Talking to your Partner: Making Subtext Text

talking to your partner

My wife and I dated twice. I broke things off the first time around, after we had dated for about a week. I was a number of months out from a breakup with my then-fiancee, and was worried about getting too serious too quickly. My now-wife’s response to my breakup speech was outstanding. She said “listen, if you want to break up, that’s fine. It only takes one person to break up. But let’s not pretend that it’s for the sake of my feelings, because I don’t want to break up.” Fair point. And it sort of set the stage for us in terms of talking to your partner. We’re both big fans of making “subtext” “text.”

I have no plans on adding to the heaps of relationship advice books out there. But I’ve been in relationships before where one partner is grumpy about something, the other asks them what’s wrong, and the response they get is “nothing, I’m fine.” When they are very much not fine.

That’s a lie.

I’m Fine

It’s also not very fair to the enquiring partner. The “I’m fine” response requires them to try and guess at what’s bothering the other person. And we’re not mind-readers. Not very good ones, anyway. It also makes it easy for the enquiring partner to say “ok, you’re fine, I’m not going to worry about it anymore.” 

I’m a big fan of a rule outlawing the “I’m fine” lie. “I’m fine” is a perfectly fine response if it’s true, though often a slightly longer response is helpful, like “I’m fine, I’m just tired,” or “I’m fine, I was just thinking about this other thing.” It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to engage about the thing. “I’m not fine, but I don’t want to talk about it” is a totally acceptable answer too.

More generally, I’m a big proponent of saying the things you’re thinking or feeling out loud, rather than just hoping your partner will pick up on things (sometimes this has been described as “ask” culture vs. “guess” culture. More on that here). The model you’ll often hear for complaints is “Hey Partner, when you do [x], it makes me feel like [y] (Optional: because [y2]),, so I’d appreciate it if you do [z] instead.” It sounds hokey, but it works. And it’s how I learned that my wife got annoyed when I hung up towels in a stupid way that meant they wouldn’t dry.

It doesn’t mean that if you follow this advice, you’ll never argue with your partner. And these conversations can take on varying magnitudes, depending on the magnitude of the “ask” at the end of the model conversation opener. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t wad up your towel so it dries” is a lot easier to automatically agree with than, say, “I’d appreciate it if you moved across the country.”

But generally, if the “ask” is reasonable, one of the core elements of being in a functional relationship is that you care about your partner’s happiness and well-being. So if it’s something low-stakes to you (say, how you fold towels) and it’s something that your partner obviously cares more about than you do, then it’s probably a good idea to do things their way. On the other hand, some things are equally important to both of you, and in that case you can just plan to go to your graves loading the dishwasher differently.