Couples: Talking about “Hot Topics”

by CrisMarie on August 21, 2013

Couples: Talking about “Hot Topics”Reprinted from a 406 Magazine Article June/July 2013 pg 56Woman-June-July-2013

“We don’t have enough long-term savings. We have to save more.” Cindy brought up the hot topic while driving home from their accountant’s office. It wasn’t the first time she had broached this sensitive topic.

“We are doing the best we can with the business right now.” Steve replied as he drove the truck down Twin Bridges Road.

“But I can’t stand to see how little we put away each year. When I had my corporate job in San Francisco I was able to save so much more. Plus, my employer matched it, and I could see it grow so fast,” Cindy said, her voice full of lament.

“Listen, I am doing the best I can! I am not some big corporation you know,” Steve responded. He sped up while going around the curves.

“Whoa! Slow down. The deer are out. You’re going to get us killed!” Cindy grabbed the handle above the door.

“Stop telling me how to drive! You are so controlling. I’m 51 and I know how to drive a frickin’ car!” Steve snapped.

“I am not controlling!” Cindy turned and stared out the window.

They drove on in steamy silence. Cindy crossed her arms and looked straight ahead. “Fine. Never mind. It is clear you don’t care about what is important to me.”

Sound familiar? Maybe not the content or the roles, but most couples can quickly go from an important topic to escalating war in a matter of minutes.

Dealing with Couples

Susan Clarke and I work primarily with business teams at thrive!, but about three years ago we also started working with couples and leading couples workshops. There are similar challenges of setting common goals and dealing with differences in both teams and couples. If you think about it, a couple is a mini-team. While your couple may be your smallest team, it is probably the one closet to your heart and the most important.

It is not unusual to think that if your relationship is “good” everything will be smooth and you won’t fight. Wrong!

The Good News is that it is natural and healthy to fight. The couples that are the most at risk are the ones that don’t fight. It usually means they have given up. These couples are often disengaged and are in apathy mode, which deadens the relationship.

How Do We Get So Off Track?

We all lead busy lives and have important issues to discuss. We often try to have these important conversations about money, the kids, sex, or the in-laws while we are in the middle of something else, like driving after a stressful meeting, or brushing teeth before bed, or getting the kids ready for school. One person throws something out and in a matter of minutes the conversation devolves, and you are left wondering, “How did we get here?”

It is natural that we bump into each other and want different things. Couples are made up of two different people. Some people believe it all comes down to the Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus thing. While we generally agree that men and women are wired differently, and while knowing some of those general differences may help us understand each other, the picture is incomplete.

We find no matter whom we work with, men and women, or same sex couples, we see that we are dealing with two different individuals who think and feel differently and want different things at certain points in their relationship.

So how do we bridge the gap?

How To Talk About Hot Topics

All couples have those “hot topics.” You know, those topics that you try to bring up in several different ways, but somehow wind up at the very same place—getting nowhere and feel horrible.

When we met with Steven and Cindy it was clear they were both distant and shut down from their “long-term savings” conversation.

So we suggested an old stand by when couples are in something deep.

 Tool One: 5-5-5, Make The Space

With hot topics, each person is so sensitive that they react quickly, jumping in to defend or to interrupt, going back and forth, ultimately getting nowhere. So Tool One is designed to create clear boundaries, providing time and space for each person to be heard.

First, find the time and space without outside interruptions to have a conversation. This does NOT mean several hours. Start small. Take 15 minutes. Yep. Just 15 minutes – that’s it. Here is how it works:

Figure out who goes first. Just flip a coin if you are having trouble deciding.

First 5 minutes:

  • Person A talks about the issue.
  • Person B just listens and does not interrupt.

Second 5 minutes: Reverse it.

Third 5 minutes: You both engage in a dialogue.

Five minutes can seem like a long time for some, but others need that time to think out loud. It doesn’t mean you need to talk non-stop, but that five minutes is yours to have the space to reflect and say what you need to say on the topic.

  1. Don’t expect to resolve the issue in one sitting. We suggest your objective be listening and understanding each other, NOT problem solving.
  2. Use a timer. The key to success is to stop when the timer goes off. No exceptions—even if you aren’t done with making your point or even completing your sentence. After the 15 minutes are up, don’t carry on. Give yourself a break from it and do something else. Really.

Cindy and Steve did the 5-5-5.

Cindy realized during her five minutes that the reason she was so worried was because two other couples close to them were struggling financially due to unexpected health crises. Cindy saw what tremendous pressure it was putting on both of those relationships. She did not want that to happen to her and Steve. Before they did the 5-5-5, Cindy was unaware of the impact that watching her friends’ struggle was having on her.

 Tool 2: Check Out Your Story

In the course of one of these “hot topic” issues, quite often we hear our partner say something and assume that we know what they are insinuating. However, most of the time we actually don’t. We often jump to conclusions based on how we are feeling about ourselves or what we have heard before.

We suggest you slow it down, break it down and check it out.

Break it down to specifically what you heard or saw (the data) and separate that from your interpretation or assumption (your story). Then, proactively ask if your partner agrees with your story (check it out).

One of the assumptions Steve made was that Cindy wished she had never left her job in San Francisco to start the business with him here in Montana, which is why he felt defensive in the car. So here is how he checked out his story.

The Data: “I heard you talk about how much you could save long-term with your old corporate job.”

Steve’s Story: “My assumption is that you wished you had never left your corporate job to start this business with me.”

Check It Out: “Do you agree or disagree?” (Then shut up and let the person respond.)

When Steve did check this out, he was surprised by Cindy’s answer.

“OMG, of course not! I hated that job and I love our business. I just don’t want to end up like Joe and Mary or Chris and Jake.”

Steve was surprised and relieved. At the end of a few more conversations, Steve and Cindy resolved to look at their financials overall, enlisting the aid of a financial planner who could help them look at investing as well as saving in order to support their long-term financial picture. They felt like they were on the same team headed towards a common goal versus feeling like enemies.

To learn more about how to enrich your relationship, check out the Couple Alive Series that Susan Clarke and I lead at The Haven Institute.

 

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