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Why does a simple question like, “What’s for dinner?” cause a relationship argument?

Let’s talk about why small arguments blow up into huge relationship issues.

When you’re dating, and you’re both living separately, your responsibilities in life don’t overlap. Everything is in Lover-mode which inspires lots of kissing and googoo eyes. You’re both lost in dream-land and that’s fun.

Your ability to live happily ever after, however, will succeed in proportion to your ability to negotiate shared responsibilities. Which means enlisting the Partner-roles in your relationship.

Remember my relationship framework? There are three roles inside your relationship: Partner, Friend, and Lover. The Partner loves to achieve and feels bonded by teamwork. The Friend loves to share stories and feels bonded by companionship. The Lover craves excitement and feels bonded by sensual pleasures.

Relationship arguments are about values

When your Partnership is secure and you succeed at sharing responsibilities, your Lovers are free to frolic. When you dodge responsibility, those Lovers get afraid there won’t be a roof over their head and they no longer feel safe enough to risk the vulnerability of soft kisses.

The problem is no two people have exactly the same definition when it comes to responsibility. Your values and dreams dictate what constitutes a responsibility. One person thinks a weekly cleaning of the bathroom is a must, while another person thinks life is good when you keep collecting the pizza boxes in the corner until you’ve built the Eifel Tower.

What do you value when it comes to creating your dream home or dream life? What does your sweetheart value?

I had a client reach out to me because he was fighting with his wife and he wasn’t sure they were going to stay married. He was feeling desperately sad and hopelessly frustrated.

When do most of your arguments happen? I asked.

“When we get home. We start fighting almost the moment we walk in the door,” he said. “I don’t think I love her anymore. How did that happen?” he asked, “She’s the mother of my kids! But I don’t think she loves me anymore either.”

He described her stare that cuts right through him. “She’s disgusted by me,” he said. There was a deep sadness in his voice. It was the sound of shame. A dream that failed. “I think it’s over, but I wanna make sure before I give up and throw in the towel.”

I started with basic questions, “How much are you sleeping? What are you eating? How much exercise do you get? How many hours are you working?”

We discovered that he and his wife were both very hungry when they arrived home, as were his two kids ages 5 and 9.

They began to think about dinner the moment they walked in that door. “What should we have for dinner?” they’d ask. But everyone was hungry. Hangry really. And no hangry person has the wherewithal to make a nice, nutritious meal. Hangry people are grabby. Impatient. And they are classic blamers.

“You never cook,” my client’s wife would shout.

He’d say, “Well, we never have any food in this house.” So most nights, after blaming each other because there’s nothing to eat, they ordered a pizza delivered.

This is a classic argument between the Partner and the Lover inside a relationship

The Lover lives in the moment. These two people were both full on in Lover-mode.  These adventurous Lovers wanted their weekends to be filled with sports and parties. They had no time to think about cooking …. Until they got hungry.

Then they went into Partner mode.

Except that the Partner likes to plan ahead. The Partner likes a list and adequate time to prepare.

When a Lover turns to a Partner and says, “What’s for dinner?” The Partner wants to nurture and take care of the Lover. But if that same Partner hasn’t had time to make a pot of chili so that dinner would be easy, the Partner feels embarrassed because now they aren’t able to fulfill their role of keeping the family cared for.

Do you know what an embarrassed Partner does? They blame: “You never cook.” “Well, you never shop for food!”

My client and his wife faced this conundrum every weekday night, which made them even more exhausted. And they were sick to death of pizza.

Pizza, night after night, took a toll on their health. And the price of constant food delivery was breaking their bank account. These two strains were foundational to their inability to get along.

Argue all week? Your relationship can’t “make up for that” on the weekend

Because they fought all week long, they let their Lovers loose again each weekend in an attempt to leave all the fighting behind and remember why they loved each other.

But the Lover was ruling their lives and they didn’t have time for the Partner to grocery shop or meal plan.

I believed that if we could eliminate these stressors of compromised health and out of control spending, we’d be able to see where the relationship truly stood.

I suggested we employ the scientific method to his problem because my client wanted to be certain he’d tried everything before he left the marriage.

“Sounds like the problem is that you’re both hungry and tired when you arrive home,” I said.

“No,” he told me, “The problem is that we’re always arguing.”

He believed that love should conquer anything. They both loved to party and play. So he accepted every weekend party invitation and she kept them playing sports because at least then they could laugh and get along.

I see this differently.

I think love needs help!

Fantasies don’t put food on the table

He had this fantasy that love would keep them together and treating each other kindly. But I had a hunch this couple would be able to be much more kind and patient, and even loving, if their basic needs for safety were addressed with a plan. And some TIME to execute said plan.

I confirm, “You agree that the problem is that you argue the minute you walk in the door?

Yes,” he says, “It’s awful.”

How about we try out a hypothesis that the reason you’re so apt to argue is that you’re all hangry.

“I don’t think you realize how bad it is, Rebecca,” he says to me. “She is swearing at me in front of our kids. Telling me I’m the worst father in the world. I don’t think food is gonna fix it.”

“Would you be willing to try? If you explore this for a week and don’t see a single change, I won’t charge you for today’s session.” Reluctantly, he agrees.

“So, if our hypothesis is that you’re both hangry, what if we experiment with eating the moment you walk in the door?”

Even though we are on the phone having this conversation, his frustration with me is so palpable I can hear him rolling his eyes.

I begin to suggest snacks: cheese and crackers? Apple slices? Peanut butter? Olives?

“We don’t like to give the kids a snack right before dinner because it will ruin their appetite,” he told me.

This made me laugh. “So, are you telling me that it’s more important to you that your kids eat pizza than an apple?”

Values that conflict with reality lead to relationship arguments

Suddenly, he laughed. Hard. “Oh my gosh, I never thought about it that way!” when I hear this sort of laughter I know we’re getting somewhere. Because laughter is a sign of freedom.

This happens ALL the TIME! We all have a list of hidden values and dreams we don’t want to compromise. One of this family’s values was, meals are more valuable than snacking.

But when we’re compromised, we toss our values out the window. … and order a pizza, because we’re tired, and hungry and we want to just get something in our tummy so we can go to bed.

He wasn’t tired nor hungry when we were chatting about this plan. So he wanted to keep the faith with values and dreams for his family: we want to feed our kids well, and that means minimal snacking in favor of nutritious meals.

He was articulating his dream for his family. The hidden dreams and values you have are where The Lover—whose great at dreaming—and The Partner—whose great at planning and execution—meet. This relationship needed a strong articulation of that hidden dream and a good dose of Partnership energy—food, routines, and rest—to implement the dream in reality and avoid arguing.

The Partner and the Lover at odds

This is the kind of disconnect I encounter regularly when the Lover—who has dreams for your life—and the Partner—who knows how to get things accomplished in your life—aren’t talking to each other.

Classically, I see relationships where The Lover is running the show all the time. And the Lover is a terrible leader when it comes to daily living.

  • A Lover can create a dream for retirement, but it takes a Partner to plan and implement a savings account and investment strategy.
  • A Lover dreams of romantic dinners with their sweetheart, but it takes a Partner to make a call to the babysitter.
  • Or, like this couple, the Lover has lofty dreams about feeding their family nutritious food, but it takes a Partner to make a list and go to the grocery store.

Where is the Dreamy Lover out of step with reality in your relationship? What concrete tasks need to be given to the GetterDone Partner with enough time and energy to implement them?

How is this gap—between the dream and reality—causing stress in your life?

Create a hypothesis about your relationship arguments

My client and I created a hypothesis: Everyone is hangry. And we need to enlist the skills of The Partner who makes plans ahead of time.

We designed an experiment to test our hypothesis. The minute everyone gets home, snacks come out onto the counter while you consider what might be best for dinner. We made a list of snacks that were equal to or greater than the nutritional value of pizza delivery. Apples and peanut butter, cheese and crackers, dip with veggies that were easy to grab and didn’t require chopping.

“But what if everyone gets too full to eat a real dinner?” he asks.

This question didn’t surprise me. In addition to his dream to feed his kids good nutrition, another hidden dream he held was A Real Family Eats Dinner Together. We have fantasies—or prejudices, or hunches– about how intimacy is created. The Lover thrives on sensual detail, so hidden dreams come packaged up with an idea for implementation. But our fantasies and dreams get created in isolation: away from the demands of daily living.

What dream do you have that doesn’t seem to work in real life?

I questioned my client:

“What do you hope to get out of your family sitting at a table to eat dinner together?” I ask.

“I want a whole family. I want us to like each other. I want to hear about the good things that happened during our day.” He sighs.

I whisper, “Is it possible to do that during the snack as you’re all transitioning from the school or work day into your home?”

Again, this hadn’t occurred to him. I know you think this is funny. But after coaching relationships for 15 years, I am always amazed at the obvious answers that haven’t occurred to people. This is because our hidden dreams hold us hostage. They sit on these uber tall pedestals and don’t want to get their fingers dirty with daily living.

Once my client began to think about it, this solution—of snack time being the connection time—solved another problem: by the time the pizza dinner actually arrived, everyone was so tired, all they wanted to do was watch TV while they ate. He says to me, “Maybe if we connect and have decent enough food right when we get home, we don’t have to worry so much about what’s for dinner, and we can just snack while we watch a show together.”

After testing the hypothesis about their relationship argument

3 weeks later, they’d perfected the quick nutritional snack. Overnight oats became after afternoon oats, and my client, who was naturally a morning person upped his breakfast game, often serving breakfast burritos, or salmon with poached eggs and green smoothies.

Once we’d broken open the rules about snacks before dinner, suddenly all the rules changed and he fed his kids nutritious breakfast which made him less concerned that evening food was perfect.

What I did during his session was pull out the hidden dreams he had for his family: I want my family eating healthy. And I want my family to share a story as we share a meal.  

Then we examined the realities of everyday living and looked for the inconsistencies or unrealistic expectations.

When you examine your hidden dream apart from how you’re going to enact it, you can see the dream more clearly.

If the Lover will tell the pure dream to the Partner—I want nutritious meals filled with lively conversation—that’s exactly what the Partner loves! The Partner loves to solve a problem and achieve a goal.

But the Partner needs time to plan and freedom to change a few of those details: substituting afternoon oats for pizza delivery and morning smoothies instead of quick breakfast cereal.

When we were able to pause and notice what his hidden dream was ACTUALLY costing them, it was easy to fix.

The problem is it’s tough to catch these moments

It’s hard to be objective about our very personal dreams and the reality of our lives. And, none of us wants to give up a dream. So we remain blind, because we’re embarrassed.

The embarrassment is key. I have moments like this all the time with clients when I point out an inconsistency and then we’re all laughing.

Laughter washes away the embarrassment and shame. Then it just becomes a funny story. Because I doubt there’s a single person listening to this story that can’t relate, right?

The Lover has big dreams for your relationship. But the Lover needs the help of a detail-oriented Partner to land those dreams in practical terms.

Where does your relationship have a gap between a hidden dream and that dream’s implementation?

Try this:

Explore the dreams that might be hiding in your relationship.

I invite you to ask questions about the dreams your sweetheart has for your relationship, and to tell your sweetheart YOUR dreams for your relationship.

As you can see from my client’s story today, hidden dreams can become a source for arguments.

Keep your dream low stakes. “I have a dream that we’ll be financially stable,” is WAY too big to get your arms around it in reality.

That dream is HUGE, and unspecific. It’s too hidden to be investigated.

Grab a hold of a specific dream like, “I want our family to eat nutritious food” or “I want shoes to live in the shoe rack instead of all over the house.”

The other reason not to choose a dream about financial freedom or sexual satisfaction is it’s so high stakes.

I invite you to discuss a dream that might not even be awarded the title of “dream” status in your mind. Go for a VERY tiny dream like,

“I have this fantasy—I really encourage you to use the word fantasy because it’s so sexy— that you will squeeze the tube of toothpaste from the bottom.” I suggest a tiny dream like this because it’s easier to get laughing about these tiny dreams. And we all have them.

Make the dream sensual and land it in reality

Then tell the story of life as it is (life as it is is the source of conflict), “I have this fantasy because when I see that tube of toothpaste haphazardly squowzen from the middle, I think, poor toothpaste. You don’t feel loved. You feel leaky, and messy and like half of you is wasted.”

Then elaborate on your dream, “I have this fantasy that I will one day open the drawer and see that tube of toothpaste elegant and folded from the bottom up.

“When I see that tube of toothpaste tended so gingerly and deliberately, it will make me think of all the ways I can gingerly and deliberately handle you. Without making a mess. And without a drop of waste.”

Now how much fun will you have imagining an argument in your relationship that will turn into a romping laugh fest?

Do you struggle with the question, “What’s for dinner?” at your house? Want to try a random recipe? Click here.

Want to listen to my podcast about this topic? Click here.

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