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Stinky Trash and Deep Listening

One of the most challenging times for many couples is when an argument escalates into a screaming match. It can start with something trivial like trash that wasn’t put out, or it can start with something serious like a past affair. Regardless of the seriousness of the topic, a screaming match is exhausting and scary because it usually doesn’t yield any solutions but frustration and hopelessness. Many couples seek therapy after many rounds of such futile arguments. I’ve been there myself, so I understand how frustrating, painful, and demoralizing it can be.

There is both good and bad news for you. The good news is that there is a simple solution, and the bad news is that this doesn’t mean the solution is easy. If you have read this far, you probably still want to know what it is. So, I tell you that the remedy is deep listening. You may think, “No, I don’t want to listen to the bastard, they need to listen to me first!” I understand and almost agree with you. I have no information about if they are a bastard or not, and I agree that you need to be heard. However, the person who needs to listen first is not your partner, but you. 

Think about this. Despite your raised voice, your message didn’t reach your partner. This may mean that they are a total “bastard,” or you two are not meant to be together because you can’t understand each other. Before coming to this extreme conclusion, I would like you to toy with the possibility that you didn’t communicate with your partner well enough because you didn’t know exactly what it was that you wanted to be heard.

For example, you get frustrated when your partner forgot to put the trash out and express frustration by angrily saying, “You forgot again?” Your partner gets defensive and replies to you in a dismissive tone, “I was gonna do it tomorrow.” You now raise your voice, saying, “But the trash has started to stink, and the last time you didn’t put it out on time, we missed the garbage truck!” Instead of saying, “Sorry, I will be careful next time,” your partner rolls their eyes and says, “It’s just trash!” Now the argument is bound to escalate.

After or even during the fight, you may ask yourself why you two are fighting over such a trivial thing like trash. The answer is that the trash symbolizes something deeper, and a part of you is agonized about it, while your everyday self is unaware of your own pain. So, the first step to preventing such fights is to have a conversation between your everyday self and the part in pain.

I would like you to find a comfortable space and give yourself 5 to 10 minutes (or longer). You may want a notebook and pen beside you to write down any thoughts, feelings, and insights. Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself what about the trash (or whatever irritates or frustrates you about your partner) was so irritating? This is an honest conversation with a less known part of yourself, so please put judgment aside and hold compassion and curiosity for the part that gets frustrated by the trash.  

Is it because you are already overwhelmed with everything you need to do, and seeing the trash makes you panic because it is another thing on your plate? Or is it because you see your partner not putting trash out as a betrayal because your partner has broken so many promises? If this is the case, can you feel your pain about those broken promises? Or do you feel the left trash symbolizes unfairness because you do more chores and child-rearing than your partner? Or is it about your obsession to keep the house impeccably clean?

As you can see, these answers point to the core issue lying underneath your reaction to the left trash. Once you find it, you often have a better idea about how to address it. If it is about your being overwhelmed, you may want to share this with your partner and ask for their help. Or you may realize that it is more about your inability to say no to others and take on too much work, and you want to practice saying no to others.

You may realize a trust issue between you and your partner lies underneath your reaction, and you may want to discuss this with your partner or decide to seek couples counseling. If it is about your obsession for cleanliness and desire to control as a result of the obsession, you may want to ask yourself further where the obsession came from.

Unfortunately, raising your voice doesn’t take you to the core issue. If this is left unaddressed, it will become more “stinky” for the relationship than the trash itself because it could create bad moods, irritability, and mistrust, a fertile ground for screaming matches or stonewalling (which I will address in future posts). However, if you deeply and honestly listen to yourself, you start to understand where the true trash is and how to deal with it.

Of course, this alone probably won’t solve the issue with your partner, and it could lead you to a new perspective on yourself and your relationship. This may change how you share your side with your partner, and you may be more interested in the core issue for your partner and feel more open to hearing them. If you continue this practice, you will be in a very different place from when you just reacted to the trash.