All relationships involve having difficult conversations. Marital therapist John Gottman states, “conflict in marriage is inevitable” and “although we tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness, a lasting relationship results from a couple’s ability to manage the conflicts”. It seems that what differentiates disagreements from being normal to unhealthy is whether partners feel heard and understood. When couples can communicate effectively during conflict, their relationship becomes more mature and stronger. We can all identify with feeling defensive and maybe even saying hurtful things in the heat of an argument. Recognizing this and working toward repair is vital. Arguments are debilitating to the relationship when a partner turns it into a personal attack, shames the other, or tries to lower the other’s self-esteem. A continual pattern of this can turn into verbal abuse where one partner cannot express feelings because of fear of retaliation. So how can you make sure that conflict does not hurt your relationships and instead help it grow? Below are some guidelines from negotiations expert Sheila Sheen to help you do just that.
The Structure of a Difficult Conversation: Three Conversations in One
The “What Happened” Conversation
We often get stuck thinking that our story is “right” and their story is “wrong,” when in fact there is almost always some reasonable basis for both sides’ stories. Explore each other’s stories, instead of attacking theirs and defending yours.
We are in the habit of demonizing others’ intentions and sanitizing our own: “If they did something that hurt me, it’s because they meant to. If I did something that hurt them, it was an unintended consequence – I had good intentions!” Instead, disentangle intent and impact.
Just as it takes two to tango, most problems stem from things both sides said or did. With a few important exceptions, it is rarely helpful to assign blame for what went wrong. What is more helpful is to explore what each side contributed to the problem at hand.
The Feelings Conversation
Despite our best efforts to conceal or deny our feelings, they tend to “leak” into conversations anyway. The problem is, they leak in unproductive or even damaging ways. Identify, acknowledge, and even discuss your feelings (and their feelings) to unravel the complexity of emotions and defray the negative effects of leaking emotions.
The Identity Conversation
Conversations are difficult because they often threaten some part of our identity. We see ourselves as competent, generous, or fair, so anything that challenges that notion of ourselves knocks us off balance. Recognize what’s at stake for you, and complexify your image of yourself so that all does not hang in the balance of this one conversation or issue.
These guidelines can be helpful to foster understanding and help conflict be an opportunity for learning about the other. It is important to remember that couples relationships, like all human relationships, are complex and imperfect. If you and your partner are stuck on a specific conflict and it is creating emotional disconnection and hurt in your relationship consider seeing a couples therapist.
Gottman, John Mordechai.Silver, Nan. (1999) The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown Publishers.
Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. (1999). Difficult conversations: how to discuss what matters most. New York: Penguin. ISBN: 0 14 02.8852X