Expect every relationship to have a disagreement along the way. Disagreements are normal in relationships. Disagreements, however, can trigger other feelings, such as loss of control, powerlessness, or feelings of abuse. Mix into this situation your partner’s personality, the triggers the disagreements bring up for both of you, and a dash of how we saw disagreements resolved in our childhood and you may have a very dysfunctional approach to resolving conflict.
Are you willing to change? Most importantly, is your partner willing to change, too?
Some disagreements are not disagreements but break downs in communication, or misinterpreted statements. Sometimes the way a message is delivered (i.e. in a text or email) can open the door for miscommunication and result in a fight between partners. Your partner may be upset over reading an email, or hearing your message on their voicemail and you may not know why there is such high level of upset. The answer usually is: they misinterpreted your statement.
Miscommunication typically results from not explaining yourself clearly, specifically and completely. All very difficult to do in a voice mail, text or email. So make a rule that all difficult conversations be made face to face. Your partner deserves this quality of conversation and you deserve not to be in the realm of upset over this predicament.
When communicating with your loved one, ask yourself the following, are you:
- Communicating with a lack of emotion in your voice?
- Leaving out information you assume your partner should know about?
- Are you really saying what you want to say?
- Is there a hidden agenda lurking behind this communication? Perhaps all of these things you have reviewed, resolved, cleaned up and cleared out. It was a simple miscommunication, end of story. Now, you both can move on to your weekend chores or favorite Netflix program.
It’s a bigger thing . . .
If this is more than a miscommunication problem, the next step is picking a time to discuss it, calmly, quietly and with no interruptions. Maybe at lunch on Sunday, or after the kids go to bed, most definitely when both of you have cooled down. Plan on sitting down with your partner and starting with an opening statement affirming your love and commitment to the relationship. Pledge that this meeting is an attempt to change how you communicate. Make fastidious notes regarding your presentation, because you may have to make an appointment with your partner to discuss this again, in a few days. Chances are you will forget all about your thoughts and feelings about this miscommunication, so keep your notes handy. If your partner is not looking you in the eye, or multitasking on their cell phone while you are attempting a conversation, maybe they had some difficulties coming to this meeting. Kindly ask, with a lack of emotion in your voice, the following:
- Ask if they heard your request to discuss this problem
- If there would be a better time to have this discussion when you could have their full attention
- Are they bringing up old resentments from past conflicts, if so, ask them to set these resentments aside for a time
- Is something really bothering them about this problem, and would they like to speak first?
Couples become very good at avoiding conflict. Sometimes one partner is so good at it, they teach the other partner avoidance through osmosis. Soon both partners are adept at sidestepping the real issues, and all conflicts because they won’t like the results. Remember your intimate relationship with your partner is not a win/lose proposition. Avoidance leaves one or both partners feeling unloved, not respected and upset that they are not being “heard.” It is important to work through a few of these exercises, so each partner can realize that discussing and resolving conflict is very important for a healthy, intimate relationship.
Avoidance looks and feels like this:
- You are so resentful at your partner that you are unwilling to do anything to resolve it
- All conversations like this devolve into conflict, anger, shouting and negative outcomes
- You don’t see any problem to discuss
- These meetings are a waste of time, dull boring and I could be mowing the lawn, paying bills or doing the wash instead of doing this
- If you have to have these discussions at the therapist’s office, a common thought is, I would rather spend my money on something other than this.
How to prepare for the meeting to resolve a problem
Before your meeting, identify your “hot button” issues. You know the ones, identify your pattern in most of your arguments. Does talking about money set you off, does mention of your domineering mother make you defensive, does worrying about your partner leaving you bring up actions you would rather not display (like aggression) or when things aren’t going your way do you start to cry? Review your reactions to your hot-button issues before hand, come up with some solutions to control your reactions (bite your lip, light a cigarette, hold a teddy bear) this will help you cope better during this meeting. Here are some ground rules both you and your partner should read and agree on prior to this meeting:
- Pick a time to discuss a problem so it can be resolved. Don’t discuss a problem when either of you are angry
- In this discussion, stay focus on the one problem. Use the specific example of your “upset” over this problem. Even if you have to repeat this specific example several times, stay focused
- Have a goal in mind when you discuss this problem. What are the changes you hope to make by discussing this problem? Why is it important for you to discuss this problem? Is this problem something you and your partner can change? Can you both commit to the change?
- Tell your partner what has upset you and what you are willing to do to change things going forward. Ask your partner what he/she is willing to do or change
- Be courteous when speaking to your partner, no back stabbing, knife twisting or “I’m better than you” comments
- Express positive messages, focus on the good attributes your partner has. As in the Jungle Book, “Accentuate the positive.” Or as in Mary Poppins, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
- Ask for changes to this problem in a positive way, avoid a cynical tone of voice or aggressive body language
- Do something nice for your partner, without expecting something in return.
- Complain about the things that matter. Attempt to limit your complaints to one thing that will make a difference or has to be acted upon immediately
- Let go of the past. Don’t allow yourself to bring up old problems, behaviors or incidents from the past. This will derail this conversation and it will devolve into a shouting match
- Be open to compromise. Intimate relationships are not a winner-take-all environment. Be open to your partner’s ideas
- Remove ultimatums from your vocabulary. Phrases like “I am leaving you” or “Pack your bags” should be turned into a “Let’s cool down and discuss this at another time.”
Using these tools to improve your intimate relationship is just like going to a board retreat or a workshop to improve your job performance. Isn’t it worth it to improve your intimate relationship’s performance? To advance change with the person you trust more than your boss, manager or administrator?
In an intimate relationship, the ultimate goal is not to dominate, control, or win. It is, instead, to create nourishing and mutually supportive intimacy; that is, to fully see your partner and to be fully seen; to be lovingly held by your partner (and vice versa) and to listen to them. The highest priority is on the relationship itself, on creating and maintaining an empathetic, loving environment. Acknowledging there is no boss, no subordinate, no winners, no losers. In other words, an intimate relationship is a place where two people, sometimes being in direct opposition or conflict, ultimately, trust the other’s predominant values enough to find equilibrium.