Recently a friend of mine and his-truly were posting on Facebook about an incident wherein they were arguing about the “correct” way to put toilet paper on the roll. If you are wondering what this means, one of them thought it should roll out from the outer side of the roll and the other thought it should roll from the underside of the roll. Or maybe one cared and one didn’t. It doesn’t much matter.
The conversation isn’t exactly awe-inspiring, but it is notable. This is conversation is notable because it is so relatable. How many of us in relationships of all kinds have had these types of discussions?
Mine wasn’t exactly about toilet paper, but instead about shirt collars. Maybe yours was about the proper way to chop a vegetable. The point is that this conversation happens a thousand ways every day.
When I said to my friend, “If all you have to argue about is toilet paper, you’re a lucky man!” His inevitable response was, “This is not about the toilet paper.” It never is. It never is. No, the toilet paper is just a metaphor for whatever else you can’t actually talk about... whether it is that someone doesn’t listen to you, you need to have control, or you are just being a big, fat jerk and taking it out on someone else. It’s never about the toilet paper.
It’s funny how these things work in relationships. How one moment my husband is talking to me about his shirt collar not being folded down and the next we are going at it over the fact that there are “nicer” ways to tell people things. My feelings are hurt, he doesn’t feel listened to, and suddenly that darn shirt collar seems the least of the worries in the household as the otherwise harmonious equilibrium has been disturbed.
Of course, there are more constructive ways to talk about what we feel than railing off about shirt collars, or sponges that aren’t for the counter top but the dishes ONLY. The problem is we don’t always realize that we are upset about say, the fact that we don’t feel heard, until we are going three rounds about which sponge is for which surface.
No, by that time our emotions have become like a runaway freight train, and the problem is that no one has properly trained us for this moment and we’re not sure why the emotion has sprung up or how to stop in our tracks to self correct. Know the feeling? Yea, so do a lot of couples.
Stopping in your emotional tracks isn’t the easiest thing to do. I’ve been in this relationship for over nine years and I am just starting to realize what it means to have effective communication across platforms. Let’s face it, it’s a challenge to be able to listen to someone else’s needs without putting your own feelings of insecurity in play. For example, if I say to my husband, “You aren’t listening to me,” it’s easy for him to come back with, “Yes I am!” But it doesn’t solve the problem...
The real problem isn’t whether he is listening or not--it’s that he’s perceived as not listening. So if he stops and says instead, “I want you to feel listened to. How can I better do that for you?” Then could say, “I love when you make eye contact with me when I talk.” He can return, “I’ll make a greater effort to do that. Can you remind me when I’m not?” Then we’ve got a solution... and whether or not he was actually listening? Unimportant. Now he is.
Sounds easy, but it’s not. It takes tons of practice, and most of all a great deal of vulnerability. But it certainly wasn’t about toilet paper, was it?