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4 Essential Rules for Approaching Couples Conflict

How can you get your partner to be more responsive to your needs?

Costa Rica by Renee Brown / Flickr
Source: Costa Rica by Renee Brown / Flickr

1. Talk about yourself, not your partner--and focus less on your "position" than on your feelings, wants, and needs. No one likes to be negatively judged, analyzed, or "dissected." Unless you determine in advance not to, in conflictual situations you're likely to approach your partner disapprovingly. But critically interpreting their behavior will almost certainly trigger a defensive or counter-critical reaction--or even induce them to withdraw from you entirely. Obviously, none of these responses will help you get the understanding, or change, you're looking for.

In talking about yourself, be careful not to argue your viewpoint--that is, don't try to convince your partner that your perspective is the only right one and that theirs, frankly, is wrong-headed. Such a debating orientation inevitably sets the two of you up as adversaries, which is almost guaranteed to get things off on the wrong foot. Rarely does it facilitate productive problem-solving. Instead, focus on your feelings or unmet needs. Non-blamingly sharing your frustrations is fine; attacking your mate for them is typically worse than useless.

It's crucial to assume that if you're feeling sad, angry, anxious, hurt, etc. in reaction to something your partner did, it's probably not because (with malice and forethought ) they intended to make you feel this way--unless, that is, they were trying to get back at you because earlier they inferred that something you did was consciously meant to distress them. Chances are that their behavior, offensive as it may have been to you, represented little more than their single-mindedly striving to get their own wants and needs met--and so leaving them oblivious to its possible impact on you. It therefore makes little sense to attempt, in retaliation, to make them feel bad, too

In such a situation, what's called for is for you to assertively--not accusingly or aggressively--help them better grasp why you're displeased or disappointed with them. Again, your objective is to help enable them to become more sensitive to how their behavior, however inadvertently, negatively affected you. It can hardly be overemphasized that your attention needs to concentrate on "solving the problem," rather than--forcibly--"winning an argument." Remember, as long as you start the discussion on the right foot, you increase the odds are that your dialogue will end on that foot as well.

2. When you need to confront your partner about something that really bothered you, don't negatively "read their mind." Rather, inquire about what made them do whatever it was that disturbed you. And don't repeatedly question their explanation or try to argue them out of it. That is, elicit information to help you better understand and resolve your issue with them--as opposed to commenting on what, in your frustration, you supposed were their (negative) motivations. To an extent, it's okay to share some of your unfavorable impressions. But they need to be put forth tentatively--as hypotheses, not facts; and it's crucial that you refrain from angry accusations and counter-productive mind-reading.

Never forget that your two complementary goals are (or should be) to get them to fully comprehend what bothered you and to get it fixed. Not to shame them, or make them feel bad. The reason you're asking them about their behavior is solely to grasp (and hopefully, sympathetically understand) just what might have led them to do whatever made you so upset.

And when you ask your partner about their behavior, you need to make an agreement with yourself beforehand that you'll accept whatever they say as accurately reflecting their understanding, their reality--or the legitimacy of their wants and needs. To challenge, invalidate, or otherwise negate their response will probably only precipitate a destructive exchange over whose perspective is more warranted, more "righteous". If conflicts between the two of you are to be successfully resolved, you need to respect what your partner says as what (in the moment at least) is true for them.

Further, any viable solution to your frustrations must take into account both your desires. Much research has shown that the happiest unions are egalitarian--relationships, that is, between equals. So it's not at all helpful to argue that your needs are more important than, or should take priority over, theirs.

3. If you want or need some change in the relationship, request it--don't demand it, or threaten to retaliate if you don't get it. Demands almost always create resistance in your partner, for they threaten the universal need for autonomy and choice. On the contrary, requests that derive from the sincere expression of your needs and feelings tend to be much more effective in getting positive results.

Always keep in the forefront of your consciousness that your goal is to make your partner more aware of, and responsive to, your needs. If you want them to put more effort into accommodating these needs, it makes little sense to address them in a way that could make them feel bullied or coerced. True, the "my way or the highway" approach may immediately help you to replace any feelings of powerlessness over the situation with a gratifying sense of dominance or control. But it's highly unlikely to make your partner more empathic toward your feelings.

Ideally, what needs to happen is that even as you're asking them for change, you express a democratic willingness to accommodate them on something they may have experienced as frustrating about you. Obviously, such an offer can only increase the probability of their being more receptive to satisfying your own desires.

Lastly, and in some ways perhaps the most critical rule of all:

4. Don't wait till you're absolutely furious about something before approaching your partner (as so many couples do). By then it may be too late to keep in check your now inflamed emotions. For you may already be in "attack" mode, such that your mate will likely be so intimidated, or put off, by your anger that they'll react much more to your aggressive manner than to your actual words. In consequence, they simply may not be able to hear the message you're so desperate to get across.

For example, can you say to them: "When we're out with other couples, I feel you're not really with me, but totally immersed in talking to them. I know you love to catch up with what's going on with your friends. But do you think you could at least maybe look at me and smile from time to time, so I don't end up feeling neglected or abandoned--almost like I'm some sort of non-entity to you?" Consider this approach vs. one in which you hostilely approach your spouse with words like: "Why do you always desert me when we're with other people? That's just so mean and cruel of you! I'd never do anything like that to you! Really! You're just so selfish and inconsiderate! How can you treat me like that? What's wrong with you anyway?!" . . . Hear the difference? Which approach would you expect to get the better result? (No brainer, right?!)

Communicating well in situations of conflict requires considerable care and thoughtfulness. Since in growing up, few people are taught how to communicate effectively in tense or provocative situations, developing these valuable communication strategies requires a good deal of motivation, patience, and practice.

And if all this sounds like hard work . . . it is. But it's also time and energy well spent. For how relationship issues are confronted determines more than anything else how effectively they'll be resolved. Remember, if you unwittingly approach your partner as your enemy, you'll thereby be engendering just the adversity that's likely to defeat your purposes. Conversely, to the degree you approach your partner as a friend and ally with whom you've just had a misunderstanding, you'll be fostering a healthy spirit of collaboration and cooperation.

And this is precisely what will strengthen the all-important attachment bond between you.

Note 1: This post complements a variety of other posts I've completed on the challenges of intimate relationships. If you'd like to delve further into this topic, here are links to other writings of mine that should provide additional ideas for dealing with your partner problems:

Note 2: If you found this post at all useful and think other you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link.

Note 3: If you'd like to check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today, on a number of different psychological topics, click here

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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