I’ve been in a relationship now for eighteen months. Nine of those were spent pregnant. Six of those have been spent getting to know Whoopsy. That leaves less than three months of honeymoon period before we got thrown into this crazy journey. It is said that the first year of having a child is the hardest on a relationship. Given that the first year of having a child coincided with the first year that we were together, it has been particularly challenging to use a wonderfully benign description for a large, warm shit being thrown directly into the centre of a high speed ceiling fan. That said, T, my partner, and I have only really known ourselves as a family, rather than a couple, so perhaps we don’t have those same comparisons that create disappointment and resentment for new parents as they realise how life has changed since they added a tiny aggressive drunkard to their family.
When we started seeing a therapist, three months after we found out about Whoopsy Baby, she gave us an analogy for our relationship. ‘You are an Olympic rowing team‘, she explained, ‘You can either do things that make the boat go faster or make the boat go slower. Either way, you’re in the boat together and you either win together or you lose together.’ When we told her about challenges as they sprung up she would frequently ask us in response ‘Are you making the boat go faster?’ In September, whilst we were holidaying in Lisbon, T and I had a furious argument. In a cloud of rage I tapped out an email to our therapist. ‘I don’t want to make the boat go faster’, I wrote. ‘I want to burn the fucking boat down.’
On a number of occasions the boat analogy has really helped me explain my feelings in a somewhat disconnected and emotionally controlled way. For example: ‘I can row the boat by myself, thanks.’ ‘You’re rowing in the wrong fucking direction you moron.’ ‘Today isn’t about going faster, it’s about drinking champagne whilst dangling my feet in the water.’ As well as the wonderful boat imagery that plagues our every disagreement, our therapist taught us a number of tools to improve our communication. Only one has really stuck with us but I consider it the one trick that keeps us sane on the very hardest of days as my hands inch closer to my partner’s neck.
This is how it works. One of us yells ‘FIVE MINUTES’. Then the following happens: We both sit down. We both stop talking (or screaming). One of us begins. We take it in turns to talk for five minutes (or two, or fifteen.. but we aim for five). During that time the other person, who is listening calmly, is not allowed to (i) interrupt (ii) defend themselves (iii) respond in any other way. The subject can be absolutely anything, not necessarily the other person or the relationship. That said, you can also use the opportunity to talk about the relationship and the other person with no fear that it will dissolve into an argument. I personally like to use the opportunity to tell T that he is a complete and utter jackass and watch him forcing himself to stay silent. Endless fun! T often likes to use his five minutes to verbalise his new business strategy since only someone who is being forced to listen to it would stay until he finished.
We promised our therapist that we would do it daily. We probably manage to do it every other day. We can really, really tell when we haven’t done it for a few days. Little things turn into arguments. Frustrations brew under the surface of the relationship. Both of us feel like we’re not being listened to. Communication becomes fraught. And then… FIVE MINUTES!
What is it about this tool which makes it a magic pill for a happy relationship? Five minutes means that you know any thoughts or concerns that the other person has when they’re still just tiny acorns of thoughts. Any little thing on their mind is out of their mouths and into your consciousness before it becomes an oak tree of a problem. Both people feel that they’re getting the opportunity to voice their thoughts. Likewise, both people feel that they’re being listened to properly. No distractions, no phones, no listening solely to form a response. Just calm, respectful listening. Doing five minutes also gives peace of mind that anything can be said – difficult, emotional, even hurtful things – without fear of reprisal or rejection. It’s not always pleasant to hear negative things from a partner, but it has made it easier to hear it within these safe walls, free from shouting or emotional outbursts. Because there can be no response, I’ve found that issues often are quietly resolved without the need for discussion. One partner takes on board the other’s thoughts and makes small adjustments to their own behaviour as way of acknowledgement rather than trying to verbally negotiate a solution.
Five minutes also makes me really think through my own feelings. My brain is essentially an emotional washing machine of extreme responses. Think the mental equivalent of a bi-polar clown doing laps on a skid pan. And as a result, sometimes I can’t clarify my thoughts until I speak them out loud. Sitting opposite someone who is silent and non-responsive allows me the time and freedom to explore my own thoughts, develop them and understand where they come from. It has essentially given both T and I our own little pocket therapists in one another.
To return to the boat analogy, it feels like the difference between us rowing silently, side by side, trying to work out the strategy of the other teammate, and us formulating a strategy clearly so we both know how to work together to make the boat go faster. Sometimes T acts like a real fucking cox and I fantasise about pushing him overboard, but thanks to our therapist, I know that if I did that, I’d just be paddling myself round in endless circles with no idea of where to go next.