Sometimes, being honest means being angry
February 2, 2016 8:18 PM   Subscribe

I need to have a serious, and potentially hard conversation with a loved one pretty soon, which I am terrible at. Please give me some strategies to express my disappointments and frustration in a healthy, effective way.

Because of the way I grew up, I internalized the ideas that nobody wants to hear anything angry or negative from me and that people will treat my complaints dismissively. As a result, I adopted the coping strategy of sucking it up and soldiering through my problems with people, just accepting the idea that nothing I can say will make anyone else behave any differently. In a shocking twist, it turns out that avoiding all forms of interpersonal conflict isn't a healthy way to go through life.

To be a little bit more specific, I need to have a conversation with my girlfriend (I'm a straight guy) about the fact that I don't think she has followed through on agreements that we have made, and that she has a habit of saying that she will do something and then not doing it. I've reached a point where I no longer trust her to get even simple things done. Sometimes it's really small things as cut and dry as her promising to mail a package for me on Monday, not getting it done, saying that she'll do it on Tuesday, and then finding out that she still hasn't gone to the post office after several similar conversations when the next Monday rolls around (or the one after that). I also feel as though she has not made progress on other, much bigger issues that we've talked about (think along the lines of quitting smoking or going back to college).

I have a hard time expressing anger or disappointment in general, and it's especially hard with people I love. I always feel like I'm the bad guy when I express negative feelings, and it's hard to escape the feeling that I'm missing something really important from the other person's perspective, and that I'll look like a huge jerk when the other person explains it to me. I've come to realize that not expressing anger or frustration doesn't make it go away, and I don't like the way I act when I unsuccessfully try to hide my frustration and out act through sarcasm and "leave me alone" type behavior. I didn't understand in the past that holding these feelings in is a form of dishonesty with myself and other people, and that caused most of my previous romantic relationships to go on well past their natural expiration dates.

What are some good strategies or scripts for having a conversation with someone I love where I express the fact that I feel angry or disappointed in their behavior? Ideally, this conversation would result in the other person realizing how I feel and then modifying the behavior that is frustrating me or making me feel disrespected.
posted by Chuck Barris to Human Relations (37 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes it's easier to start by writing it all down in a letter, so the emotions don't overwhelm you in the moment.

You can also rewrite and edit a letter, so you're saying it exactly how you want — controlled, clear, solutions-oriented, expressing love for the person while expressing frustration for an action, without a vocal tone that might lead to further conflict or fighting.
posted by amoeba at 8:20 PM on February 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think this is definitely an important conversation to have but, honestly, her behavior sounds like a fatal relationship flaw. I don't know the details but it sounds very tedious for both of you: you want her to make huge life changes (that she apparently doesn't want to make) and she is unwilling and/or inability to help you out. I don't know if you're being too demanding or if she's being stubborn but I really doubt things will change for the better. If you feel you can ignore the problems and accept her as is, then great! If not, I'd revalue the relationship.

Whatever happens, I'd try to be open to hearing her criticism of you as well and be willing to consider changing your behavior, too. Any good conversation -- and relationship between partners -- involves both parties being open and willing to take responsibility and hear criticism. Being direct is good but honesty and accountability need not mean being unkind: you can and should definitely talk about all of her positives as well.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:43 PM on February 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

I think it might be helpful for you to think about outcomes. What are you hoping will happen as a result of this conversation? Do you want to break up? Do you want to break up if things don't improve? Do you just want to let her know how you are feeling but don't have anything you are looking for from her end? Do you want her to make a plan? Do you want to help with that plan?

I think I would try to start with that, focus on some concrete topics and then start with something along the lines of "This is hard for me but I'd like to talk about something that's upsetting me" so don't start with "You do this and that sucks" but more "I'm feeling bad because of this" (and not "You made me feel bad") and then explain a general concept with maybe one or two examples followed up with some "What I am looking for is...." and some statements about how you are feeling "I really want this to work out but I am having a hard time managing my own feelings of disappointment about these things. I want to be with someone I can trust" or whatever. If you love her and want to work on those things make that clear because it might not be otherwise.

Make sure you don't turn this into one of those "You always do this..." conversations because those tend to not be useful or constructive. I'd also be a little easy on the "This makes me angry" angle because, depending on what your history is like, a lot of times anger is one of those things that really does need to be worked on by the person experiencing it as much if not more than the person who might have inspired it. Depending on how you are at working on conflicts generally, it may take time to get this sort of interaction to go well but I'd focus on speaking honestly but also compassionately about how you are feeling but always working towards some sort of resolution to have things go better for Team You Guys, however that works.
posted by jessamyn at 8:43 PM on February 2, 2016 [21 favorites]

Might this book help?
posted by CrazyLemonade at 8:51 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

As you've set this out, you're hoping to deliver a bunch of angries you've been collecting and conceptualizing as a single character defect, and attaching the expectation that this will prompt fundamental changes. This expectation is both misguided and unrealistic. First, it's not clear that all those incidents and issues relate to each other*; second, they don't all primarily involve you; third, and most important, you can't (imo) change anyone.

2nd jessamyn - strongly suggest you limit yourself to one or two things that involve you directly and personally - i.e. not mailing the package - and well clear of her own personal goals (going to college, quitting smoking). Those are up to her, they're about her life.

You can draw personal boundaries around what you personally will or won't do. You can *ask* that someone perform specific actions, but not expect that they will, that is up to their level of generosity and investment and ability. You can express your personal feelings about specific behaviours (that, again, directly affect you), but you can't make someone else agree that they matter or in fact are what you've decided they are. You can raise (specific) issues, and (first) see if she agrees they're worth addressing, and if she thinks she even can. Then you can decide what to do if the outcome isn't in alignment with a way of living that works for you. You can't ask someone to please get their shit together. You can decide whether you want to stay with them or not. You really, really, really can't change anyone. They will either make the changes they feel are important, if/when they're ready, or not. And they'll make them for their own reasons.

*Although, it could be that some of these issues might be related. They might, e.g., have something to do with anxiety, depression, ADHD - any number of issues. In that case, you still can't do much about it, and really it's not up to you (or me) to diagnose her.

Ideally, you'd express your responses to events as they occur, instead of saving them up, but you know that.

I would just say this: "I don't trust you to do simple things that I ask you to do."

You could also, fairly, ask, in a separate conversation, what her short and longer term goals are, and then personally decide, for yourself, whether you want to be with someone who has those goals, or whether you're prepared to stay with someone who isn't positioned to move towards goals they've set.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:11 PM on February 2, 2016 [13 favorites]

Some of this sounds like territory where you can support her but you can't get mad at her and tell her what to do. Quitting smoking and not going to college? Those are really her decisions, not yours. I think you can and should encourage her to do what is probably the right thing, but in the end, it's her decision to make and if you don't like it, you probably either need to accept it or break up. (My dad gave my mom an ultimatum, quick smoking or we can't date. She quit smoking and never smoked again.)

Presenting her this case of how flawed she is for these little things that directly involve you (not taking your mail when she said she would) and these big things that may only partly affect you but are mostly about her (smoking, college) seems kind of unfair to me. I mean, should she have flaked out on the mail? No. But you're trying to wrap it up into these other bigger things that are totally different situations to me. Is the mail thing the only example that actually involves you? That's the only one you presented here, and that sounds more like a "deal with it at the time" situation rather than "have a sit-down talk a week later." Maybe there are more examples, but it feels more like you've just internalized them and decided it's all part of some huge underlying problem instead of just dealing with each situation as appropriate. I would think about what you want to get out of this conversation and what is reasonable of you to request. I don't think you can control her life decisions like going to college and you may just have to accept how she is.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:22 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It seems like I did a really bad job of providing examples of the bigger picture things, and that may be giving people the wrong idea. For the record, our big picture issues don't have anything to do with quitting smoking (she doesn't) or going to college (she's been there and done that).

The mail example was meant to illustrate what I see as a regular pattern between us of me asking "Will you do this?," her saying "Yes," and then that thing not getting done. We have had conversations in the past where we sat down and mutually agreed on what some of our responsibilities would be as a couple who live together and what our shared goals were for the future of a relationship that we both saw as the start of something lifelong. It feels as though we have both agreed on what to do and what the future holds, but there's no follow through on those agreements. I want to have a conversation where I can express how I feel in a constructive way that's appropriate for someone I love.
posted by Chuck Barris at 9:45 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with CrazyLemonade - there are *ways* to word these things. I can MeMail you some posters for a communication workshop I was at not long ago, but a whole book is probably better. Also agree that you can't change someone. "I" statements, and know when it becomes a dealbreaker for you.
posted by jrobin276 at 10:06 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

One thing that has helped me in sharing my feelings with my SO is framing it such that it's not about blame as much as it is about my felt experiences within the relationship. What this does is help keep it from becoming defensive right off the bat. I'm pretty sure that your SO will put the pieces together when you say, "I'd like to share with you about how I've been feeling lately. The other day, when you promised to mail the package, and it didn't get done, it made me feel unimportant and unworthy of your time, and it made me wonder whether I'd have to continue feeling like this for us to have an ongoing relationship." This implies responsibility, of course, but it does it in such a way that the other person is more likely to derive a conclusion themselves rather than feeling forced into it. Also, for some people, hearing direct blame feels aggressive, and it can become a tone discussion in which there is a temptation to dismiss the content. There are times in which it's certainly okay to be angry and upset and to use strong language, but if you are looking for something practical to set a hard argument off in the right direction, and to help your insides feel like they aren't preparing to get into a fight, I find this approach can help.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:19 PM on February 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the clarification! That said, you're still taking small things and equating them to big ones. I do this with my husband sometimes, it never helps. Don't be me!

Have a big chat about the relationship goals. Make a life plan, write them down. Make it an ongoing discussion to check in on progress and goals. Treat it like a project or business you are collaborating on, for this is what it is. Sometimes goals get discarded or revised. This is OK. Life is not a straight path.

Put post-it's or use an app for errands. Geezus Christmas some folks are absentminded! I have to put stuff taped to the front door, on the floor in front of the door, or on the credenza next to the front door sometimes to remember it. My husband used to think it was clutter and get annoyed - then our son became a toddler and my husband started forgetting stuff! I was all, "See? Put it by the front door and you won't forget, even if the boy has an issue and needs 100% attention."

Then I discovered reminder apps. These were a godsend. And YES, sometimes I use them to set daily reminders with affirmations regarding goals I am working on.

If you and your GF are lacking tools and communication skills, y'all should start seriously discussing this on a regular basis. But no, don't dump your anger here. Unless you want to break up?

You'll feel a lot less angry when you start being positive and proactive. Good luck :))
posted by jbenben at 10:25 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

For the record, our big picture issues don't have anything to do with quitting smoking (she doesn't) or going to college (she's been there and done that).

Ok, but you chose those examples for a reason - whatever your "relationship big picture" goals are, you seem to feel they're threatened by what you perceive as a failure on the part of your girlfriend to deal with her own big picture issues. You didn't mention division of household labour, living arrangements, finances, or sex, for example. There is something about her you seem to want to change. If you don't want to go into details, can you offer some other examples of what you mean?

There are probably a lot of resources that more generally address communication and conflict for couples, and/or assertiveness, that people could point you to, but I think script suggestions are going to have to depend on the nature of the specific issue (how you define it, what you want, etc.).
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:44 PM on February 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Is this "Diane" from your previous question? Is there a kid in the mix?

I know Ask is quick to hop on 'get a professional involved!' and that doesn't always work out, but, if that's the same person and you've been living with her and her younger son for an extended period, that might be a very good idea -- even if things are not going to be salvageable, counsellors can be very helpful for transitional periods, no matter where they might lead.

In the meantime, I -- not a fan of confrontation, sometimes to my detriment -- would try to prioritise issues here. The thing about the parcel, in an otherwise untroubled relationship, strikes me as what is now internet-memed as a bitch eating crackers problem. It's an irritant, yes, but it's not a dealbreaker. The smoking thing (for example) is hard; I don't know what to say about that. If both of you are planning a life together that hinges on her (for example) going back to school, and she's planned on that but it doesn't pan out, that's much more serious. I wouldn't mesh the minor issues into a conversation that included the major ones (speaking from unfortunate personal experience here -- when you sit on everything, it just builds, and builds, to the point where the crackers can get thrown into the same discussion as college -- don't do that).

You have a lot of a good script in your question -- I love you, I am angry and frustrated [because X, etc]; I'm hoping you can understand why I feel this way right now; [outcomes you would like to see], [ways in which you can support that outcome]; right now I feel unhappy and my goal in bringing this up is for us to work towards an outcome where I don't feel frustrated and disrespected, etc.

Extended unemployment can really leave a person in a bad place in multiple areas -- you mentioned, if this is "Diane," that she doesn't want to be a SAHM -- the message one can get from long-term unemployment is a pretty full-on you are incompetent, which can add a sort of depression to the mix where one feels too incompetent to mail a parcel out. Baby steps might be the realistic expectation here rather than swift change.
posted by kmennie at 11:59 PM on February 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Could it be that you are both conflict avoidant? Your girlfriend reminds me a bit of my boyfriend, who can be so afraid of disappointing me and scared of negative emotions of others (because of his childhood and difficult, demanding parents) that he would say yes to everything I asked, even if he could not do something. And then when he didn't, he thought it would be easier to try to deny and keep saying yes to everything than owning it when he couldn't follow through with actions. It took us a while to get past this and sometimes it can still be a struggle. I really like jessamyns advice and scripts and I'd like to add that, when you talk about the big relationship goals, maybe you could ask her about her feelings too. Unemployment can gnaw at your self esteem and mental health, maybe she has a really hard time doing what you ask and carries a lot of shame and fear of disappointment about not being able to follow through. Also, most of the time emotions like disappointment, sadness and frustration disguise as anger. Find out what the underlying emotions are and name them instead of telling her you're angry. Lastly, you can have hard conversations like this and still be loving. When I talk about my disappointment and frustration with my boyfriend I also tell him I love him. Because someone can disappoint you but that doesn't necessarily mean you don't love them anymore. Think about it, it is highly unlikely someone that you love will never disappoint you, maybe it is because you love them you are more easily disappointed by them than by other people. I know my boyfriend needs an affirmation of love when talking about difficult things, it makes it easier for him to open up to me and to hear/accept my frustrations. And I have no problem saying it, because it's true!
posted by leopard-skin pill-box hat at 12:34 AM on February 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

Hey, any chance she's depressed? I ask that because I'm coming out of a rough one and I currently have a bag of badly overdue library books sitting by the door and dry cleaning I should have picked up months ago.
Not that that excuses the behavior, but if your loved one is anxious or depressed, that might give you a frame work to address this issue in a less angry way. If there's a chance this is a symptom of something, maybe looking at the bigger picture together would help you tackle it as a team?
posted by Pardon Our Dust at 2:05 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

DESC - describe, express, specify, consequences.

describe: you didn't post the parcel yesterday. i first asked you a week ago.
express: this makes me feel like you don't care about me.
specify: in future, if you say something, please do it.
consequences: otherwise, we're through.

and read this book.

(however, i don't think you can change that much in a person and i suspect this is a long term dealbreaker. you can't use a consequence like that regularly in a healthy relationship. the depression suggestion above is also a good point.)
posted by andrewcooke at 2:47 AM on February 3, 2016 [11 favorites]

oh, also, this is not what being angry is about. being too passive is not fixed by then being angry - it just makes you look like a psychopath. instead, you need to learn how to find a middle ground consistently. if you want to be good at this its a lot of work. again: read that book.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:08 AM on February 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

I would 100% not frame this around the word trust. Trust is a relationship fundamental and if you told me you didn't trust me because I didn't take a package to the post office, I would flip my shit.

Instead, I would frame this as "I really want to share adulthood with someone I can rely on. If I ask you to do something, I need you to either be more realistic about saying you can't do it, or more reliable about getting it done when you say you will."
posted by DarlingBri at 3:15 AM on February 3, 2016 [15 favorites]

What do you want to have happen as a result of this conversation? I mean what, specifically?

It isn't that you want her to finish college, because she has. It isn't that you want her to quit smoking, because in order to quit she'd have to start smoking? You just want her to do the things she says she'll do on a micro level?

Whatever you do, don't prepare a PowerPoint presentation on everything you think she's done wrong ever, and surprise her with that. That's called "kitchen sinking" (as in, everything but the kitchen sink) and it will only convey to her that she's totally inadequate and you hate her.

Instead, figure out what specifically you want to get out of this.

Assume that whatever you're talking about, you're angry on some level about it, and try to edit the anger out of what you say.

Figure out what she might be afraid of as a result of your telling her these things, and explain why her worst fears won't come true.

Figure out what she's going to get out of changing her ways. "I won't hate you" isn't rewarding, but "I'll have the trust and confidence I need to [move in with you, whatever]".

There's a book called "There's Something I Have To Tell You" by Charles Foster which goes through all this in more detail.

But I have to echo andrewcooke above. You can't stay passive for years and then hit her with a spitball of everything you ever resented about her "and what about that time you stuck out the eyes on Grandpa's portrait?" She'll have been going along for years thinking everything was fine and then you'll surprise! Reveal that the relationship has been on the rocks all this time! That'll only turn YOU into someone SHE can't trust.
posted by tel3path at 3:39 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Rather than sitting down and having a conversation about things that have happened in the past, address it in the moment.

"You said you were going to clean the cat box, but I see here that you didn't. I'm annoyed because now the house stinks and that cat is really cheesed off." Then let it go. The other person should commence to sanitizing the cat box. End of discussion.

If you have a lot of these moments and you find yourself constantly annoyed, that's an indication that you're with someone who does things that annoy you.

Part of conflict is that no one likes it, so you have to really think about what you want to get out of it. Conflict should be productive. You express what you want, the other person talks about what they want, you come to an agreement.

If the outcome of this is that you want your girlfriend to stop being a exactly would that work? That would require her to make significant changes, and she may just not be able to do it. When we love people we have to take them as they are. People don't change themselves for us and they shouldn't have to.

As a point, Husbunny and I never argue. I accept that he's not going to automatically clean anything. That's not who he is. But he's very willing to clean if I ask him to. So I ask him. I made my peace with the fact that he's not as clean as I am, and we worked out a system where we both can live with it.

Flakey people are flakes. Stop asking her to do things you know she's going to fail at.

If you find yourself resentful more often than not, think long and hard about why these things chap your ass so thoroughly. Do you believe that if she loved you enough she wouldn't be a flake? If so...that's not how it works.

What would happen if, when you asked her to take a package to the post office, she said, "No, I don't have time, take your own package to the post office, that way you'll know it got done." Would you feel hurt? Would you appreciate the honesty?

So the answer to your stated question is: Express your annoyance in the moment and then let it go.

The answer to your unstated question is: Don't expect things from people that they are incapable of giving you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:02 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've said this before on mefi, but my husband and I have a lot/most of our "serious" talks over email. More than once we'll be having an in-person argument but one of us will disengage to go write an email to the other to try to better communicate what we're thinking/feeling. I appreciate that this may seem odd to a lot of people, but this this works great for us for many reasons:
- both people get to feel heard since the other person can't interrupt you.
- you get to take the time you need to write out exactly what you're feeling, rather than sometimes misspeaking and stumbling over words during an in person discussion/argument
- eliminates the knee jerk reaction. Each person gets a moment after hearing (reading) a hard-to-hear message to process it. Unlike in in-person discussions, you can take the time you need before you reply.
- it allows for a more "comfortable" conflict, for those who hate conflict.
- things never descend into yelling and emotions never get too out of control because tone of voice and body language are eliminated as a factor. It becomes a much more honest, straight forward discussion.

The final benefit to having a lot of our important discussions/arguments over email is that, well, its documented. No one can say "I never said that!" or "I never agreed to that!" because hey... here's the email where you said that and agree to that. It keeps people from saying ass-hole-y things, but it also keeps people from putting words in the other person's mouth. You can also quote specific lines in their email and respond specifically to that line, or ask for clarification of that line.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:03 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I also want to add that angry is NOT the right emotion to be conveying. Disappointed? Frustrated? Upset? Sure. Not angry or mad. Those aren't productive or terribly communicative words. A lot of people hear and understand "Angry" as mean. And because the word "angry" is so overused by so many people it no longer offers a lot of clarity in what you're actually feeling. It is a catch-all for negative feelings. You may as well yell "I'M HAVING AN EMOTION!" for the amount of help saying "I'm angry" will give you.

True story, I grew up in a house where we were not allowed to just say "I'm angry". We had to use the real words for how we were feeling. We had to stop and rephrase to say "I'm annoyed" or "I'm frustrated" or "I'm feeling disrespected" or "I'm feeling ignored." or "I feel I'm being treated unfairly". We had to put the REAL word to how we were feeling, not just say "I'm angry." Once we were able to put the real word to how we were feeling we were better able to identify exactly what in this situation was the problem, therefore allowing for a solution to be more easily identified. To this day I don't say "I'm angry" without immediately following it up with the real feeling.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:20 AM on February 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Your girlfriend reminds me a bit of my boyfriend, who can be so afraid of disappointing me and scared of negative emotions of others (because of his childhood and difficult, demanding parents) that he would say yes to everything I asked, even if he could not do something. And then when he didn't, he thought it would be easier to try to deny and keep saying yes to everything than owning it when he couldn't follow through with actions. It took us a while to get past this and sometimes it can still be a struggle."

Yes, this also jumped out at me as a really common method of avoidance, where someone learns (usually in childhood, usually from their family of origin) that it's WAY EASIER to just agree to things and not follow through, than to say no and have a giant fight about the fact that they said no, or to try to follow through and get harassed for not doing it right (by perfectionist parents, say). And it's not even on purpose; they become absolutely expert at REFUSING TO THINK ABOUT the thing they promised to do (because it's so stressful to deal with) and they forget they ever promised.

If this is the case, and you sit her down to tell her you're really disappointed and frustrated that she doesn't follow through on things she promises to do, she's going to promise to do better, and promptly excise the conversation from her memory to avoid the discomfort of thinking about it, and not follow through.

You will have to talk about the underlying issue (compassionately and kindly) as well as its effects on your relationship; she can't address the lack of follow through unless she addresses the avoidance. And it can be done! People can learn to change this behavior! It's usually a behavior learned in childhood (or sometimes an abusive relationship), and someone who is mindful of the learned behavior, who feels safe in a relationship and feels they have adult agency, can learn to change the behavior and learn to say "no" and learn to keep promises. This might be something you can learn to do on your own by working together; it might be something easier to learn with a couples therapist who can coach both of you out of the negative patterns you've learned. (Because unfortunately you've probably learned to follow the same paths of interaction as her parents once did, because frustration with a non-follow-through-er is fairly universal.)

Having been through solving this in my own marriage, I will say some of it you will just have to let go -- casual off-hand, "Hey, do the dishes while I'm at work!" "Yeah, I'll get to the dishes," will probably go right down the memory hole because that habit of "agree-ignore" is just deeply ingrained. But a stop-and-have-a-conversation, "Hey, it's really important that you do the dishes today because I have to cook for the party tonight and I won't be home until 4 and I have to start immediately," will not get blown off. (Except at the normal rate that people sometimes forget things.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:37 AM on February 3, 2016 [15 favorites]

I used to be the same way -- I'd bottle up my anger and it would come out as passive-aggressive sniping or the cold shoulder. I knew it was immature, but... it takes time and understanding to change those patterns. Luckily I had a patient partner!

I think learning about nonviolent communication could really help you. There's a great book about it by Marshall Rosenberg. In a nutshell, the idea is to express how you feel and what you need, without judging or labeling the other person. So:

"You always say you're going to take out the trash, but you never do! I feel really frustrated and like I can't trust you." --> This feels like an attack, and your GF will not hear what you are saying, only that you are being unfair and don't trust her.

"When we agree you're going to take out the trash and you don't do it, or [other example] I feel ..."
Actually, this is a tough one. Maybe:
"...insecure about our relationship, because I need to able to depend on you if we're going to be together long-term."

It sounds simple, but figuring out how you actually feel (and it has to be an emotion, not "I feel that you're being dishonest" or something) and especially, what you need, can be difficult. That alone often clarifies things for me, and turns simmering anger into a much more open conversation.

You can follow that up with a request: "Would you be willing to..." [make some sort of reasonable change] This part is hard too! You have to figure out what you actually want, that's reasonable to request of the other person, that you think would make things better.

If you can keep this type of conversation focused on both of your feelings and needs rather than judging her behavior or her character, it's a great way to resolve conflicts that doesn't feel adversarial and can even end with both of you feeling closer to each other.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:44 AM on February 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also, when you're angry and frustrated it's easy to imagine that the other person is behaving this way because they're being disrespectful or dishonest or don't care about the relationship or are behaving badly in some other way. But consider that your girlfriend may have any of the following reactions, or some other totally understandable reason for behaving the way she does:

- "I had no idea this mattered so much to you. To me, if I say I'll mail the package Monday but I don't do it, it's not a big deal. Now that I know, I'll try harder to follow through when I say I'll do something."
- "I know that I don't always do what I say I'm going to do. It's a struggle for me because I always want to say yes to you. I'm worried that you'll be angry if I say no."
- "When you ask me to do lots of little things for you, I feel overwhelmed. I'm not good at remembering all these details. It would work better for me if we had a set list of things we were both responsible for, and I could do them whenever I wanted."
- "I wish you would stop asking me about going back to college. It's hard to admit it, but the truth is, I don't want to."
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:01 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am both you and your girlfriend: conflict-averse, with a long-standing bad habit (now mostly broken, I hope) of saying I'll do things and not delivering. The failure to follow through is just another form of conflict avoidance, though not a very effective one.

I think you need to focus not on expressing anger or disappointment, but on communicating how important fixing the specific problem is to your relationship, and what needs to change. "I'm angry" is not something your partner can fix right now, and it'll just make her feel bad. However, "I need to be able to count on you when you say you'll do something" is something she can fix.

It's also worth mentioning that her specific issue with follow-through can often be a response to a perceived lack of control. It was for me. If she's unemployed and depressed, she probably doesn't feel like she's in charge of much in her own life. Being in a relationship with someone who's got their shit together, when you're fucking up in all directions, can sometimes make you feel like you're the subordinate or the kid in the relationship. You want to avoid contributing to that feeling, because it's more likely to just reinforce her perceived lack of control and habit of avoidance. Rather, you need to communicate that you are equal partners, and for this partnership to work you must both make an equal effort.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:09 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

My spouse is much, much more aggressive at completing tasks like getting stuff in the mail, making annoying phone calls to straighten out insurance issues, banking, paying bills than I am. In the past, I have often put things off that he has asked me to do, so he rarely asks me to do these tasks unless he's really desperate. I mean, there is no way in hell I would ever be able to be as good as he is at this because it's just not a priority, or fun, for me, so I put shit off. I'm also not nearly as good as he is at running a business, saving money and being patient. However, I am really, really great at raising our daughter, working with others and being good manager at work, being a room mom at school, plumbing, fixing the car, planning holidays, cooking amazing and healthy meals, and ensuring we have a social life with awesome and inspiring friends. Could you just put a a kibosh on your expectations and instead focus on her great qualities with no "buts". Clearly, your gf may not be the partner you should be with if you guys aren't in alignment with your life goals, but maybe you are and just need to recognize it on a different level than "she doesn't do what I expect her to do, she doesn't keep her promises to complete things we agree on". There are a million ways to get around this, it's doesn't have to be a deal breaker. Change your expectations and focus on her talents and support her and encourage her to be her best. Tell her you love her even when she isn't being her best. Remind yourself "no matter the outcome of this situation, I will handle it."
posted by waving at 6:30 AM on February 3, 2016

I will fully admit that my husbunny used to ask me to do things for him that I really didn't want to do, so I neglected to do them - like folding (mostly his) laundry. And we had a talk about it, that it's important to him that he feels we are part of a team and I help him as much as he helps me. I have since taken it much more to heart that if he asks me to do something and I agree to it, yeah sooner is better because otherwise it disappoints him and makes him unhappy. Being in a relationship means taking care of each other, and I do have a responsibility to be mindful of his needs too.

People who say you're not responsible for your partner's happiness are making blanket statements. The shitty things you do affects your partner, and it is your responsibility to be kind and considerate to them.
posted by lizbunny at 7:29 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Your girlfriend reminds me a bit of my boyfriend, who can be so afraid of disappointing me and scared of negative emotions of others (because of his childhood and difficult, demanding parents) that he would say yes to everything I asked, even if he could not do something. And then when he didn't, he thought it would be easier to try to deny and keep saying yes to everything than owning it when he couldn't follow through with actions. It took us a while to get past this and sometimes it can still be a struggle."

If I were honest, this is also me. When this is the case for people, there are (roughly) two categories: 1) people who know this is an issue for them, and are working on it diligently; 2) those who aren't self-aware or concerned enough to bring it to the table. I like to think I fell into category number 1, although it's pretty interesting why it's even a case for me. It seems weird, as I value promise keeping. Like noted above, for me it stemmed from an inability to say no, and as such, I was not capable of fulfilling everything I had promised to do. Putting it off seemed easier than the shame-moment of disappointing someone, at least for another day. So in our working it through, we had to have another discussion about why I would say no to things at times I couldn't do or didn't have time to do, which brought another unique kind of tension. But it's been worth it for us to work on it together as a couple, rather than to toss the entire relationship on the DTMFA heep and burn it with fire. Everyone has their stuff, and I think the sign of a good relationship is when people actually work on their stuff (not whether they have it in the first place). Also, we learned to out-source things that need to be fixed or constructed in the house. Once I stopped making promises for things like hanging drapes and left that to the professionals, it was something of a light-bulb moment for me: I don't need to be capable of everything in life, and it's okay to ask for help.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:37 AM on February 3, 2016

You're getting some great advice here.

I applaud you for recognizing your own failure to communicate frustrations in a constructive way. Even so, please realize that conflict resolution takes practice, and it seems you're hoping for a quick primer so you can jump right into the deep end, pulling your partner in with you without warning.

There's nothing wrong with expressing your feelings in the ways outlined upthread. That said, if you're making a significant change to the dynamics of the relationship, your partner deserves a "heads up" about that, and possibly even an apology from you for your past passivity.

This doesn't mean you don't get to talk with her about your frustrations. It might mean that resolving the issues will take longer than you'd like, but please understand that unless you tell her that you're trying something new and uncomfortable for you, she has no way of knowing that the complaints you're bringing aren't in addition to the unstated disapproval she's already been sensing (I guarantee you that your resentments seep out even when you aren't realizing it, and even if they've been reframed and/or redirected).

In this situation, your best bet is to start with a conversation about your desire to change your methods of resolving conflict, along with an admission that you have been conflict avoidant.

Ask her to be patient with you while you learn this life skill. Admit that you need growth in this area.

She will want examples of times you didn't speak your mind. I promise. For now (remember--you're just learning the ropes here!) stick with one thing at a time, like a package that didn't get shipped. This is for you at least as much as it is for her. You get to practice! You get to say, "I felt that shipping the package was not important to you, even though I expressed that it was important to me; therefore, I felt that my needs were not important to you."

Look. If this is not the woman for you, move on. But if you think you can work through this, then work through it. There's not an easy fix; you've reached your boiling point on a number of issues, but give her some time to realize that you were anywhere near boiling over. Really.

Yes, you can afford to be more open about your disappointments and hurts. No, you can not expect a person to get on board the first time you even raise these issues in Very Serious Way. It doesn't work like that.

Tl;dr: You're now ready to change the dynamics of your relationship. You should express that fact before bringing attention to your partner's failings.
posted by whoiam at 7:43 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is this "Diane" from your previous question?

Whoa, yeah. Strong 2nd to everything kmennie said. I sometimes do look at past questions, but didn't this time. That information would have been extremely helpful to know. This is much more complicated than your partner's ability to "follow through on agreements", which is how you framed it. If Diane isn't depressed, she's an outlier. If she is, that needs to be addressed before she can look for work. It isn't really about you or agreements you've made as a couple. Maybe you could restate your question with more specific information (e.g. "how can I express anger about my partner not dealing with her unemployment in a way that supports our relationship").
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:32 AM on February 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I also want to stress that there is a difference between talking about anger and responding with anger. Talking about anger can be appropriate and useful, responding angrily, especially if it's about pent up long simmering frustrations, rarely is. It may be worth doing a little practice somehow in explaining "I am angry because of this" or "This made me angry" and being mindful of not letting the expression of past anger make you angry in the moment.
posted by jessamyn at 8:57 AM on February 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

There's a pretty common rule among experts in relationship communication: do not bring up past fights during this fight. In other words, saving up all of your gripes and then having one single conversation about all of those gripes at once is not going to be productive, or satisfying, or helpful to either of you.

I think that instead of gearing yourself up to have one big conversation about all of these issues that you've been holding onto for a long time, the skill you most need to practice is confronting an individual, discrete problem in the moment, when it's happening. So if I were you, I would scrap the idea of having this conversation.

Instead, I'd ask yourself whether you can forgive what has happened in the past, because it wasn't addressed at the time and it's not really fair to hold a grudge in this way. But think about what it would take for you to be able to talk about these incidents in the moment. The next time you find out on a Tuesday that she didn't go to the post office for you on Monday, what would it take for you to be able to say, "Hey, I'm actually really upset that you didn't keep this promise to me. I know it doesn't seem like a big deal to you, but I feel really upset about it, and I'd like to talk about how I feel right now, because I feel angry/upset/hurt/taken advantage of/whatever you're feeling in that very moment."

The way to fight fair is to talk about issues when they happen. Gathering up a laundry list of complaints, even if they're in the same category, is a recipe for a toxic fight and ultimately a toxic relationship.

And yes, I think you need to consider whether or not you're prepared to be in a relationship with someone who is scatterbrained and easily distracted and who often won't finish all the items on her to-do list, and who will agree (with the best of intentions, I'm sure) to add your stuff to her to-do list and then forget or run out of time or procrastinate. Because some people are just like that, and it's hard to change. And she may or may not be able (or willing) to change that. And you need to decide, in the end, whether that's a deal-breaker for you.
posted by decathecting at 9:06 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

The way to fight fair is to talk about issues when they happen.

I agree with this as a general principle, but if you have a pretty typical job where you don't get home until after 5pm and everyone is hungry and tired when you come in the door, then that's a pretty good reason to postpone talking about the package (that is still by the door) until everyone is fed and a bit rested/relaxed.
posted by puddledork at 10:15 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I find this is better done in writing than in person, as it gives you time to plan what to say and rephrase if necessary, and eliminates the possibility of snapping words you regret in the heat of the moment. But beware of coming across harsher in writing than in person. Write it all down, then leave it and re read it a day later before sending it. Put lots of positives in too ("I really appreciated it when you went out of that way to post that package but I felt really let down when you forgot to buy the bananas three days in a row") and end on a positive note ("hope we can get this sorted. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!" etc). Also be prepared for the fact that her criticisms may lead to some counter criticisms and be prepared to strike a deal ("okay, I'll do more washing up if you make more effort to remember the bananas") but don't let it get into an argument about Who Is Worst.
posted by intensitymultiply at 11:57 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Y'all are being really careful and compassionate and all about the girl friend's unreliability and probable conflict avoidance, and all the shame and stuff underneath it. I think it's good and important to gain that understanding and to keep it in mind as couples try to deal with it.

I was married to someone like this for almost 20 years, so I get it, deeply.

I think it's important for the op to hear that, yes, there may be tough stuff going on for your partner that is behind this behavior--but when the rubber hits the road, your partner is lying to you for utterly selfish reasons. They are showing you by their actions where you fall in their list of priorities. It may be because they aren't capable of doing more, but that is the fact.

It is perfectly legitimate to decide where your tolerance is for this behavior and to decide that you don't want to make a life with them if it doesn't change. And by change I mean actionable follow through, not more empty promises.

You may love them, they may love you, but if they are doing something fundamentally detrimental to your relationship and will not address it, trying to stay with it (are you convincing yourself it's ok? That you can be 'bigger' than your hurt?) is just setting yourself up for more hurt down the road.
posted by Sublimity at 6:38 AM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can you give some more specific examples of what you're angry about? Because if they're all like the package one, perhaps the real solution is for you to run your own errands instead of expecting your girlfriend to be your secretary.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:35 AM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

puddledork, I didn't necessarily mean to imply that conversations about an issue can only occur at the exact moment that the issue arises. I was just saying that it's not productive or fair or healthy to save up all of all of your gripes for days or weeks or months until they morph into one mega-gripe that you tell the other person about all in one single gripe session.
posted by decathecting at 11:43 AM on February 6, 2016

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