When you are in conflict, what are your unmet needs? What are the unmet needs of the person with whom you are in conflict?
You may think that when you are arguing with your spouse about the dishes not getting done, that it is all about the dishes getting done.
There are probably other nights, maybe even a lot of other nights, when the dishes have not gotten done and you have not argued.
What is the difference between the nights that you argue about the dishes and the nights that you don’t? The unmet needs that each of you bring to the table.
Picture this. I’ve worked a long day and I’m just getting home at 7:30 pm. It’s not only one long day that I’ve worked, though. I worked all weekend as well, so I’ve really worked 9 long days in a row.
I don’t feel very well. My stomach is bothering me. I’m exhausted.
I bought a can of soup on the way home because I just can’t imagine either preparing a real meal or eating anything that isn’t easy to digest.
I open the silverware drawer and find a couple knives and nothing else. I know that there were clean dishes and silverware in the dishwasher that morning because I took a knife out for my breakfast, but the sign on the dishwasher is now set for dirty dishes, not clean.
“Honey, are there clean dishes or dirty dishes in the dishwasher?” I ask.
“What does the sign say?” he responds.
“Well, it says dirty, but I know that there was a lot of clean silverware in there this morning and there is no clean silverware in the drawer now.”
“I thought I was doing a good thing by emptying and loading the dishwasher and that you would notice that,” he responds. “You’re right. I didn’t empty the silverware.” He sounds dejected and defensive because I have noticed the bad stuff and not the good.
I have no patience for his feelings. I’m irritated that once again, he can’t be bothered to put the silverware away and now it’s all dirty as a result. I yank a soup spoon out of the dishwasher and start washing it.
It is only after I have eaten the soup that I can bring myself to thank him for taking care of the dishes and I only half mean it at best. He responds half-heartedly as well.
This is not the first time that my husband has done this chore in this fashion. He does not like putting silverware away. Most of the time, it is just one of his personality quirks that I endure, just as he endures mine. It may result in a fleeting moment of irritation on my part from time to time, but usually there is nothing more.
This time, however, I had a lot of unmet needs. I needed rest. I needed food. I needed compassion. I needed nurturing, even if only from myself.
He also had unmet needs. He needed compassion and connection and recognition. He had stepped up to do some chores, recognizing that I had been pulling many long days of work. We had not spent significant time together for days. Over that 9-day stretch, when we had had dinner together, he was the one who had made it. I had just been too busy.
All of those needs, both his and mine, came to a head over dirty silverware. It wasn’t really about the silverware. It wasn’t even about the one soup spoon I had to wash in the moment. It was about our needing rest and food and compassion and nurturing and connection and recognition. That was the real discussion to be had. Once I got some food, I could start to see that.