Talk a Little, Pick a Little
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My partner of 4 years has to process and talk about everything. The slightest disagreement has to be hashed out until I’m exhausted. We often arrive late to parties because he’ll drive around aimlessly until we “get this thing worked out.” I really do love him, but small spats just don’t bother me that much. How can I get him to stop talking my ear off about every last thing?
Dr. Hurd replies,
We all have to take care of ourselves. So it’s OK—in fact, necessary—for you to tell him, “Hey, I’m exhausted. I don’t mean to put you off. But can we pick this up another time?” Suggest a time in the near future, and then follow through with it. You’re validating his concerns and treating him as visible, but you’re also taking care of yourself.
Your partner is convinced that he can’t move on with anything until all issues are resolved. That might sound nice, but it’s just not possible. Some people can’t go to bed until the kitchen is clean and the dishes are put away. That might work well in the kitchen, but that sort of thinking doesn’t work with emotional issues that require time to resolve.
Your partner also suffers from the false belief that “talk is everything.” Communication is vital to a relationship, but verbal exchange is not required every second of every day. Minds need time to absorb what’s said. Angry or hurt reactions will often mellow into reasonable understanding after a little time has passed. In his compulsive quest to get everything resolved now, your boyfriend is overlooking the need for “mental digestion.” That’s why he drives you around for hours trying to do the impossible. You should try to understand why he does this, but you don’t have to enable it. Respect his good intentions, but tell him that sometimes you both need to take a break.
Talk is important. But when abused like this, it defeats itself. There’s a time to talk, and then there’s a time to quietly think. During the quiet times, things can sometimes even resolve themselves.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
One of my pleasures in life is going out to a restaurant and relaxing over a nice meal. More than half the times we go out, my partner proceeds to ruin the dinner by nit picking over everything, complaining about the food, service, the music—you name it. I have no problem reacting to a major issue or a rude server, but it almost seems like she’s making things up to take personally. The whole evening turns into a struggle.
Dr. Hurd replies,
Restaurant owners, employees and clerks in retail stores will tell you that people are at their rudest when they are customers. It sounds like your partner is one of these people. Some people are always rude, but many will only express that part of themselves in restaurant or retail contexts. You might gently encourage her to ask herself why she’s that way—especially if she’s not like that with family and friends.
To some extent, she probably feels out of control. Maybe she hates her job. Maybe she resents people in general. Maybe she wishes she had done something differently in life and now she regrets it. “Taking charge” in a restaurant, to the point of nitpicking or rudeness, is a way to express these otherwise unexpressed resentments—without having to pay the consequences. “Maybe I can’t do anything about my lousy boss, but I can sure put this waitress in her place.” The boss can fire her if she acts that way, but the poor waitress has to put up with it. This is an explanation, not an excuse. Problems like this can be symptoms of deeper psychological issues. The person might deny the core problem, but the symptoms pop up just the same.
Don’t approach her with, “This guy in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth says that you’ve got unexpressed resentment. That’s why you’re rude in restaurants.” This will surely backfire (perhaps loudly) because it comes off as an attack. The right way to go about it is simple: Refuse to enable. The next time she wants to go out, tell her the truth. “I’d love to go eat with you, dear. But honestly, you make a big fuss over everything, and it spoils it for me.” Be open and authentic, but not hostile. And then go with her anyway. Even if she initially resists your comments, you’ll know they’ve sunk in if she at least curbs her behavior. If that happens, simply thank her. If it doesn’t, then consider not going out with her until she expresses willingness to change.
Life is full of tradeoffs. This is especially true in relationships. If you want something from somebody—even a change in behavior—just step up to the plate and ask for it.
Dr. Michael J. Hurd is a psychotherapist, life coach and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email your questions or comments to DrHurd@DrHurd.com.