least part of the deal here is that when you cave and talk when you're not ready, you're TRAINING her to apply that pressure in such situations because the pressure has worked in the past. You'll need to learn to lovingly stand your ground and say things like, "I love you but I'm not ready to handle this right now. Can we talk about it after dinner?"
posted by jon1270 at 10:26 AM on January 4, 2012

Best answer: As I'm more like sunshinesky's husband above, my first impulse is to say 'are you sure you need to change?' But seriously, I think it's great that you are willing to meet her half way on this. But don't back down all the way just because she's hurting in the moment. We tried to do that -- we tried to always talk it out (or more accurately fight it out) because my partner was always demanding to deal with it now and we lived together in a small apartment, so it felt like our only choice. We eventually realized that that can be toxic -- and it was a lesson that he learned as well. We both were better off sometimes just taking a moment (or a while) to think rather than react, and our relationship is a lot better for it. (I can't remember the last time we had a real fight.)

Like has been mentioned above, it might be a lesson worth teaching for her as well. Comforting her is not the same as giving in though. A hug -- or any sort of thing that lets her know 'I still love you even though we're arguing' is often all it takes. Sometimes realizing that can even make your head clear anyway.

But if you aren't ready to talk, it's probably just plain better off if you don't.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:32 AM on January 4, 2012

Why is it important for her to talk it out now and not go to bed angry? Why do you freeze up and feel the need to leave when emotions run high? If you two haven't talked about your reasons, you should. It may give you a way to compromise that meets both of your needs.

Her compromise suggestion that you give her a hug makes me think that one reason it's important to her to talk things out immediately is that she wants reassurance that you still love her. Giving her a hug and saying, "I love you, and I want to work this through with you, but I need to be by myself for a little while to think," or otherwise being physically there for her without necessarily talking things over right then, may work for both of you.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:36 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am your girlfriend, my husband is you. It's really upsetting to have him just blow me off and go do other things, like my hurt doesn't matter to him, and to have him insist on not dealing with the issue until HE wants to. Like his feelings are a big deal, but mine are just me being hysterical.

I don't actually believe any of that is real or objective, of course. But that's absolutely how it feels. We've been together for 16 years and have gotten pretty good about dealing with this issue. This is the sort of rough script that we use:

I say "This is really upsetting to me, I feel hurt/scared/angry/whatever and those feelings aren't going to go away until this is resolved."

He says "I understand that this is really upsetting to you, and that you are hurt/scared/angry/whatever. I don't want you to feel that way longer than you have to. I need time to collect my thoughts so that I can work through this effectively, though. Can I have an hour to do that?"
"I understand that this is really upsetting to you, and that you are hurt/scared/angry/whatever. Unfortunately, right now I really have to finish this task / take a shower / change our baby's diaper / some other task, or there will be bad consequences. I will come back to you as soon as I'm done, OK?"

Then he says "I love you, and this is important to me," and gives me a hug.

Then, and this is key, he does exactly that. He goes off and works through his feelings and comes back in an hour, or he finishes up his task and then comes back to deal with it. He doesn't go off and play video games for the whole afternoon, or read news articles and talk to me excitedly about interesting developments in politics, or anything like that. He makes the resolution of our conflict a priority. Meanwhile, I spend the time reminding myself that he loves me and that people are different, and getting MY thoughts organized so that I know exactly where the seed of my discomfort is. It's really helped our conflict resolution.

There is nothing wrong with needing some time to organize and collect your thoughts on your own before launching into discussion with your partner. In a lot of ways, it helps things proceed a lot more smoothly. But for the partner who is left hanging, it feels very de-prioritizing and vulnerable. It will be easier for your girlfriend if you take pains not to reinforce that impression.
posted by KathrynT at 10:50 AM on January 4, 2012 [27 favorites]

Best answer: It is possible that when you retreat, part of why she gets increasingly upset is that she's doomsaying in the interim. (That would be things like "blah blah blah and how can we ever be together if this is happening and oh my God we're going to BREAK UP and then these catastrophes will happen and and and...") You could check with her on this, because if that's the case, providing reassurance before departing may give you both a lot of what you need.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:18 AM on January 4, 2012

My wife and I laugh about it, mostly.

Not to say it doesn't matter. But it's a subject of some amusement, later on, how difficult it is for me when she's upset/crying.

I think you're doing really well. You've identified a conflict, talked about it and determined the basic underlying stuff, and you've come up with a compromise of sorts. And you worry how fair it is to her. What more do you think you need?

If you'll let me pull old-geezer on you here, at this point I think the biggest thing you sound like you need is more practice. Each of you needs to work on letting the other handle things in your own way when the stakes are lower.

You're the one who's most upset or wronged in a circumstance? (Let's say it's your ruined sweater because she left it in the rain) Then she has to grit her teeth and accept that she can't impose her way of coping onto you by insisting on holding you tight. When she's the one more upset you need to resist your urge to flee and let her cry/talk/vent while you hold her.

I swear, it gets easier. Maybe not the differing communication styles, but being more comfortable saying "I really need to mull this over for a little bit before I talk about it" does. So does listening and noticing the cues, and finding ways to give her what she needs while honoring your methods. She's meeting you half-way, which is pretty huge.
posted by phearlez at 1:43 PM on January 4, 2012

I was your girlfriend. It's really helped me to focus on taking responsibility for my own feelings rather than expecting anyone else to soothe me. I learned that taking some time on my own could give me space to make myself feel better and I didn't need to expect my partner to do that for me. So I'm all for each person in a relationship being able to handle their own emotions. (And I think that in lesbian relationships it can be especially easy to start to feel that your emotions are merged, so this is especially important.)

As for the person who needs more space, I'd suggest making clear to your partner that you love her and that your need for space to process stuff has nothing to do with your love for her. The idea of you giving her a hug makes sense to me. And maybe you'll play with the idea of being more spontaneous with your emotional responses and find out if there are ways that you're protecting yourself more than you need to by creating distance. But you certainly don't need to change.
posted by zahava at 5:39 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am you.
The worst bit was not being allowed to sleep when I was upset and tired (stay up and fight, don't go to be angry - I wasn't angry! I was tired!).

And, therefore, it's not any more ok for *you* to be the one who ends up crying because she won't let it go. You need to work out an actual compromise.

I'd agree with KathrynT and suggest, telling her *when* you will talk about this with her. And then set an alarm on a phone, and do it. Not wandering off while she is still feeling bad at it.

Have an actual plan, where you hug her, and tell you when you'll be back to it. Just like KathrynT said

Although your girlfriend needs to be flexible also. I would tell that ex-boyfriend I would talk about it in the morning, and that I still loved him, and it wasn't enough. He'd want to nut out every last reason we were disagreeing on a topic. Which was generally because he'd misunderstood something. I wish I was being sarcastic, but, by his count, he 'won' 5 arguments with me in 4 years, and jokingly accused me of "only arguing when you know you're right!".
That's not ok either.
posted by Elysum at 2:20 AM on January 5, 2012

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