Focus specifically on issues in your relationship that are important to you. It is useful to ask six questions in order to arrive at the issues you would like to negotiate.
- What do I want that I am not getting?
- What am I getting that I don’t want?
- What am I giving that I don’t want to give?
- What would I like to give to you, if only things were better between us?
- What am I getting that I do want?
- What is good for me in our relationship?
It’s also crucial that you both know what your core expectations are — those expectations that are absolutely non-negotiable, or what one couple called “walking” issues. Think of these as the “I must have” rather than the “I would like” expectations.
“Core” is really what the relationship is about. As long as things are going along smoothly, you may not even realize that certain things are core expectations for you. But let’s say that you have always celebrated birthdays and major holidays, and as your first Christmas together rolls around your partner tells you gift-giving is a sentimental waste of time and money and all of a sudden you clutch and think “How could anybody be so callous and unreasonable?” The prospect of changing that particular behavior makes you realize that for you holiday celebrations are essential. Core expectations may not be logical; the point is, for you they feel non-negotiable.
Whatever the core expectation–whether it’s celebrating birthdays, or commitment, or “My career comes first and I expect you to support me in it,” or two single beds versus one double bed, or “I can criticize my family, but you can’t,” or one partner wanting more independence than the other– they lie at the very heart of what a relationship means to you. And when your partner treats one of your core expectations casually or badly, you may feel assaulted, betrayed, or violated — though your partner may not even know what happened or what you are upset about. You may have the feeling it’s so unspeakable that you don’t even want to talk about it: “If you were civilized, you would know this. I wouldn’t have to tell you.” But if it sets off alarm bells, talk about it.
And be specific. If the expectation is fidelity, and your attitude is, “If I find out you’ve been in bed with somebody else, I leave,” your partner had better know that. Spell out exactly what you mean: “If anything ever happens, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” Or, “If you’re away on business for a week or month, I understand that these things can happen. But tell me about it. And fidelity has to be the same for both of us.”
You may find when you start to discuss a subject like money, that part of the reason it is so difficult to discuss — so emotionally loaded — is that you feel ambivalent about underlying attitudes toward it, or toward what it represents. Psychotherapist Olivia Mellon, who specializes in helping couples understand the emotional context of money problems, finds that couples who fight about money tend to polarize around certain issues — for example, what is fair for each to contribute to joint expenses, saving versus spending, planning versus dreaming, and merging funds versus keeping them separate. Thus, one partner will often play the hoarder and the other the spendthrift (or one the saver and one the investor).
Once you have reviewed the handouts, go inside of yourself and reflect on which issues are important to you right now. Write down your answers to the six questions. Also identify your core issues — the non-negotiable ones — and clarify with yourself your current position on these issues.
A few reminders before you start: Make each item as honest and precise as possible. The more specific you can be, the more realistic the list. Don’t be concerned if you come up with items that contradict each other or sound petty, and don’t try to be high-flown or noble. This is a working list. Don’t worry about the order in which you list items; they needn’t reflect your priorities. Perhaps you’ve felt you need to spend more time in the country; or want to feel more secure about the amount of life insurance coverage you have; or believe that you are required to do more than your fair share of the housework and want more time to relax and enjoy yourself. Maybe you’re tired of carrying scraps out to the compost pile, or need more clothing, or wish your partner would send you postcards from his/her business trips the way he/she used to do. Here is the place to begin figuring out what you really want. This is the beginning of what you need to do to reach a better understanding with each other.