Discover more from The Meaningful Life
Is this normal?
Some common couple dilemmas and my thoughts on when to seek help.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of letters and emails I receive that ask me “is this normal?”.
Of course, “normal” is tough to define, and every couple is different. What some of these letter-writers are perhaps driving at is, “am I right to be concerned, or is this what everyone’s doing behind closed doors and I can relax back into my OK-ish relationship?”.
I’d suggest that if you’re asking this question at all, it’s time to do a bit of reading and spend some time working on communication, and what you’d like your own “normal” to look like.
Having said that, there are some issues that really transcend the everyday snags of coupledom; where it would be wise to seek professional guidance.
This week I use some case-study questions (all identifying details are omitted) to explore some “is this normal?” scenarios.
Better to be right than happy?
Question: Our arguments turn nasty not because we fundamentally disagree about anything important, but because we become bogged down in details. It normally revolves around what is ‘the truth’ and we end up accusing each other of lying. Are we normal?
I am concerned about your very black and white thinking, where everything is right / wrong, true / false or good / bad. Immediately, the stakes become very high and it is impossible to find a compromise.
The only solution seems to be for one of you to back down; which just fuels the anger for the next round. The frustration builds and builds and normally explodes in name calling, pushing each other too far, and in the worst cases into domestic abuse.
So how do you break out of this trap? First accept that there is no ultimate truth, just different ways of seeing things, which are sieved through our different experiences and thought processes.
Next, find different and less confrontational ways of expressing yourselves. For example, ‘from where I stand it seems.....’ Acknowledge your partner’s view, by repeating back the main points and add: ‘but I see things differently’.
In these cases,I also find a lot of negative mind-reading where even neutral comments are perceived as an attack. For example: ‘that was a nice piece of beef’ is heard as ‘but it’s a pity that the potatoes were overdone’. So check out what was actually meant before becoming defensive.
Finally, you need to understand why it is so threatening that your partner sees things differently. This might take couple counselling, but I normally find one or both partners are controlling or is frightened the other is about to leave.
Verdict: This is not part of the regular cut and thrust of being a couple. There are some deeper issues here around communication which may need professional support.
If you’d like to build your communication toolkit and ensure your connection stays strong, I recommend my book The Happy Couple’s Handbook.
How do we work as a unit?
Question: Whenever I give advice to my boyfriend, that he has asked for, he acknowledges it, thanks me but then ignores it. I am beginning to wonder why I bother? Is this normal?
There are two ways of solving a problem. The first is self-reliant and stresses the importance of finding your own answers. For tough problems it is acceptable to take soundings from experts - like doctors or solicitors - but the decision is yours alone. This has typically been seen as a male method.
The second is much more collegiate and stresses the importance of a good support network of friends. Here, problems are talked through and slowly a consensus emerges. This has typically been seen as a more female approach.
My guess is that you and your boyfriend are talking at cross purposes. You think that the two of you together will find a solution together and when he rejects the advice it feels personal. No wonder, you’re thinking of withdrawing your services.
However, he is asking not for advice - rather, he wants your opinion - and does not feel duty-bound to follow it. He would be amazed that you are upset and feel rejected.
So what do you do? Either you can accept that he is looking for an opinion rather than advice, or with important issues, he could share his internal workings more. Ask him to share other people’s opinions and how yours slotted into the overall picture and finally what made him chose his outcome. In this way, you will get feedback on your suggestions and be kept in the loop.
Finally, be reassured that he values your advice - after all, he keeps coming back for more.
Verdict: This one is very common, and I would say, quite “normal”. We imagine our way is the only way and therefore are often surprised to discover other equally valid ways.
Different ideas about parenting
Question: My wife and I have very different views about bringing up our children, who are now nine and eleven. For example, she accuses me of being harsh and dictatorial because I think they should clean their own shoes, but I think she runs after them too much. Is this normal?
There are two fundamental but conflicting goals in parenting. One is to nurture and protect our children. The other is to prepare them for the outside world. It is a hard trick to pull off, so it is not surprising that you have different views.
However, most couples find a middle way without becoming so polarised, especially by the time the children are these ages. You have probably reached the point where you not only think that you are right, but that you are protecting your children from your partner’s misguided interventions.
Throw in kids’ flair for playing one parent off against the other, and family life has likely reached crisis point.
If you’d like more advice on childproofing your relationship, try my book I Love You But You Always Put Me Last.
So what’s the answer? Firstly talk about your own childhood and your respective parents’ approach to child-rearing. What were their strengths and weakness? Be aware that we normally turn into our own parents - whether we like it or not.
Next talk about the kind of children that you want to raise, ie: ones who feel loved and valued but not still living at home in their thirties. If you still cannot find consensus, swap sides and you argue your wife’s case and she argues yours.
After fifteen minutes, stop and see what you’ve learnt about each other’s opinions. Finally, make a pact to discuss all issues about childrearing when the kids are not about, in that way you can present a united front.
Verdict: this is an intensified version of a common issue, that would more usually have been worked through by the time the children are these ages (possibly to re-ignite with the challenges of the teenage years). It is likely that one or both of you had unhappy childhood experiences, which you will need to put in some work to understand and resolve.
In other news, I had a really fascinating and hopefully helpful conversation on my podcast this week, with therapist Sarah Swenson. Sarah works with neurodiverse couples, and in our conversation we discussed the particular challenges these couples face.
You can listen here: “Are You in a Neurodiverse Relationship?”
And as always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (firstname.lastname@example.org) or use this contact form for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.