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How to Navigate Differences of Opinion in Your Relationship

Three steps to take when you and your partner disagree.

Key points

  • Disagreements on the best way to handle things will arise in relationships, but science-based strategies for navigating such disagreements exist.
  • By using "I" statements, listening, and cultivating empathy, partners can try to understand each other's perspective.
  • Reframing a problem as an issue both partners will navigate together avoids the feeling of being pitted against one another.

Let’s face it: Sharing your life with another human being can be hard. We all have brains that are wired differently, leading us to experience the world in different ways. In "The Secret to Improving Your Relationship," I explained how knowing where you and your partner fall on the "Big Three" dimensions of Extraversion, Emotionality, and Effortful Control can give you a window into understanding a hidden cause of relationship challenges. When you and your partner are mismatched on your natural tendencies, it can lead to friction.

So what do you do when you realize you and your partner have different ways of approaching things? Here are three steps to bridge the divide.

1. Approach with curiosity.

Often we jump to assumptions about our partner when we disagree—that they were being rude, or selfish, or mean. But the way we see it is just one interpretation of the situation. Imagine you come home from a day of running errands only to discover that the laundry is still unfolded on the bed, the dishes are in the sink, and there are toys strewn about the house. “Are you kidding me?!” you think. “I have been gone all day doing errands for the family, and they couldn’t even pick up around the house. How inconsiderate!”

But imagine that your partner instead intentionally used the day to connect with the children because (s)he has been working a lot. Perhaps you have been commenting on how they need to spend more time with the kids. So, your partner might be thinking you will be happy because they have spent the entire day focused on quality bonding time with the kiddos. Now imagine their surprise (and frustration) when you come home and are all worked up about the toys. Admittedly, that might not be purely hypothetical. It’s played out in our house in various forms many times.

The first step to breaking the frustration cycle is to take a deep breath, and before laying into your partner with your perspective (“You didn’t clean up the house!”), practice the mantra: “Let me try to understand their perspective.”

Remember the old saying, “There are two sides to every story?” It turns out it doesn’t just refer to the fact that one person might be omitting some of the facts to support their side (as is frequently the case with my children!). It can literally refer to the fact that we see the world in different ways.

When we start to see our partner as “the other” (read: the person standing in the way of getting what we want), it becomes harder to understand where they are coming from. Trying to see the world from their perspective, and helping them to understand yours, is one way to help rebuild the connection between you.

One straightforward way to cultivate perspective sharing is to use “I statements." So instead of saying, “You never clean up the house!” instead try, “I get frustrated when I come home and the house is dirty." That’s far less likely to make your partner defensive than, “You said you were going to clean up today!” To which, they are likely to respond with another “you statement”: “Well you don’t always clean up when you’re with the kids either!” It’s a cycle that goes nowhere good.

Using “I” statements helps your partner understand how your brain works, and also gives you insight into how their brain works. Take turns sharing your perspectives. “I thought you were going to clean up the house” more easily leads to, “I thought it was more important to spend time with the kids." You don’t necessarily have to agree, but now you have a foundation to work from.

2. Aim for empathy.

A key part of understanding your partner’s perspective is really listening to what they are saying. Too often when someone else is talking we are thinking about what we will say next. We are formulating our rebuttal. Try instead to really, truly listen to your partner and understand what they are saying. There is research showing that empathy builds connection to other people, which is good for our health and well-being, in addition to our relationships!

The other great thing is that empathy can be cultivated. One of the ways to grow empathy is to nurture gratitude. Try to remind yourself of your partner’s strengths, of all the ways they enrich your life, of what your life would be like if they weren’t in it. Yes, there may be fewer socks left on the floor (sigh), but hopefully, the joy they bring into your life makes a few stray socks worth it.

There is also evidence that gratitude makes us better at considering others' feelings. So, when you feel yourself getting upset with your partner, it can help to take a deep breath and remember the things you love about them before you start the conversation. (Hint: It’s good to have a few of these thought through beforehand so you can readily retrieve them; it’s harder to conjure up their best qualities when you’re staring at a pile of laundry.)

3. Get on the same team.

Too often when we have differences with our significant other, we approach our partner as the adversary. "I want to do it this way, and they are making it difficult! Why won’t they just see it my way?" The reality is that they can’t.

I will admit this is one of the hardest things for me to accept. The problem is that I think if I can just get my significant other to see my logic, if I can just explain my thinking sufficiently, they will adopt my perspective (read: agree with me, see I wasn’t at fault, or see that my way is better). But here’s why that doesn’t work. Their brain is coded differently. So, your partner might understand what you’re saying, but that doesn’t guarantee they will see it your way.

The way to get around this is that rather than focusing on the other person as the problem, or trying to sway them to your perspective, focus on the problem itself. Reframe the issue as a common problem that the two of you have to tackle (e.g., how is the dishwasher going to get loaded without someone getting mad; how are we doing to balance your need to spend time with the children with my need for help around the house). After all, there’s a reason that you’re called partners. Sometimes the best thing to do when you’re upset with yours is to step away and decide on a time when the two of you will come back together with the mindset of tackling the problem as a team.

More from Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D.
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