Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Take the first step to productive communication: Speak up
WDC: I tend to hold everything inside, which results in constant criticism, irritation, etc., as the problem builds and gets bigger. By the time I can talk about it, I can't do it rationally, because I'm too irritated by the issue to isolate things that could be done to change it! Part of the problem is that I don't feel like I have the right to tell my SO some of the things that bother me about him — like I'm being too critical and should just accept these "flaws." But they drive me nuts and impact the relationship.
I feel like if I dealt with the issues that drove me crazy, he wouldn't bother me. But I let them build, and I don't communicate my frustration (which is unfair), and then I just get angrier when things don't change.
CAROLYN: You didn't use the evil S-word, but it still sounds as if you have a terrible case of the "shoulds." This "shouldn't" bother me so much; I "should" speak up; if I speak up it "should" go away; I "should" let him be himself.
The only way a couple gets any peace is through facing what is. Who he is, who you are, and how these make you feel.
This process is always complicated by the fact that some things can be changed between two people, and often are. For example, "Would you please call when you're running late?" — and the other person says okay and starts calling. Or continues to leave you hanging — sometimes things that "can" be changed don't change, which is another twist.
For people who can't find the line between things one can and can't reasonably request, the complexity can be an obstacle to making any decisions at all — except to silently harbor resentment.
This is where practice comes in. Where your intuition hasn't been effective, introduce trial and error. Stop censoring yourself, start speaking up when you feel the urge, and see what happens. When in doubt, frame it in terms of your feelings. "Your constant lateness makes me feel like I don't matter." Even when you achieve truth overkill, it still beats "constant criticism, irritation, etc."
Whether a complaint brings instant relief, starts a good conversation, makes your partner defensive, feels petty the minute you say it — all these things help you feel out the limits of productive communication. That's why it's so important to listen carefully before and after you speak.
Obviously if your relationship is abusive or just unhealthy, that can distort the results — but distortion is a result in itself. If you are persistently unhappy with someone, either in up-and-down form or always down, then that's your cue to get out.
WDC: I do fear that if my boyfriend thinks my complaint is unreasonable, he'll leave me — which I know would be, in the long term, a good thing if my true self didn't match his idea of what I am. But I think that is, in part, what holds me back.
CAROLYN: Of course. And that is absolutely, emphatically, arm-flailingly and unto itself an argument for forcing yourself past the fear. The right person for you will handle your truth. Speak your mind, please, and surrender yourself to the miracle of self-selection.