The Breaking Bad Habits in Relationships Series — (Part 7)

Kay: I had a crappy day at work today.

Joe: What happened?

Kay: Jen keeps making me feel like I’m not doing a good job, like I can never get it right.

Joe: What’s up with that?

Kay: Don’t know.

Joe: Why don’t you talk to her?

Kay: Hmm.

Joe: What’s that supposed to mean, hmm?

Kay: It’s just…that’s not why I’m telling you about it. I mean, I’m not asking you to fix it.

Joe: I’m not trying to. All I said is why don’t you talk to her.

Kay: Yeah, but, this is what always happens. I just wanted to tell you about it is all.

Joe: Yeah, it does always happen. No matter what I say, it’s never the right thing.

Kay: Can I just tell you something once without you trying to fix it?

Joe: Why don’t you tell me exactly what you want me to say next time so I can parrot it back to you?

Kay: You just don’t get it.

Joe: Clearly.

Kay: Forget it.

Joe: Fine.

In every relationship, there’s usually at least one problem-solver.

It’s natural for the problem-solver to jump to find solutions and fix things when a problem is presented. It’s not natural for the problem-solver to sit back, listen and empathize without jumping into action.

​This is a common source of conflict when the person presenting the problem, in this case, Kay, just wants to be heard and validated. She’s not looking for Joe to tell her what to do. In fact, it makes her feel more alone and misunderstood.

Because it isn’t natural for Joe to just listen, situations like these make him anxious and uncomfortable. That makes it even harder for him to connect to Kay. He’s anxious and uncomfortable because he feels he never says the right thing.

​Deep down, he wants desperately to be able to help Kay. He cannot understand how not providing suggestions or solutions could be helpful. He’s not able to hear it when Kay tells him. All he hears is that he is letting her down once again and is defective. He feels triggered and goes on the defensive.

Kay already feels triggered because she feels misunderstood and alone. The same pattern happens over and over whenever Kay reaches out to Joe.

Part of the problem is that Kay is expecting Joe to disappoint her and Joe is expecting Kay to tell him he isn’t doing it right.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall right into these roles that they have created for themselves and for each other.

Kay and Joe need help in owning what they are each bringing to the table, taking the focus off of what the other is doing wrong and looking at what they are each doing to create the situation.

Even though Joe was being sarcastic when he told Kay to tell him exactly what to say the next time, he wasn’t that far off. One thing Kay can try is to preface her situation with what she needs from him and what she doesn’t need.

If Kay is able to express her needs beforehand, Joe’s challenge will be to try and do things differently. It will feel awkward and out of his comfort zone, but it will help to know what Kay is looking for. Another thing Joe can do instead of proposing solutions is to tell Kay he has an idea and ask her if she’s open to hearing it.

Both people need to be willing to take a step back and focus on themselves versus each other. This sets the stage for growth versus the attack-defend trap that is so easy to fall into.

The fact that Joe is a problem-solver and that Kay isn’t doesn’t make one right and one wrong. They are simply just different people with different personalities and different needs. The goal is not to make them the same. Rather, the goal is to make room for both of their styles and needs.


David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.

Originally published at on July 20, 2017.

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