THE BLOG

8 Steps to Finishing Unfinished Business

03/27/2015 10:49 am ET | Updated May 27, 2015

Sometimes it's worth the risk of rocking the boat.

Unfinished business, unresolved issues, emotional baggage, irreconcilable differences, misunderstandings, call it what you will, but whatever you call it, they're not good for relationships. We call them "incompletions." That seems like a fitting term since their presence leaves us feeling like there's something missing, something unfinished or incomplete in our relationship. What is missing is the feeling that things are OK between us and that our connection is complete as is and that nothing that needs to be done or said in order for each of us to feel secure and at peace in our relationship at this time.

When we feel incomplete, there is a gnawing sense that something is not OK and we don't feel a sense of ease, trust, and connection with each other.

Some couples experience a pervasive sense of incompletion because they have failed to adequately address and come to terms with the broken places between them and they believe that this feeling to be the norm and they no longer even expect to experience anything else. This perception is not only unfortunate and painful but it is dangerous, since it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that may solidify that belief into a permanent reality.

Incompletions occur whenever an issue isn't sufficiently addressed in a way that both partners feel that it is, at least for the time being, settled. This doesn't necessarily mean that it is resolved and reconciled once and for all, but rather there is a sense of acceptance of things as they are and that there are no unspoken feelings such as resentment or disappointment that are being withheld.

When an incompletion doesn't get addressed in an open and timely way, it impairs our ability to experience deep connection, intimacy, and empathy in our relationship. Like an undisposed bucket of garbage in the kitchen, the longer it sits there, the more foul-smelling it becomes. Many of us, in our efforts to avoid the risk of opening up a potential can of worms choose instead to build up a tolerance to the smell of decay rather than take out the trash. Developing this tolerance has the effect of diminishing the motivation to clean things up. And the vicious circle remains unbroken.

Getting complete requires the willingness to risk upsetting the applecart, something that we are more inclined to risk if we trust that we can repair any harm or damage that is caused or exposed in the process. If we are inexperienced in the skillful management of differences, we're not likely to have much confidence that the process is likely to lead to a successful outcome. That's all the more reason to learn more about handling incompletions. Although there may be some uncomfortable moments in the process of acknowledging that which is unfinished, we are much more likely to become more skilled in this work by addressing issues directly when they arise, than by avoidance.

Here are some guidelines for addressing incompletions that you may find useful.
1. Acknowledge to your partner that you have an incompletion. This can take the form of a simple statement such as "There's something that I feel unfinished about and I'd like to speak with you about it. Is this a good time?"
2. If they say "no," seek to create agreement to create a time that will be convenient for both of you. (note: Be specific and make sure that you both have an adequate amount of time available to do the matter justice. Assume that the conversation will take longer than you think it should)
If your partner says "yes," go to step 3.
3. State your intention in having the conversation. It should be something that will ultimately benefit you both, such as "My hope in having us both address my concern is that I can feel more complete and that we can both experience greater trust and understanding with each other."
4. Provide your partner some guidance that will help him to know how he can best support you in this process, such as: "It would be helpful to me if you can just let me explain to you what I'm feeling and needing without interrupting me. I don't feel that I've been successful at making my feelings and concerns clear and I'd like to try again. When I'm done, I'd like to hear your response and I'll do my best to understand your take on things. I really appreciate your willingness to have this conversation with me now."
5. Express your feelings, needs, and concerns and make any requests that you would like your partner to respond to. Try to speak in terms of your experience, as this will diminish the likelihood that your partner will feel blamed or judged and will be less likely to become defensive. If he does become defensive or interrupts you, ask him if he can let you finish and that you'll be able to be much more open to what he is saying after you feel that he's heard you.
6. When he responds, show him the same respect that you've asked him to give you by listening attentively, not just to his words, but also the feelings that underlie them as well, and try to resist the temptation to "correct" him if he says anything that you disagree with. Keep in mind that not disagreeing with someone does not necessarily mean that you agree with him.
7. Go back and forth until you reach a point at which it feels that the energy between the two of you has lightened up and you both feel more relaxed, understood, and hopeful. An incompletion doesn't have to be absolutely resolved in order to create a positive outcome. Some incompletions require many conversations before they become reconciled to the full satisfaction of both partners.
If you hit an impasse that despite your best efforts becomes intractable, rather than trying to push through it, take a break in the conversation or agree to resume the dialogue at another time, after you both have reaffirmed your intentions.
8. Regardless of the outcome, thank your partner for joining you in your commitment to deepen the quality of trust and understanding in the relationship.

This is admittedly an abbreviated version of the process of getting complete; you'll learn a lot more in making the effort by noticing the consequences of your interactive patterns. To the best of your ability try to be respectful, non-judgmental, non-blaming, and responsible in your words. Most of us are much more sensitive to blame, judgment and criticism than we seem to others to be. The less defensive and reactive you can be, the more open your partner is likely to be.

Becoming more skilled in the process of getting complete is a great way to break the habit of avoidance and one of the best things that you can do for your relationship. There is a learning curve to the process, but it doesn't take a genius to master it. You might as well go for it. You've got nothing to lose but your incompletions!