A frequent concern couples have is how to express their disagreements without starting a fight.
Learning how to communicate with your partner in a way that minimizes your partner's defensiveness and makes it possible to have a conversation and not an argument is vital to the success of any relationship.
Having a conversation and having an argument are two very different things...
In an argument, we try to convince our partner that we are right and that they are wrong. Oftentimes this leads to an escalation of conflict, because our partner is unlikely to simply agree that we are right, and is more likely to defend themselves or find convincing arguments why we are wrong. Even if our partner agrees with us, we may discover that it is a rather hollow victory: Our partner may simply have agreed with us to keep the peace, and may gradually end up becoming more distant from us, as they increasingly begin to feel that there is no room in the relationship for them to be who they are.
In a conversation, on the other hand, the focus shifts from convincing your partner that you are right to truly understanding your partner’s perspective. Even if you don’t agree about something, you can still attempt to understand what motivates each of your actions, and what feelings, beliefs, and perceptions underlie each of your complaints. The benefit of this approach, is that each partner can then feel heard and understood, and this typically brings partners closer to each other, and increases both partners tolerance and appreciation for each other's differences.
How to Communicate without Starting a Fight:
In the Gottman Method of couples therapy, couples are instructed to use the following guidelines in order to learn how to communicate without starting a fight:
- Initiate a conversation in a soft rather than accusatory manner
- Focus on your own experience, not on your partner
- Focus on stating a positive need, instead of complaining about what your partner isn’t doing
Starting a conversation in a soft manner can be done in many ways. It can involve things like acknowledging that “you may or may not be right”, that “it is probably ridiculous to even bring this up, but…”, or that you don’t want to start a fight and you know that your partner is “doing many things right, but…” This is different from a more abrupt start up where you communicate that you feel entitled to your complaint and come across as self-rigtheous and accusatory.
Focusing on your experience means taking the focus off your partner, and sharing your own internal reactions, feelings, and interpretations. Instead of labeling your partner’s actions, or speaking about a situation in absolute terms, you turn the focus inward. Instead of saying things like, “it wasn’t right when you…” or “you were being very inconsiderate when you”, you instead look beneath your self-righteous anger and get in touch with your softer and more vulnerable emotions. Say something like, “I guess when you came home late again tonight (non-judgmental description), I started feeling lonely and started thinking that I wasn’t very important to you” Not something like, “you know you are always late, and I’m getting tired of sitting around waiting for you. It seems like you just don’t care about my feelings”
Focusing on stating a positive need instead of a criticism, means trying to pinpoint what it is you would like the two of you to do more of. In the example of your partner being late, the hidden need might be for the two of you to be closer with each other. Your sense of loneliness and disappointment when your partner is late, might be a clue that you have been feeling distant from your partner for a while. The trick now is to state what you want rather than what you don't want. Instead of saying, “I’m tired of you being late”, you might instead say, “can we do more things together where we can connect with each other. I have been feeling rather lonely as of late”.
If you learn how to communicate with your partner using the three rules above, likelihood is that your partner will not feel attacked and will be able to actually listen and respond to your concern...
If you are not the person voicing the complaint, but instead the one having to respond to your partner’s criticism, try to apply one of the following skills:
- Don’t defend yourself or counter-attack
- Validate your partner’s experience
Don’t defend yourself when your partner brings up a concern. Even if your partner may bring up an issue in an accusatory way, realize that underneath the anger, your partner likely feels hurt, rejected, or wounded in some way. Even if you notice yourself getting angry and ready to counter-attack, try to bite your tongue. Make a conscious decision to set your own issues to the side for the time being, and begin to listen for what your partner is really feeling and experiencing.
Validate your partner’s experience. You may not agree with how your partner interprets or sees things, and your partner’s feelings may seem quite irrational to you. This, however, is when you must make an effort to ask clarifying question to understand how your partner has arrived at his or her conclusions. You must try to find the logic in your partner’s perspective, so you can repeat your understanding back to them. Try to acknowledge and validate that if you were in their shoes, made the same kinds of interpretations, and had the same kind of values, you too would feel the way they do. Realize that by validating and saying that you understand, you are not saying that you agree, nor are you saying that your own feelings are invalid. In a relationship there is room for two valid perspectives on the same situation. The important thing is that both of you can feel that your perspectives are heard.
A Small Change Can Have a Large Effect:
Whether you are “the speaker” or “the listener”, it is important to realize that you can change an interaction by doing any of these 5 suggestions at any point in an interaction. Maybe your partner brings up a concern in an accusatory manner, and you decide to not respond in a defensive way, thus breaking the typical cycle of attack-defend. Or maybe you correct yourself in the middle of voicing your own complaint by making an effort to focus more on your own feelings than on labeling your partner’s. Each time you stop reacting to your partner and make a conscious decision to take control of the interaction, you increase the likelihood of turning an argument into a conversation. The benefits of learning how to communicate with your partner can be profound, so the next time you find yourself itching to let something off your chest, try using one of the five rules.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I use a variety of proven methods to help couples get their relationships back on track. Visit my website to read more about my approach to couples therapy or to schedule an appointment.