My client was feeling suffocated by his girlfriend. He loved her a lot and had no desire to break up, but he was starting to feel oppressed by her need to be in constant communication – texting continually throughout the day and talking frequently. He was happy with occasional communication – texting and phoning when he felt moved to. But that was not enough for her, and she let him know that by being sad, moody, and withdrawn. It was torture.
I’ve been writing recently on how to say no. In the other posts, the stakes – upsetting casual friends and an intense sibling – were relatively low. Romantic love, in contrast, is high stakes: when it’s good, it’s exquisite; when it’s bad, it’s wretched.
No matter the intensity of the problem, though, the basic formula for dealing with disagreements is the same: 1) Find your clarity, and then 2) communicate it.
My client had talked to his girlfriend about their disagreement before, but nothing had changed. Why? Because he had been afraid of hurting her feelings, so he soft-pedaled his message until she could not hear it.
He is responsible for her feelings, is that true? (This is the first question of The Work). When he believes it, he feels tense and weak. His stomach hurts. He begins to feel helpless, like his only option is to be the long-suffering boyfriend, coddling and soothing her at his own expense.
Clearly, the belief that he’s responsible for her feelings is not healthy for either of them. It results in him treating her like a baby and in neglecting his own needs. Moreover, it doesn’t solve the problem: things are getting worse.
So, he imagines an alternative. If he dropped the thought that he was responsible for her feelings, what happens? He feels lighter. He feels free.
Here’s the best part: when he feels free, he feels more love for her. He feels more connected to her when he is free than when he is obligated.
That is clarity: investigating exactly where you’re stuck – in this case, his belief that he was responsible for her happiness – and then discovering what is possible on the other side of that stuck place – what freedom looks and feels like. That clarity is the foundation of the next step.
Now my client could plan his conversation with his girlfriend. (I think it’s a good idea to plan challenging conversations, especially if they haven’t gone well in the past.) As I wrote last week, I recommend that your words be brief and very clear; that you welcome the other person’s feelings, and that you stay present and calm with them while they’re having their feelings.
This is all easier when you stay connected to your clarity during the difficult conversation.
In my client’s case, it will be easier if he stays connected to his feelings of loving her more when he is free. This clarity will keep him calm and confident, like he’s sharing unambiguously great news. Which he is, really – feeling his love is what she’s wanted all along.
We come up with a brief, clear conversation stater: “Babe, we’ve got to talk about this communication problem. I love you AND I need to feel less pressure from to communicate all the time.” Really emphasize the “and” because both things are true. The second part of the sentence does not negate the first.
We review what his ideal of communication is – spontaneous. We also review what compromise he will accept – texting three times per day and phoning once – until she feels confident enough in their relationship that “spontaneous” communication is good for both of them.
Finally, I recommend two elements of non-verbal communication: that he look into her eyes and hold her hands. Looking into her eyes will help her to perceive his calm confidence. Holding her hands releases oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding, and promotes connection. It also helps my client to notice if he grows tense and reminds him to stay gentle. These non-verbal communication elements tell her, “I’m here. I love you,” if and when she experiences uncomfortable feelings.
Communicating this way, with clarity and courage, may sound hard. But, compared to avoidance, it’s by far the surer route to making you both happy.