Unfinished business, unresolved issues, emotional baggage, irreconcilable differences, misunderstandings, call it what you will, but whatever you call it, it ain’t good for relationships. We usually refer to unfinished business as “incompletions” since they leave us feeling like there’s something missing, something unfinished or incomplete in our relationship. What is missing is the feeling that things are okay 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.

Incompletions leave us with a gnawing sense that something is not okay and consequently  we don’t experience a solid connection with each other. Some couples experience this pervasively in their relationship because they have failed to adequately address and come to terms with the broken places that exist between them. They may even believe that this feeling has become the norm and have become resigned to it being a permanent condition of their relationship. 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 reality.

Incompletions occur whenever an issue isn’t adequately addressed in a way that leaves both partners feeling 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 for now, there are no unspoken feelings such as resentment or disappointment that are being withheld. If there is a perceived need on the part of one or both partners to revisit the issue and continue to pursue the dialogue, they may want to create an agreement to discuss things further at another time.

When an incompletion doesn’t get addressed in an open and timely way, it becomes like a magnet, attracting feelings of resentment, negative judgments, and critical assessments which if not dealt with openly, get pulled underground adding to the accumulation of unfinished business and further impairing our ability to experience a deep, trusting  connection with each other. 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 scent of unresolved concerns and push things further into the denial zone. Such a 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 apple cart, something that we are more inclined to risk if we trust that we can repair any upsets that may have been caused or exposed in the process. If we are inexperienced in the skillful management of differences, we’re not likely to have much confidence in our mutual abilities to create a successful outcome. 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. It’s all about on-the-job-training.

Here are some guidelines for addressing incompletions that you may find useful. (Please note: our use of the pronoun “he” is in no way meant to suggest that “she” should be the one who has the responsibility for initiating this process or that “she” is always the one who is aware of the concern. It is done for the sake of simplicity.)

  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 he says ‘no’, seek to create agreement to find 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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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 or see differently. Keep in mind that not disagreeing with someone does not necessarily mean that you agree with him. Also, remember that you will have an opportunity in your response to share your perception of how things look to you and what your experience is.
  5. 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 fully 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.

  1. 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 by noticing the consequences of your interactive patterns as you engage in your dialogues. 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 and others realize. The less reactive you are, the more open your partner is likely to be and the better able he will be to listen and respond non-defensively.

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 to promote good will in your relationships. There is a learning curve to the process, but it doesn’t take a genius to master it, just an intention. It’s about practicing, and you’ll probably have lots of opportunities for that. So you might as well go for it. You’ve got nothing to lose but your incompletions!