By Pablo Sennett. Partly edited by Dr. Elna Rudolph.
No matter how solid your relationship, you’ll never get away from everyday stress. But you can make sure it doesn’t burn the house down. Here’s how to stop fanning the flames.
The thing about friction is, it causes heat, and fire, and big explosions. The logistics of living together with another human being make it almost impossible to avoid becoming irritated or arguing. A Pew Research study showed that only 10% of adults admitted to never arguing at all, while most of us do so several times each week. This is not necessarily a bad thing; allowing the sparks to fly once in a while breathes new life into a relationship and creates room for constructive change. There are rules, of course – like never make it personal and don’t be mean – but who among us can say he has not sinned and lost it, just a little bit? How to keep your conflicts on the right side of constructive? Glad you asked. We’ll tell you.
She’s tired, you’re really, really not
You’re both in bed, the sheets are silky, the room’s heating up. We know where this is going, right? Then she says, “Goodnight”. At this point you’re not far away from pointing out how rarely she’s in the mood these days, and being accused of only ever thinking about sex.
DE-ESCALATE: Breathe, man! Stay calm, no matter how difficult. Allegations only end up saying, You’re bad, I’m better”. And no one needs that.
THEN ACT: “When you come up against your partner’s disapproval, talk to her about how you feel, calmly and politely,” says medical doctor and sexologist, DR. Elna Rudolph. “That will give her a chance to feel desirable and loved, and criticism won’t be the focus of the conversation.” If you feel she’s been a bit distant, ask her why – and if she says she’s really just tired, let her sleep and look forward to a well-rested lady in the morning. It is key to inflect everything with a pinch of humour. “It’s crucial to keep the pressure off. Keep it light, and be patient, so it doesn’t come across as deadly serious.”
“A “good night” is not necessarily a “no.” She might not be in the mood, but she might still get in the mood, even if she is tired. Try a bit of gentle stroking in non-sexual areas, followed by the sexual ones and your best high school French kissing. Most women have the ability to get in the mood, even if they start neutral or negative. If she moans (and not in a good way!) let her sleep, but whisper in her ear that you are looking forward to the rested version of herself in the morning. If she doesn’t – enjoy!
The convo about her libido not matching yours is not something to have between the sheets in the heat of the moment. Have it over a glass of wine when the hormones and emotions are under control. Listen to her suggestions and her feelings and tell her about yours. Nobody likes making a go for it and then being turned down and nobody likes feeling forced into it. You have to communicate to make it work. Keep it light and practical, but get help if it keeps on causing conflict and you are not finding solutions.”
She needs help, you’re just trying to chill
Lambie’s just kicked off, and here comes the vacuum cleaner. Yup, housework sucks – and if you hate it, so does she.
DE-ESCALATE: Sitting in a simmer gets you nowhere, and blowing up takes you ten steps backwards. Don’t give us that “but I work longer hours” crap; that’s not helping anyone to actually get it done. The only thing worse than her having to nag at you is your whining back.
THEN ACT: Plot a pre-emptive strike. Chat to her about what needs to be cleaned or sorted around the house on a regular basis, and by when, then get it done well ahead of the game. You can go one step further and draw up a roster to divide the labour, just remember to take on twice as many tasks as you assign to her – trust us, she’s doing a hundred things around your home you’ll never have to think about. And if, after all that, you’ve ticked all your boxes and she still needs help, get off your ass and wash those dishes, take out that garbage. It’s not rocket science.
She’s at home, you’re saying, just one more drink
You met a few mates for a drink after work. Okay, maybe more than one. Next thing you know, she’s on the phone every couple of minutes asking where you are.
DE-ESCALATE: The key to a relationship that goes the distance? Mutual trust. Without it, you’ll always be one spark away from tearing up your marriage register. “It’s difficult for any attempt to control your partner not to come off as demeaning or just plain paranoid,” says Rudolph. “Finding a balance between a healthy social life and not disregarding your partner’s feelings is crucial if you want the relationship to last.” It’s also a matter of practice – for her and you, too. Acknowledge that you understand how she feels, and remember, if it were the other way round, you’d probably be kicking down doors and breaking heads right about now.
THEN ACT: Find a quiet moment to discuss the issue. This is something that most couples have to negotiate, so take it easy on her and yourself; there’s no silver bullet that’ll solve everything in one go. Point out that it is good for the relationship in the long-term if you are both able to learn to live without each for short periods at a time, such as when you’re grabbing a drink with colleagues or she’s out with her pals. “A real-life social network is important for both you, so the answer here isn’t to simply neglect your contacts,” says Rudolph. If you suppress your jealousy, or your anger about hers, it’ll simmer for a while before going boom.
You fibbed, she found out
Let us guess: you figured telling her the whole truth would just lead to a long debate, and all of a sudden “I’m working late” became catching the rugger with guys you hardly know in a bar you don’t remember.
DE-ESCALATE: Admit to everything. She’s not angry you spent the evening drinking shots for every seven-pointer, she’s angry that you lied about it. You see, lying is bad. It hints at a pattern – the easier it is to do, the louder the alarm bells in her head. So confess, openly and unapologetically. You can’t move past it until you’re honest.
THEN ACT: Now explain yourself. Describing your reasons for the lie will go a long way in establishing a foundation for a constructive conversation. You might even surprise yourself. “People lie either to gain an advantage or the protect themselves against some kind of adverse effect,” says Rudolph. “She is trying to understand you – how your mind works – so be open with her. Look for the cause together and you’re more likely to find solutions.”
Because no one loves paying for stuff
You had a great dinner, the steak was perfect, that red wine is your new favourite. Nothing spoils a happy occasion quite like quibbling over the bill.
DE-ESCALATE: Pay now, argue later. If you really don’t feel you should pay, or at least without her making some kind of effort to grab that bill away from you, fine. But don’t make it the waiter’s problem. Pay up immediately and remind yourself to bring it up later. Fighting in public is a major betrayal that won’t win you any favours.
THEN ACT: At some point in every relationship, money becomes an issue. Don’t think you’ve somehow cracked the code and have all the answers we’ve all been looking for – give yourselves some time to figure out your different approaches to spending and saving your separate salaries, and how to work together in making all that money work for your shared objectives. (Such time is not while you’re still in the damn restaurant.) When you get some quiet time alone together, discuss the option of opening a joint account that you both share. In other words, an account separate from both yours and hers, that you both contribute towards and you both have access to. That way, you’re both independent and equal, and on the road to learning how each of you thinks about money.
“So, how does this look?”
You get home, your mind still decompressing from a hard day’s work, and you get sandbagged. “Look honey, I was at the hairdresser today!” Do not underestimate the potential of this moment to cause some serious conflict.
DE-ESCALATE: Most guys aren’t aware of what they like until they see it. Chances are, you liked her hair fine the way it was when you met her; little tweaks here and there are all good. A radical cut, on the other hand, could go either way. Don’t let it!
THE ACT: Rein in the shock and go with “I love it!” Yes, even if you don’t, and no, it’s not being dishonest. “Avoid criticism – it won’t make her hair grow back any faster,” says Rudolph. “She’s probably a little uncertain, so go easy and don’t make her feel bad about herself.” In a few days she might mention that she’s not sure it’s her thing, after all, and that she might go back to what she had before… at that point, and only that point, should you pipe up with, “Well, I don’t want to seem shallow, but I really loved your hair the way it was.”
3 Golden Rules for Greater Harmony
Elna Rudolph’s three-step guide to living a healthier, longer relationship:
Don’t blame anyone. That means you, and especially her. It’ll only lead to a spiral of accusations, back-and-forth until you’re both sick of each other.
Don’t get loud. Having a disagreement while remaining calm and composed is the sign of a well-adjusted adult – shouting and swearing is evidence of immaturity and a lack of empathy.
No matter how bad it gets, do not stubbornly hold onto resentment. If you have to let an argument sit for a bit while you think it through, leave it for no longer than a day. Go to bed at peace with each other. Let the make-up sex do the last little bit of resolving – it works like a bomb!