So you never disagree with your partner, right? Haha, wrong. Two people living together in any relationship, especially an intimate one, will not always see things the same way and will at some point have to resolve their differences. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Often I see couples who simply do not get along. They fight vehemently, name call, do character assassinations, dig up their past unresolved conflicts, and really don’t like each other. How in the world did things get to that point? Somewhere, back in their past, they envisioned a future happy life together. Where did things go off course? One thing I have observed is that no matter what the cause of the conflict may be, the way a couple goes about resolving that conflict can either bring them closer together or push them further apart. It comes down to fighting vs. arguing. For example, something happens and it creates conflict–it could be anything from an affair is discovered or they disagree about a family outing. In this article we are going to look at the process and not content of the disagreement. Of course, in Couples Therapy, I look at both, but for our purposes here, we will focus on the process. Content is what you are in disagreement about and process is how you talk about it. The recommendations I make here will apply to every situation, no matter how severe, no matter how minor.
The first step
So something happens and you are upset with your partner. First step is to identify your feelings. If you are very angry, I would suggest that beneath the anger, it is very likely that you are very hurt. Next find where you feel those emotions: in your stomach, neck, tension in your head and shoulders, where do you feel the emotions physically? Take a deep breath to calm your body.
Calming the body, calms the mind, calming the mind, calms the body. Now let’s take a look at what is happening mentally. What is the story you are telling yourself about the situation? Pay attention to the story you are telling yourself about the situation. Are you using “shoulds” – this should not have happened, or this should be a certain way? Karen Horney called them the“tyrannical shoulds.” If I believe things “should or shouldn’t be” the way they are, I am setting myself up for some major problems. Things are as they are and we have to deal with them as they are–not as we want them to be. Sure, in a perfect world, things are as I think they should be, but maybe in my husband’s world he has a different idea of what a perfect world “should be” too. So be quite careful with the story you are telling yourself. If I think that my partner “should never” have done something, but in fact he has, the should thoughts do not help me resolve my hurt and anger. Also be careful not to use statements such as “you always” or “you never.” These are not helpful things to say. They just cause me to feel self-righteous, make him defensive, and widen the gap between us both.
So how can you approach your partner to initiate a discussion over something you disagree on? Start by saying “I am upset about this issue and would like to talk with you about it” If s/he is unable to discuss it now, ask to schedule a time over the next 24-48 hours when you can talk together about it. A good approach to starting the talk is to use phrases like “I am trying to understand why…….” and “I am curious as to why you……..” These phrases open things up and can facilitate discussion. Another important thing to ask yourself is “where am I in this?”
Did I neglect or have some part, however passive it may be, in bringing this situation about? Even if I believe I am completely not at fault, am I escalating this situation by name calling, using abusive or foul language, bringing up the past, etc? If things do start to escalate, by someone becoming defensive, controlling with anger, or the discussion is devolving into a heated argument, it is best to return to the discussion when you both have time to calm down. Schedule an “appointment” with each other to continue the discussion. Allowing a disagreement to go from arguing to fighting is completely counterproductive and needs to be avoided. Disagreements involve a “we” –we disagree but Fighting is “me against you.” “We” may be fighting but character assassinations, abusive language, and bringing up the past only pit us against each other. Stay on topic and eat with one issue at a time. Do not attack your partner. Attacking only leads to the other person becoming defensive and sometimes even evasive. Use “I” statements that take ownership of your emotions: “I feel very angry about this situation and I would like to talk to you about it,” not “I feel very angry about this situation and there’s no way this is going to happen.” The first statement opens things up for discussion, the second way opens things up for an argument.
Accusations and blame can be conversational dead ends. If you think your partner is having an affair, ask them about it, tell them what you think without accusations. If you have some proof, let them know that you have information that has hurt and upset you that you need to discuss. Studies show that Stonewalling, or shutting down can actually be very harmful to a relationship. If you need time to process things, them let your partner know. Being punitive is not going to help.
Something important to consider are your partner’s intentions
Did they intend to upset you? Did s/he intend to create conflict? Did they just make a mistake? Am I judging them?
Consider this: You don’t act bad if you feel good, so if your partner is acting bad, they likely are suffering too. Empathy can bring us closer, and choosing to adopt an open style of communication can lead to less disharmony and better conflict resolution. I am in no way suggesting you should be a doormat. On the contrary, I am suggesting that assertive behavior is more effective than aggressive. If your partner shuts down, becomes defensive, or tries to turn things around on you, consider professional help. If you find that you and your partner are unable to resolve your conflicts, that you have fallen into negative patterns of interacting, and/or s/he is unable or unwilling to look at themselves productively in a disagreement, then I strongly recommend you seek professional help. A marriage counselor can objectively and skillfully help you break out of negative patterns of interaction, identify strengths and build upon them while working through the issues, and resolving those long standing, unresolved conflicts that keep coming up. If your partner won’t go to counseling, then you go. Effective therapy with only one partner can elicit positive change in a couple.
Last but not least, don’t forget to take conscious breaths throughout your disagreement, it will help you stay calm, respond and not react to your partner, and remain clear headed.
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More by Dr. Marion Rollings