Tell me if this sounds familiar:
You are quietly sitting in your living room, your partner walks in and asks, “What’s wrong?” You say, “Nothing,” and somehow a screaming, slamming, stomping fight ensues.
There’s generally more to it than that, but this sort of thing happened enough in my first year of marriage that I made Mr.B a chart called “What to do when I say, ‘Nothing'” and taped it to his computer desk (at home, putting it up at work would have been a total a-hole move on my part). I don’t think it really worked, I’m pretty sure he lost it within a few weeks, but it helped me to clarify what was really going on behind the scenes when I said “nothing” and that, in turn, helped me talk to him about it more clearly. And I do believe that, since he had my cheat sheet buried somewhere in his subconscious, it eventually helped him listen to what I was saying about it. We rarely have the “nothing” fight anymore, and if we do it usually has more to do with outside stressors than bad communication on our part.
Some recent conversations have made me think that other people might find the “nothing” chart useful. It’s probably most effective when you make your own, but I’m happy to share mine to get you started. The first thing you need to do is figure out:
What does it mean?
Typically, there are three possibilities to what I’m thinking when I say “nothing”:
- I’m upset about something that has nothing to do with you, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet.
- I’m pissed at you, but I don’t have the energy to get into a fight right now.
- There’s really nothing wrong, I’m just spacing out in your general direction.*
At this juncture, you can badger me into telling you what’s bothering me – “No, something’s wrong. I can tell something is wrong. Tell me what’s wrong.” – until I explode and shout, “I MARRIED A GIANT BAG OF DICKS! THAT’S WHAT’S WRONG!” Or, and this is my preferred response, you could say, “It looks like you are upset about something. If you feel like talking about it, just let me know.” Response #2 will earn you Super Awesome Partner Points. Response #1 will lead to fighting, resentment, and gnashing of teeth. Which sounds better to you?
What happens next?
Assuming you chose Option #2 above, and we aren’t already in the middle of a flaming row, here’s what you can likely expect:
- I’m upset about something unrelated to you: I’ll probably tell you all about it sometime in the next half-hour.
- I’m pissed at you: If I can find a way to tell you what I’m pissed about gently, so as not to start a fight, I’ll tell you what’s wrong. If I can’t, you’re just going to have to suck it up, because I probably won’t be telling you what’s wrong today.
- There’s really nothing wrong: I’ll reiterate that there’s nothing wrong, I’m just trying to figure something out.
Ask yourself this:
What you, as the asker, have to ask yourself is, “Why am I asking?” If you want to know what’s bothering your partner because you genuinely want to help, then stick with response #2. You have shown that you care enough to ask, now give your partner some space to figure out how to say what is on their mind. If you are asking because you are a nosey bugger who can’t stand other people having “secrets,” then prepare yourself for a lot of yelling, possibly with questions like, “CAN’T I AT LEAST HAVE SOME PRIVACY IN MY OWN HEAD?”
For those of you who are more visual, I have made this handy flowchart for quick reference:
*This happens more, now that I am writing on a regular basis. Apparently I get frowny when I am having trouble articulating something.