Ask This Question To Make Sure Your Relationship Stands The Test of Time
If you don’t ask it — and work through the answers — small issues may mutate into monstrous things.
When it comes to relationships, an initial instinct might be that you don’t want to turn a little issue into a big one. If today’s annoyance might become tomorrow’s deal breaker, why rush it along? Why poke it? That’s a problem for Future You — that is, if it becomes a problem at all. But in relationships ignored issues that gnaw at you a little early on can have a tendency of mutating into monstrous things.
In a recent TikTok, relationship advice-giver Sabrina Flores wisely advised all couples to consider this truth. “So many relationships wait until something is explosive until they address it and start working on it, and that’s why they broke up,” she said.
To help avert this scenario, Flores offers a simple exercise. She suggests couples sit down and ask each other the following question: ‘What area or part of our relationship can you foresee becoming a potential problem in the future, especially if you don’t start to work on it now?’
Done right, it’s a smart question to ask, as it lays bare what might be avoided. Other relationship therapists and experts agree that not only is the forethought involved in this exercise important, but that the process of learning how to have the conversation itself can also strengthen your relationship. Consider them test grounds for understanding how to argue in a useful way.
“Talking about minor issues in healthy ways can help build communication skills together, which would be great to have when bigger issues arise,” says Geena Lovallo, LMFTA. “When minor issues arise in a relationship, there may be bigger underlying issues at play.”
“Talking about minor issues in healthy ways can help build communication skills together, which would be great to have when bigger issues arise.”
For example, Lovallo brings up the classic argument about dishes being left in the sink. Like Hemingway’s famous statement about icebergs, there’s likely more issues bubbling under the surface than dishes being left in the sink. “One partner may feel that they are always doing the chores, and also that their needs aren't getting met in the relationship,” she says.
Still, the instinct to ignore small issues can be a strong one to overcome. “So many [people in relationships] favor companionship over all else,” says relationship expert and divorce attorney Sarah Intelligator, the author of Live, Laugh, Find True Love. “They are willing to tolerate the trouble spots, without stopping to consider how those trouble spots will ultimately lead to the demise of the relationship.”
So, how can you use Flores’ exercise in a way that’s effective for you, especially if it’s the kind of conversation you’re new to having?
Good question. The first thing to remember is that the exercise is not necessarily a ‘success’ if it generates a total lack of friction whatsoever. It’s nice to agree on things, but identifying and working through conflict is just as key. Part of the purpose of these kinds of conversations, Intelligator notes, is to identify where the main areas of compatibility or incompatibility in your communication styles are.
“It’s okay to disagree and more important to be able to negotiate,” adds Psychologist Reena B Patel. “Look at this more [in the context of] ‘Where do we see things differently and how can we come up with a plan to help that includes what we both want?’”
Patel suggests a typical ‘small issue’ as an example: routinely going to social events that one partner is more interested in than the other. It’s one where, instead of a big ultimatum, the exercise benefits from honestly communicating the area of difficulty (“Although I don’t always like to go out in big crowds to socialize…”) and some flexibility on the solution (“I know how important this is to you and how much you enjoy it”). This sets a diplomatic tone, allowing this particular issue to be handled thoughtfully by both parties going forward, and setting an important precedent if and when ‘bigger’ issues are discussed using the same exercise.
The ultimate purpose is to try and identify observable issues in the relationship that have the potential to grow in a negative direction, not to catastrophize about what huge issues may pop up down the road.
In relationship counseling, there are communication tools designed specifically for this kind of exercise. “When working with couples, I utilize the Gottman method,” says Lovallo, referring to the popular approach to couples therapy designed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, which aims to “take the guesswork out of improving your relationship.”
Lovallo notes that the Gottman method prioritizes active listening and thorough understanding between partners, even during conversations on ‘minor’ issues. “Once partners can understand each other in conversations,” says Lovallo, “then problem-solving can start.”
If you’re worried about exercises that dig into down-the-road conflict may cause both of you to backslide into more combative stances, the experts agree that this is, of course, a possibility, but one that you can sidestep by following certain cardinal rules of conversation.
“All conversations in a relationship should be respectful,” says Intelligator. “Each partner should listen to what the other says and take the other’s words at face value. Hear what your partner is saying, rather than hearing what you want to hear.” She adds that you should be taking pains to avoid “insults, emotional knee-jerk reactions that are not rooted in careful thought and consideration, and attacks.”
Eli Weinstein, LCSW, agrees that the parameters of this conversation need to be thoughtfully constructed to make it the most productive exercise possible.
“I think it’s a wonderful tool to open concerns and worries that might come,” he says “but the key word is ‘might.’ We can’t plan for every situation, so I think a better conversation is: What are the current issues that you see?”
It’s a worthwhile reminder: the ultimate purpose is to try and identify observable issues in the relationship that have the potential to grow in a negative direction, not to catastrophize about what huge issues may pop up down the road, and not to unload bottled-up resentments onto your partner. Stay in the present with an eye towards the future.
“Just be careful to help walk and shape the answers and responses to be a safe conversation and not a ‘dump on each other’ conversation,” says Weinstein.
Naturally, some relationships have trouble spots that are endemic to that relationship. Consequently: some relationships end. But Intelligator notes that many trouble spots do not have to be ‘fundamental’ issues in a relationship.
“They can and should be worked through,” she says. “Addressing them early on in the relationship will contribute to its health and growth.” Or, as Flores phrased it: “better for there to be a little bit [of] heat now to avoid something on fire later on.”