That's not what I meant...
Do you ever find yourself saying that?
In the heat of an argument or a disagreement, have you ever heard yourself say those words? In our house they usually come out right after one or the other of us has said “what did you just say?!”
You know the times. You’re having an argument about how one person hasn’t done something or has done something wrongly and you make a flippant comment that you probably meant to say only in your head.
I know that feeling as I do it regularly. Unfortunately I am “blessed” (in inverted commas there for sarcastic emphasis) with a mouth that is connected directly to my brain without the coffee percolator filter paper in between that Richard seems to have. That means that when we have an argument, the flippant comment that I say in my head tends to come straight out, as strong and unfiltered as the classic Italian espresso: short, not sweet, and definitely has a kick in the throat.
The disingenuous truth about the “that’s not what I meant” statement is that actually, WE DID MEAN IT. The essence of what comes out in that espresso-retort IS TRUTH. The problem with what we say is that we didn’t mean the recipient to have to absorb the venom that comes along with the bite.
This realisation is even more important when it comes to the way that we talk to each (and argue with each other) when we are parents. I never really paid much attention to how I used to speak to Richard in the heat of the moment, because, prior to having children, we had the time to both go away from an argument, lick our wounds, think about what was hurtful and then eventually make an apology. That’s a luxury that you have pre-children – time. Time to ponder about what was said, what should have been said, what shouldn’t, what could have been different.
You don’t have the same amount of time post-children. That statement should be obvious, I realise. I get that a not-insignificant number of you might be rolling your eyes at the screen, thinking “well quite clearly you don’t have the same amount of time post-children, how have you only just realised this?” And yet, if it’s so obvious to you, dear reader, as it is to me; I have one simple question for you:
Why do we still bicker with our partner like we have all the time in the world to sort it out?
I don’t have a good answer to that question, I want to warn you. The rest of this blog post will not end with me giving you the one golden rule to make sure that you never bicker like school-children with your partner again – if I had the answer to that I’d be bottling it and selling it on eBay.
Instead I’m posing you the same hypothetical scenario that I posed to my own husband this week. When you think of soldiers on the battlefield, there is no bickering, no schoolyard squabbling, no insolence or blatant disregard for rank and authority. What’s the reason for that? The answer, of course, is simple.
It comes down to unity. A unit of soldiers rely on each other to have their backs – their safety (and their lives) are ultimately in the hands of the others in their unit. They all have to work together, and abide by the same rules, to give everyone the best chance of survival.
That isn’t to say that post-battle soldiers and their senior ranks don’t review and assess the battle – look at what went wrong and what could be improved upon (that’s where they get a better tactical approach for their next engagement) – but it’s simply to say that those soldiers understand when there is a time to fight the enemy, and a time to fight between themselves (and they aren’t the same time…)
Why don’t we do this as parents?
I recognise the unusual nature of suggesting that you look at your own baby or children as the “enemy” in a warfare situation (although a tantrumming toddler will display some similarities….); so I’m not going to go that far. But even if you don’t want to draw a parallel between yourself and a military official, there is probably something in the tactic of not having your arguments ON the battlefield.
In every relationship you will have arguments. You will disagree about something that one of you has done or not done; doubly so when it comes to the way in which you each parent (unless you are my cousin, who once assured me that she and her husband never argue – if you would like to follow them for marriage guidance, I can give you her social media…)
The key to arguments and disagreements as parents is to recognise when the RIGHT time for those arguments ARE; so that you can argue PRODUCTIVELY.
I see a lot of couples who approach their family life differently – and almost as many who have different “financial plans” for achieving that family life. What I don’t see that much of is couples that know how to argue about those differences productively.
Arguing productively doesn’t mean never arguing (far from it – there have been several studies conducted by marriage therapists that suggest couples that don’t argue aren’t equally invested in their marriages….)
Rather it means having those discussions at the right time, in the right place, so that you can say what you MEAN.
As I said at the beginning of this post; so many arguments that I have had, and that I see my client couples have, erupt because one partner says what comes out in the heat of battle – rather than what they truly mean – rather than what would have come out if only they had waited to discuss it in the debrief, rather than on the field.
I can’t give you the magic sauce to stop you arguing in your relationship, nor can I wave a magic wand to ensure that you both have exactly the same vision for your family future that you’ll never have another disagreement again (but as I said, my cousin possibly can…)
But what I can do is politely suggest that when you feel that espresso-retort bubbling up in the back of your throat, take a breath, count to 3 and observe your surroundings. Are you feeling stressed? Is the baby screaming for the 4th time in a hour, and your husband has forgotten to sterlise any bottles? Or has your toddler emptied an entire packet of Cheerios into the hall and you just.need.to.yell?
If any of those things are happening at that moment, then remember, the time for talking tactics – for reviewing, resetting and improving on behaviour is not then. Not on the battlefield. What comes out will not convey what you mean – it will only throw fuel on the already burning fire.
Instead, adopt a new approach. Say to your partner something along the lines of “this is not going well. We need to discuss this LATER. Right now, we need to work together to solve the current situation. We can debrief LATER.”
When I say this to Richard, he knows that now is not the time. He knows that I mean the priority has to be getting all our soldiers back to base in one piece. Don’t get me wrong – this took time and practice – but now we debrief after the toddler is in bed, and when we can both properly (and calmly) convey how we felt.
And the benefit of a post-children bedtime debrief? It can come with a (large) glass of wine to smooth the negotiations.