Constant sharing of close quarters can put couples in conflict, especially during these anxious times. Tai Mendenhall, associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Couple and Family Therapy Program, shares tips on how to navigate differences and why he considers the adage “Never go to bed angry” terrible advice.
Q: After several weeks of extreme cohabitation, many of us are struggling to share space. How can we reboot?
A: The first thing I would do is back up one step and negotiate time before I would negotiate space. If your approach is “We’re gonna do this one minute to the next and figure it out,” that’s not going to be as good as figuring it out together, to say, “OK, I have to work from home, you have to do some stuff for school. There are different activities that we’re going to be doing” — there’s no right or wrong answer.
And then once you’ve figured out the time, then you’re not tripping over each other where somebody is trying to have an online meeting, and somebody’s running in with a question. Once you’ve figured out that structure, then you can figure out the space.
Q: What about handling arguments? Couples have to keep sharing the same space even if they’re still simmering.
A: You know sometimes when a couple’s getting married and somebody raises their glass to give a toast and they say, “My advice to the couple is to never go to bed angry?” That’s horrible advice, because I don’t think it’s realistic and I don’t think it’s really fair.
The best time to talk about conflict is when you’re not having a conflict. It’s important to remember that most fights end in the same way that they started, so if you start by jumping in and biting somebody’s head off, it’s probably not going to end in a nice warm and fuzzy Hollywood ending with music playing in the background and credits rolling.
Q: What’s a better alternative to hashing it out until 3 a.m.?
A: You say, “Look, I have got to get some rest. I am 100 percent invested in getting this figured out but, let’s do it tomorrow morning after breakfast.”
And if your spouse is talking and what you’re really thinking about is what you’re gonna say next, then you need to remember that God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason and start rolling that way. Because otherwise you’re just going to talk over each other and get nowhere.
Q: COVID-19 has brought with it so much anxiety. How can we reduce that anxiety, aside from exercising and eating and sleeping well?
A: Stay the hell off 24/7 news and social media. If all you’re exposing your brain to is negative social media and how horrible things are, then lo and behold — depression, anxiety, biting your spouse’s head off at dinner — none of these things is a real surprise.
Q: How do you recommend navigating differing levels of risk tolerance, say one partner wants to book a cruise while the other is bleaching the entire house?
A: One of the best ways to get people to resist you is to tell them not to do something. If anybody’s ever had a teenager they know that.
I think it’s important to frame your concern as helping somebody else versus being about them. Saying, “You shouldn’t do that because you might get sick,” is not going to compute as much as, “I really don’t feel comfortable with you doing that because I’m worried that you might make me sick.”
Just like how maybe I don’t really like to watch those rom-coms, but every now and then I do because my partner does.
Q: Ah, then what?
A: If you change the don’t message to do, and have them do something else, that message can be better, too. So, instead of, “Don’t book the cruise,” you could say, “What if you think about something for the holidays, like booking a really cool cabin in Duluth?”
That way, they’re doing it for you instead of folding to your dictate to not do something. And the final thing is to then express how appreciative you are when they do it, and say, “That meant a lot to me.”
Q: Now that we’ve played all our board games, what are other ways couples can bond?
A: I think what’s really cool about this time/opportunity is a chance for couples to just talk.
As for resources, there are a thousand different books of questions out there, full of questions about your past, such as: “What was your first day at school like?” “Tell me about how you learned to ride a bike.” Or there are questions about your present that you might not even know about each other. Like, “What’s your favorite song on the radio right now?” Or questions about what-ifs, like, “If you could go back into any time period, what would you choose?”
Most couples, especially in today’s busy times, they’re just go, go, go. But these types of conversations make a foundation for what’s essential for a couple.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together, you can always be better and you can always be closer.