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Ask An Expert: How To Break Out of Relationship Gridlock

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THE QUESTION
“During lockdown, my wife has turned into a health and fitness fascist. At first, I thought it was great that she’d started exercising again. But she’s now taken things to an extreme. Aside from daily workouts, she’s also ditched booze and gone carb and gluten-free. I’m hardly a couch-potato myself. But I’ve been furloughed from work so am currently doing most of the childcare / homeschooling. To be honest, I find that pretty full-on and I like to unwind in the evenings over a couple of glasses of wine (something that my wife previously enjoyed doing too). Now she says I’m being “unsupportive” with my behaviour and it’s started causing a lot of arguments. RK

THE EXPERT
John Aiken is a father of two, a veteran relationship specialist and one of the experts on Channel 9’s Married at First Sight. He’s also the author of three books including Making Couples Happy: How science can help get relationships back on track. Here’s what he had to say.

Whenever you’re facing gridlock as a couple, what you’ve got to do is establish a sense of understanding on both sides. Your problem at the moment is that neither person is really listening because you’re trying to point-score instead. When things are like that, they can quickly descend into: “I’m right, you’re wrong.” “I’m healthy and fit, you’re not….”

In these situations you have to sit down and say, “Ok, I want to understand exactly what your position is really all about. I’m ready to listen to you in order to get a better idea of why this issue is so important to you. Then we’re going to flip roles and you’re going to do that same process for me.”

When you’re explaining your side of the story to your wife, you can tell her why it’s so important for you to enjoy a couple of relaxing glasses of wine at the end of the day. You can reveal what your day is really like at the moment, why you’re so stressed out and how difficult things have become for you in lockdown.

Once you’ve both taken the time to understand the other person’s side, what often happens is that you’ll both soften. So your wife might say, “Ok, I hadn’t really looked at it from that perspective before. I didn’t understand why it was so important for you to relax at the end of the day. Now I get that you’re feeling overwhelmed – having a glass of wine is just your way of unwinding. Mine is just different.”

The issues at play in your scenario may be drinking and fitness. But you could replace them with any other problem and still apply the same approach. Whether you’re facing gridlock over a parenting issue or an argument over money, the same strategy applies.

Ultimately, you’ve got to sit down, stop point scoring, make a genuine effort to understand your partner’s point of view and then validate what they’re saying. Once you’ve understood each other, you should both soften. That’s when the action steps emerge as you work out how to do things differently.

So in this case, for example, your wife might say, “Maybe I’ll have a little half glass of wine with you a couple of nights a week.” Or you might say, “I’ll commit to three alcohol-free days a week.” Together you’ll try to figure out some form of blueprint for compromise. But nothing will get resolved unless you both sit down together and stop the point scoring.