My Best Relationship Advice

“What’s wrong?”

I shudder at that question. I’ve been asked it many times by girlfriends over the years. It never leads to anything good.

“What’s wrong? I can tell something’s wrong. Just tell me. You’re acting weird.”

Okay, here’s the truth: Yes, something’s probably wrong. There’s a 15% chance that it has nothing to do with you, but my general disposition is pretty consistently upbeat, so if something’s wrong, you can probably tell.

However, that doesn’t mean that I’m ready to talk about it. Usually I’m not. I process things quite a bit before I’m ready to talk about them. That doesn’t sit well with girlfriends in general, because if something’s wrong, they want to know right away. As a result, I’ve found myself giving the answer that I know all of you have given at least a few times: “Nothing.” Nothing’s wrong.

After giving that answer and later revealing that something actually is wrong for years, I’ve realized that there has to be a better way. And there is. It takes a lot of trust, but it works:

Girl: “What’s wrong?”

Me: “Okay, I have something on my mind. But I’m still processing it, and I need a little more time to think it through. Can we talk about it tomorrow evening?”

There are several layers to this:

  1. Admitting that something is actually wrong so that she can stop wondering about it.
  2. Telling her that you’re processing it means that the relationship is important to you.
  3. Setting a specific time to talk about it gives her a distinct light at the end of the tunnel.

Yes, the gap in time can be excruciating for the person in the dark. But my stance is that it’s much healthier for the relationship for both parties to talk when they’re ready, not when one is forced into sharing some incomplete thoughts. I’ve had too many of those discussions–especially late at night, when the sleepiness factor makes things even worse–and it never works out well.

Also, I should note that this situation happens the other way around too. I’ve asked girlfriends if something wrong (again, it’s perfectly clear when something’s wrong–we all know this). And really, it would help so much if you just answered like I did in the above scenario. Don’t say nothing’s wrong and then expect me to pull it out of you. If I’m dating you, I trust you to tell me when you’re ready. It’s not an indication of how much I care about you if I don’t harp on you to tell me what’s wrong.

Daily Quickie: Don’t underestimate the amount of troubleshooting you do at work every day. I’d bet that about 25% of what people do at their jobs is troubleshoot, and yet you hardly ever see that on resumes.

17 thoughts on “My Best Relationship Advice”

  1. I agree with you that “Nothing” is clearly not the right answer when both parties can tell that something is wrong…but for me, that day of waiting and wondering would be much worse than talking about the problem before the person is ready. I’d say that if you truly do care about the relationship and the other person, you might have to establish at some point (maybe the first time this happens) whether that person is more of a processor (you) or a worrier/immediate conversationalist. (I’m not sure if these are the correct terms.) Maybe you work something out where half of the time you handle discussions your way and half of the time you handle conversations the other person’s way (unless you’re both the same)…or maybe you find some way to meet in the middle. Perhaps the solution involves some combination of waiting and giving the other person some information about what you’d like to discuss. I know that would help me if I were the other person.

    Also, on your daily quickie…I’ve seen you mention troubleshooting twice recently (the other time wasn’t on this blog). I cringe when I see that word because it’s becoming more and more of a negative in modern business thinking to spend part of your day troubleshooting/putting out fires. More people are thinking, “Wouldn’t it be better if the fires never started to begin with?” Traditional business thought rewards the person who puts in extra hours & solves everyone else’s problems, but in some of the leadership training we deliver, we focus on how to help people grow so they learn how to preemptively fix the root cause of their problems and how to plan so they get their jobs done without overtime (or how/when to ask for help). This is something I actually think you are innately good at, and if you think you’re spending 25% of your time troubleshooting, I imagine the average person is spending much more than that. Just think of how much progress you could make if you had that 25% available to think about improvements, new projects, and learning new skills.

    • I’ve thought about your first point, and I don’t know. Sure, it’s tough for anyone to be left in the dark, especially when they know for sure that something is wrong. But I think some people really just need time to process their thoughts. Maybe picking a tighter deadline to chat is the key.

      Granted, I’m only talking about some people here. Some people want to think as they talk, or just talk and see what happens. I just know that for me–and people like me–it’s really counterproductive (and even hurtful) to the relationship to be forced to talk about something if I’m not ready. I feel violated when that happens.

      Great point about troubleshooting. Ideally, yes, you preemptively prevent problems that might need troubleshooting. I think I’m just trying to say that there’s no shame in troubleshooting. Fixing problems is a good thing.

      • To tie this in with your Meyers-Briggs post, my understanding is that the need to process internally is basically the Introvert, and the need to talk it out as it comes to mind is the Extrovert. As impersonal as it sounds, I really prefer to do important conversations like this in text form (not necesarily “Text Messages,” but in writing), as the action of writing gives me a chance to really process and evaluate the words that are being used. For example, most comments that I make to this page take me a betrter part of 30 minutes to write, edit, rewrite, spell check (maybe) etc. That being said, because textualization has a sitgma of being cold and impersonal, it probably is not a good solution for relationship problems.

        • YES. I can have a much better relationship-type discussion after writing out my thoughts. I don’t think extroverts will understand this, though.

          • Actually we do.:)

            My husband and I carried out the dating aspect of our relationship like this for 3 years. Not necessarily because we wanted to, but because we had to.

            In the long run, it actually helped me to understand him better, and it gave both of us a chance to formulate what we were going through. (I’ll elaborate more later, but just wanted to say that extroverts do understand the beauty of settling something wrong in the relationship through writing.)

  2. I think this is all great advice, but the second clause of #1 isn’t right. I think #1 should be written,

    1. Admitting something is actually wrong so that she can stop asking you about it.
    1. Admitting something is actually wrong so that she can worry even more about it.
    1. Admitting something is actually wrong and she will get you to talk about it right now.

    I agree 2 and 3 should be respected and the last #1 above should not happen, but…

  3. Maybe keep your poker face on and don’t let anyone know that there is something wrong until you are ready to disclose your ‘hand’

    I like the idea of compromise — because that is the key in relationships. Respect and compromise. There should not be a win/lose situation, but a win/win.

  4. Sometimes I think the guy I’m with will say ‘nothing’ because he wishes that nothing was actually wrong.

    Anyway, in our relationship, and me in general, it’s about <5% of the time that it's actually the other person causing the upsetness. So, it's to a point where we just leave the other alone. (and I watch P&P hehe)

    Unrelated: I really like your blog's 'new' layout. I know it's old now, but I remember it went through some different options, and I like this one a lot.

  5. I guess I’m an awful girlfriend, unless the guy is sitting in the corner crying or something, then I don’t question it. If someone says “I’m fine”, then I believe them and don’t push it. If something is wrong and he says he’s not feeling so hot but doesn’t want to talk about it yet, then I leave the subject alone. I figure I’m not the reason for his problem so I don’t stress over it because then that’d make me a basket case like the drama queens on TV. In the slim chance that it is something I did or said(which is a rarity because I mean come on, I’m like Mother Theresa), then I apologize and bake cookies or cupcakes or something for him and everything is all better. Fighting solves almost nothing, and it leaves really big emotional boo-boos on people.

  6. Nowadays, being married, your solution to that question works. My husband and I use that line pretty frequently. You’re right, it does give the person time to process and come up with a complete thought before approaching it with a halfway comment/solution/idea.

    However, I will say back in the day (when I was much much younger) on the receiving end it wasn’t such a great thing. This was probably due to our 4000 mile distance apart, so there was an implied unknown there which made it far scarier not knowing what the other person was thinking. Adding to the “this sucks” factor…a 6 hour time difference. So each of us would have to wait til’ the other person woke up before getting a response from them, and in a time of a disagreement or heated discussion this didn’t bode well for our nerves.

    At that point in time I was a person who wanted to know an answer right there…which was probably due to my busy and hectic schedule, I didn’t have time for waiting.

    Since we’ve been married, this has all changed. We now don’t have to wait 6 hours to 24 hours for a response, we don’t have to worry that the other person is treating it as “out of sight out of mind” since they’re so far apart and we can actually discuss things like a normal couple now.

    Now when that response comes up for either of us, we might still be frustrated, but we can actually think and reason it out during the day (both parties) and come back with a clear concise way of handling the matter, whatever it may be.

    Its the perfect solution when the couple knows how to discuss, but if they’re just starting out it might be hard to explain, especially if they don’t know how the other person acts on a normal basis. 🙂

    • That’s really interesting that distance and schedules matter with these types of discussions. I can see that. And I can see that it can be painful for the person who is waiting to hear from the other. But I think it’s necessary for a healthy discussion. I’m glad the solution has worked out well for your marriage. 🙂

  7. Present day after much loving and learning: Sounds perfect. I concur 100%.

    However in the past, in typical female fashion, my first response was usually “I’m fine”. And then it all came blurting out later. Usually in some emotionally charged incoherent mess I might add!!! 🙂


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