5 Relationship Problems You Should Bring Up With Your Partner — And 4 You Shouldn't
Love may be a battlefield but you still have to pick the fights you'll have on it. Is it annoying when your partner leaves a trail of open cabinet doors in their wake as they move around the kitchen? Sure, maybe. Is that as bad as their tendency to talk over or belittle you in front of others? Almost certainly not. Some relationship problems merit mention to, even serious discussion with, your partner; others don't. The difficulty comes up when you have to decipher between the two.
Dr. Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and Executive Director of Innovation 360, says to think of it this way: Your significant other is 87 percent perfect, and 13 percent not. The majority comprises all the things you love about them — their full-body commitment to karaoke; the way they pick up the shared chore slack when you have a lot on your plate; the way they think to buy toilet paper for you and your roommate when they've been sleeping over a lot — and then there's the smaller slice to consider.
"There’s a percent of every relationship that’s really, actually just ... you," Gilliland tells Bustle. "It has nothing to do with the other person." Which is to say, the tiny things that irritate you about another person sometimes say more about you than anyone else. When you consider your partner's attributes and more annoying traits, ask yourself: Are the faults I find a reflection of me being hypercritical, or do they tug at something deeper? Am I pissed that my partner never does the dishes because I personally dislike the sight of plates accumulating in the sink, or because I know my partner knows I can't stand the grime and will inevitably lose this game of chicken, taking care of both of us per usual? (There's a reason why one party's refusal to do the damn dishes tanks relationships.) Basically, you need to assess the situation and decide, as objectively as possible, if you're being fussy about not having things your way, or if the messiness constitutes an iceberg tip poised to sink your ship of dreams.
So how do you make the distinction between problems worth talking about and problems better kept to yourself? "Overall, you don’t want to sweat the small stuff and you don’t want to allow the important issues to fester," Dr. Jess O’Reilly, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast, tells Bustle. "And you have to accept that not every conflict can be resolved. Some couples continue to disagree over the years, but they don’t allow their disagreements to breed resentment."
Ultimately, what matters enough to voice and what's inconsequential enough to let slide will be a subjective question: Tiny, even inadvertent actions might signal danger ahead to some people, while others brush them off as NBD. It all depends on who you are. With that in mind, here are five topics that you do need to discuss with your partner, and four you can let slide, according to experts.
1. Do Discuss: If They Spend Above Their Means
"This is a common and important issue in a relationship," Courtney Cleman, sex expert and founder of The V.Club, tells Bustle. Many many millennials will have student loans to repay: A reported 63 percent of us owe $10,000 or more in educational debts. Don't judge someone's financial situation too harshly, but do figure out if they're spending their money on reasonable things, says Cleman.
If they insist on always ordering four courses at the best restaurants but can't pay their health care bills, or if the sum total of their paycheck always translates to a new piece of designer apparel hanging in their closet, then it may be time to rethink things. "You might not want to tie your life to this person, because this situation could repeat itself," Cleman says.
2. Don't Discuss: If You Disagree About How Much Time To Spend Apart
There's a big caveat on this one upfront: If you feel your partner is never around, like you never hang out one-on-one, call that out. Also feel free to vocalize your thoughts if your significant other monopolizes all your time, or seeds guilt in your brain whenever you make plans with friends. But, Cleman says, if you don't agree on how much time should be spent with buddies or on solo activities, you don't necessarily need to turn it into a discussion.
"Many couples become attached at the hip, spending all their free hours with each other," Cleman says. "It could lead to boredom and stagnation both in and out of the bedroom — when you share all of your experiences, you run the risk of no longer being interesting to each other. Keeping separate interests and preserving your own [identities] is challenging but very important for creating a passionate, lasting relationship."
3. Do Discuss: If Your Partner Isn't Sharing The Chore Load
Cleman says some introspective analysis before broaching this subject, but because we know that unfair splits in household chores hold the potential to break up couples (whom I suspect have deeper underlying issues).
"Have a conversation if you feel like your partner is really slacking," says Cleman. But first ask yourself: Is there an area where they're doing more than their fair share, and does it balance out their light chore list?
"It's natural to expect a 50/50 split of domestic responsibilities if you are cohabitating with your partner," Cleman says. "However, it's often unrealistic and falls in the category of 'choose your battle wisely.' Usually it comes down to a difference in our preference and tolerance for neatness, order, and a sense of urgency."
4. Don't Discuss: Small Personality Quirks
Say you're dating someone who seems incapable of making the bed. You like to crawl into crisply creased sheets every night, whereas your partner prefers to burrow back into their chaotic sleep nest and rediscover whatever book or garment they squirreled away in there last night. Their messiness challenges your patience. Do you voice it? Probably not. Probably, you learn to let it go.
"They’re not messy because they want to irritate you, that’s just how they move through the world," Gilliland says. Or, for those who find themselves on the flip side of this coin, "They’re not neat because they want to show you how responsible they are, that’s just what they like. So you have this space to go, OK, I can tolerate more messiness even though it’s not something I would normally do, because it’s not personal. It’s just something they do." Rather than a personal attack on you and your values.
5. Do Discuss: If You Have Different Perspectives On Big Life Decisions
Should you find yourself considering whether or not you could spend your life with your partner, ask about kids. People tend to have strong, deal-making or dealbreaking opinions about kids, and not to just layer on the pressure or anything, but disagreement on this point could decide your relationship future.
"If somebody says they really want kids, you better believe them. Or if they don’t want kids, really believe them," Gilliland says. "Most people don't change their mind about that subject."
Marriage falls in this camp, too, as does monogamy. Ask about those while you're at it.
6. Don't Discuss: Frustrations That Are Really About Something Else
"Issues that might not be worth discussing include small daily annoyances — e.g. they don’t screw the cap back on the toothpaste — and irritations that might seem to be related to the relationship, but are in fact holdovers from another area of your life," says Dr. O'Reilly.
Are you legitimately mad that your partner didn't wipe down the counters, so mad that you want to have a long and serious talk about it? Or is that residual frustration from the extremely exasperating day at work, creeping into your personal life? If the latter, the solution is probably not picking a fight with your person. The solution is probably letting them distract you in whatever way they do it best.
7. Do Discuss: If It's Really About A Deeper Problem
However, Dr. O'Reilly says it's also important to remember that these everyday frustrations can build up if they're related to your partner not respecting your needs.
"It may seem trivial that they continue to leave their towel on the floor," she says, "but what really bothers you is that you’ve asked them repeatedly to hang it up and feel that they're disregarding your requests. If this is the case, speak up. Tell them that it’s not about the towel, it’s about the desire to feel heard and respected."
8. Do Discuss: If You Seem To Hold Different Values
If you two diverge on core values — like, you've heard your partner make some racially insensitive comments in "jest," or sometimes they make "hypothetical" but sincere-seeming comments about reverse sexism — bring it up.
"We may have some variability in values, but it’s going to be a dealbreaker if one of the things I value is respecting all people ... [and] you talk in very disrespectful terms about women, or about another ethnic group, or about another religious group," Gilliland says. "Those things almost always filter back to our values."
You'll want to know sooner rather than later if you've been dating a closet bigot, and if there somehow exists a separate explanation for the very questionable things they say, to spend some time discussing why this person's comments aren't OK. And then you'll need to ask yourself if you want to date someone who needs help unpacking all that's wrong with discriminatory language.
The Bottom Line
"Intimacy is about letting down your boundaries and being willing to be vulnerable for another person," relationship expert and health psychologist Dr. Carmen McGuinness tells Bustle. "I don’t think there should be a lot that you can’t talk about."
Bring up issues as they arise, McGuinness says, rather than letting them stew — but treat the small things playfully if you need to mention them at all. And above all, consider annoyances in your own context.
"The most important thing is first to know who you are, to really know yourself, to know where your lines and limits are," McGuinness says. Whether or not a problem is worth raising depends on why it bothers you, and only something you can decide.