The pandemic and associated lockdowns are testing every relationship on the planet right now.
My wife and I have had a few blowouts here for sure. We seem to be saying the "wrong thing" to each other constantly. Most fights are the same old stuff we usually fight about but with the added bonus of severe stress piled onto it. I know we’re not alone in this.
However, with every fight my wife and I have, we come out of it with a new insight. But we only do that because we dare to get into it with each other. We roll around in the mud while trying to remember our rules of engagement so that the fight is respectful.
This doesn’t always work, though. Some crappy things get said, or one of us tries to control or manipulate, and sometimes we both resort to immature tactics to get our way. Inevitably, one of us always says the wrong thing.
But I’ve learned one thing about communication that is simultaneously the healer and destroyer of relationships — sometimes you have to say the wrong thing to know what’s right.
That may sound counterintuitive, but the death of relationships is not actually the fights we have. It’s the ones we don’t have — the indifference, the words we decide not to say anymore because we’re too tired or fed up.
The thing is, when we dare to say the wrong thing, it has the potential to damage our relationships. But only if we choose not to learn anything from it.
If we say the wrong thing but end up learning something about ourselves or our partners, then this can lead to a good outcome.
For example, one thing that triggers my wife is when I use a lot of “you” statements. So if I point my finger at her and tell her what she’s doing wrong, she feels attacked.
Now, I could choose to clam up and stop talking, or I could continue saying the wrong thing, but try to go deeper. I love my wife, and I don’t want to lose our relationship, so the obvious choice is to go deeper.
Over time, we figured out that finger-pointing statements bring up past trauma for her. And honestly, most of the things that really hurt us are from past trauma. Once you uncover that, you can figure out how to talk to each other in a way that respects both people.
For us, here’s how that worked — instead of getting my back up and refusing to listen to my wife’s needs, I decided to learn how to use “I feel” statements. In this way, I could point out things that hurt me in her comments or actions instead of attacking her. In this way, both people get the respect they need.
But I wouldn’t have learned these things had I not said the wrong thing, which then taught me the right way to listen and speak.
The worst is when we decide not to say anything at all because we fear the conflict. Instead, we clam up, ghost, shut down, and avoid.
And this is not the same thing as when a relationship reaches a stalemate of indifference. In this case, it means two people have been saying the wrong thing for a while, but can’t figure out how to navigate it together.
But fearing conflict and avoiding it is another relationship killer that’s even more heartbreaking. Because it means that you’re not willing to try or learn. Or worse yet, your fear of conflict is so thick and pervasive that it may be hard for you to begin a relationship in the first place.
Many people who fear conflict will often say that they don’t like to talk because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. But unfortunately, saying the wrong thing is just part of having a relationship.
Getting close and intimate with another is a kind of healing. Not that we expect our partners to make everything better for us. But that we learn about ourselves through the lens of our relationships.
There are things about myself that would’ve continued haunting me had I not learned about them through conflicting with my wife. I said the wrong thing, and she said the wrong thing, but together we figured out how our individual wounds were causing us pain.
Then, we were able to dig up the wounds and heal them on our own.
This is why experts say that conflict is healthy, but only if you can both emerge from it with self-awareness and new skills to practice.
This pandemic and the lockdowns are likely puting a microscope on all of our relationships right now. And we’ve never been this stressed out, so I’ll bet that many of us are saying all kinds of wrong things at the moment.
Some of us may even be thinking about calling it quits. But before you do that, I urge you to take a step closer to your partner.
Let each wrong thing you’ve said illuminate the core issues that both of you are carrying. Likely, these are issues that have been around a long time, maybe before you got together.
Know that underneath every wrong thing you’ve said lies a deep pain or fear.
In this case, saying the wrong thing acts like hydrogen peroxide on a wound. Everything starts bubbling and hurting, but eventually, the stuff that’s hiding lifts up and out. And that’s where the opportunity lies.
Because you have to actually see your wounds before you can do something about them. Is this frightening? You bet it is, but that’s the nature of relationships. What I do know is that underneath every conflict is a gift for your evolution.
So yes, you will say the wrong thing. But the key is to follow it up with genuine learning and a commitment to do better in the future.