You know the scene, don’t you?
The one when he comes into the kitchen to see her standing silently at the sink. The one when he goes over to her to check on her, asking, ‘Is everything okay?’
And without looking at him, she responds with ‘I’m fine.’
He maybe asks again. She’s fine, she repeats. Just tired.
But that’s utter crap. And they both know it.
He goes back to the lounge. Maybe she does too.
They don’t talk much.
But when they eventually go to bed, she begins The Midnight Chat …
‘It’s fine’. A line many people in relationships can’t stop using, and that their partners can’t help dreading. We all know that ‘It’s fine’ is just a cover. When a woman tells her partner ‘it’s fine’, it is almost always never fine … and nobody likes having heavy chats at bedtime.
And while this scenario is very common, there is a way to avoid it happening in your love life. Once you can recognise, understand, and take ownership of what’s really going on beneath the surface, ‘It’s fine’ will become a thing of the past. I have written these tips based on norms for women and men, but as you read please take on board whatever information feels right for you.
It’s not fine. Not remotely
The ‘It’s fine’ dynamic is created through simple lack of communication - not just between the two partners, but the way we communicate with ourselves. And it comes down to the lack of two fundamental components of communication: listening and asking.
If you are the person who has been saying ‘It’s fine’, then chances are that you have been ignoring your own needs, and on top of that, you haven’t asked for help.
If you are the person who’s being told that ‘It’s fine’, then this is a perfect opportunity for you to actively listen, ask relevant questions, and deliver on what’s being requested of you.
Our wonderful woman - let’s call her Kirsty - is overwhelmed and tired. On top of that, she’s starting to feel resentful, especially towards her partner (whom we’ll call Ross). She’s been struggling with everything for a few days now, if not weeks and months, and Ross doesn’t seem to have noticed. She feels unseen, and unloved.
And this is where unhelpful self-dialogue kicks in, if it hasn’t already.
Women have been conditioned from a very young age to take care of everything and everybody before putting themselves first. It’s difficult to escape that conditioning, especially when they’re both emotionally and physically exhausted.
It’s also this conditioning that has taught women to be too hard on themselves if they feel they haven’t fulfilled this unachievable goal, so you can bet that Kirsty will have ignored or invalidated the way she feels. Part of her believes she should be able to cope and that she’s not doing well enough, especially compared to other women she knows, and it’s this part of her that prevents her from acknowledging her own needs and expressing them clearly and confidently.
When Kirsty’s caught in this mindset, the only way she can allow herself to take a break is if somebody makes her take one. She needs Ross to help her, but that requires him to have been paying attention to her, and she’s not sure that he has. Overwhelm creates a narrowing of perception - it actively prohibits you from seeing things from a wider perspective. So Kirsty soldiers on, desperate for someone to take some of the physical, but more importantly mental, load.
Overwhelm + invalidation of feelings = ‘I’m fine’.
Many women expect their partner to know exactly what they need because they find it so difficult to ask for things directly. It would make it so much easier for her if he just knew what she felt and what to do about it. It would save her the discomfort of having to ask.
But men aren’t mind-readers, so the feelings don’t go away. But they’ll come out eventually, no matter how much the woman has tried to stuff them down. By the end of the day, she just can’t take it anymore … and The Midnight Chat begins.
How can you stop this happening in your own life?
1. Respect the way you feel
Everybody feels exhausted and strung out at times. Own it. Stop comparing yourself to others, who are likely in the same boat as you but just not telling you about it. There is no shame in feeling sad, confused, or just needing a nap to reset. Your feelings are important. You matter. Respect what they’re telling you. You might need time alone. You might just need a sandwich. Whatever you’re feeling, your feelings are valid.
2. Express the way you feel
When you partner asks you if everything’s okay and it’s not, then tell him so. He will know anyway, deep down. Expressing how you feel doesn’t mean you have to justify it to him, or even find a way to ‘fix’ it; but it will give your partner an opportunity to help, and acknowledging it will allow the feeling to pass quicker.
Just be sure to express your feelings without blaming your partner for it - events might be sometimes out of our control, but you can choose how to react to that event.
Give your man clear instructions as to how he can help you. Believe me, he wants to be your hero, but he needs to be told specifically how he can help. If you leave it up to them to read your mind, then guess what happens?
They will do nothing.
They’re so scared of doing anything wrong (and risking criticism) that they truly believe that doing nothing is the safer option. And women just see it as them not listening, or caring.
It doesn’t feel like the most romantic thing to do in the world, especially at first, but if you tell him exactly what, when and where he can help make your life easier, he will step up.
And if he offers you help - any at all - take it, no matter how small. It will show him that you trust him a bit, and it’ll embolden him to help you again.
Ross has just nipped into the kitchen when he sees Kirsty standing at the window. He can sense something is wrong and immediately fears that he might have something to do with it, but isn’t quite sure how. Still, he wants to know if she’s okay, so he asks how she is.
When Kirsty replies that she’s fine, Ross is filled with a mixture of relief and foreboding. He doesn’t press Kirsty on it too much because in truth, he doesn’t really want to get into it further. He knows something’s wrong, but it’s easier to take what she says at face value, because the conversation might end up with him being criticised in some way and he doesn’t want to be the source of his partner’s pain. He’s hard enough on himself as it is, and doesn’t need her confirming the things he already fears are true about himself.
Instead, he drops the subject, hoping that things will blow over, even though, in reality, they rarely do.
And despite passing a fairly uneventful night, as soon as they’re in bed The Chat begins …
How Can You Stop This Happening In Your Own Life?
1. Ask her what she needs, not what’s wrong
Women really need to feel that they can count on you, fellas. That you will do your share of the heavy lifting - emotional and practical. It’s difficult to detach from childhood and societal conditioning, and nigh on impossible when you’re overwhelmed.
Asking her a question like ‘What’s wrong/is everything okay?’ is inviting her to pick over everything that has got her stuck in the overwhelmed state, and greatly increases the chances of the Midnight Chat taking place.
However, asking her something like ’How can I help you?’ encourages her to move from the problem-focused state in which she finds herself into a solutions-focused one. This kind of question assists her in voicing her needs and gives you the opportunity to demonstrate that you’re there to support her.
If she keeps telling you it’s fine, just let her know gently that you know that it’s not fine and that you’re willing to listen to how she’s feeling when she’s ready as she might be unable to formulate how she feels into helpful dialogue at that moment. Relationship experts at The Gottman Institute in the US have termed this ‘flooding’, when your body chemistry has been so overloaded that the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This system creates the fight or flight response in our bodies - there’s no room for rational thought. Give her time.
2. Listen, don’t Fix
When she begins to tell you what’s going on for her, it’s imperative that you listen, and listen closely.
Men are conditioned to be the Fixers in life, and whilst it’s tempting to offer solutions to her problems at that moment, it really isn’t the most helpful approach. For most women, the whole ‘Why don’t you just do this then?’ question will only make them feel worse. One: did it occur to you that she might have thought of your suggestion already?, and Two: solutions aren’t actually what she requires from you in this moment. Acknowledgement and support are.
A lot of what she says might just sound like ranting at first - shouty, ‘I can’t believe’- type stuff; but if you listen closely you will discover that underneath the complaints, there is actually a request. ‘I end up doing all the chores around here and I work as hard as you’ is really a request for you to do more around the house. ‘I’m sick and tired of doing everything around here’ could be more a request for you to help her with her mental load: planning meals, shopping, organising the kids’ schedules, for example.
Receiving focused attention from you might be enough to lessen her sense of overwhelm, but it’s important that you both now discuss exactly how you can help her. That way you will both have a clear picture of what needs to be done, and it might open up further discussion where you can put your innate fixing skills to good use.
3. Follow through
There is a catch to all of this, though.
You’ve actually got to do what she tells you. ALL of it. No excuses. No changing what she’s requested because you think can improve on it. No putting it off till tomorrow when you think you can do it more justice. If it’s a small thing, just do it. With love, with willingness. Prove to her that you have heard her, and you are the man to give her what she needs. This is the first step to really being the hero for her. Whether it’s long-term planning for your future together, or just making her sit down and have a hot cuppa.
In short, ‘It’s fine’ is just shorthand for ‘I need help’. It’s up to both partners to take responsibility for their part in this dynamic, and find the courage to make things different, no matter how vulnerable it might make them feel. When women verbalise what they really need from their partner, and men become more present by actively listening, their relationship deepens - and the chats they have at midnight become something entirely more pleasurable.