The Elephant in the Room of Your Relationship
Communication, like using peanuts to tame an elephant, will give you greater control over the situation and is your only chance of solving the problem.
There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s getting in the way of your relationship. The metaphor, much like the beast itself, referring to an obvious problem being ignored, can trample your relationship.
Ignoring an obvious problem is a type of conflict avoidance strategy. People fear the stress and negativity that could result, especially for pointing out what feels like an “obvious” problem, but you can’t predict what will happen when an issue is brought up until it is discussed. Sometimes simply saying, “Hey, how about that elephant in the room,” can be the key to unlocking a simple solution when you feel trapped in a larger problem.
Communication, like using peanuts to tame an elephant, will give you greater control over the situation and is your only chance of solving the problem. Once you’ve confronted the elephant though, how you continue to communicate will determine whether you solve the problem. Researcher Dr. John Gottman, best known for his research on marital stability and divorce prediction, describes specific communication behaviors that are likely to predict the end of a relationship, named the “The Four Horsemen,” – criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling/withdrawal.
Avoiding these behaviors and following the tips below during a conflict can mean the difference between successful problem-solving and stomping all over each other and your relationship:
Criticism: Attacking your partner is counterproductive. Beginning with a universal, accusatory statement such as, “You always/never,” is antagonistic as well. Focus on how the issue makes you feel, not your partner or other non-related issues.
Defensiveness: Defensiveness may feel like protecting yourself, but instead of communicating it is really an attack on the other person. Instead of becoming defensive, communicate productively by saying how you feel and offering possible solutions.
Contempt: Treat your partner with respect. Even when you are arguing, remember you care about each other and want to reach a mutually beneficial solution. Passive aggressiveness, eye-rolling, and any statement that asserts authority or sanctity over your partner are typical examples of contempt that arise during arguments. Avoid fighting, focus on communicating and working towards a solution, and not trying to “win.”
Stonewalling/Withdrawal: During a fight, especially when feelings are involved, it can be tempting to shut down physically, verbally, or emotionally. Not working out a problem may be less stressful temporarily, but doesn’t solve anything, and may make the problem worse. Stonewalling may build resentment or cause the other person to act out to cause a reaction. Stay open, intimate, and positive with your partner during the conflict by remembering, conflict isn’t a chore, it’s productive.
Communication–especially about the things that scare you or make you uncomfortable–is key to a successful relationship. The longer you ignore an issue, the more weight it will bear on the relationship. Imagine trying to live with a large, angry elephant in a studio apartment–that is what you are doing to your relationship when you ignore an issue or don’t handle it appropriately, and no amount of doing the dishes or taking out the trash is going to solve the problem.