When we’re trying to sit down and resolve conflicts in a relationship, we have to approach it a certain way. This is going to come across a lot like a problem-solving approach, and it is. What I want you to look at is the underlying issues that come with this approach. The main goal is helping couples talk from an authentic, vulnerable place about the issue that matters most to them.
The first step to resolution is your understanding what you’re upset about. It’s not always what you think. Often we will fight about triggers and not about the real issues.
If you’re upset with your partner, you want to look at yourself and ask if you know what’s really bothering you. If it’s something specific like,” I asked my partner to empty the dishwasher and they didn’t do it so I’m upset they didn’t follow through on what they promised.”
Ask yourself,” Is this a pattern of behavior that’s going on or is this problem an isolated incident?” If this is isolated to one particular situation, that’s one way of approaching the problem. If it’s a pattern of behavior, multiple things have gone on; you’re now feeling like your partner really doesn’t have your back. It’s not about the dishwasher being emptied, it’s about “I feel alone, I feel empty, I feel that my partner is not really there for me when I need them.” That’s a different conversation.
If it’s an isolated incident; one situation that happened – You’ll approach that in a much easier way, and it’s an easier conversation when you’re only working on resolving this one issue.
The technique is not for the underlying issues but for something specific.
- Let your partner know there’s something you want to discuss with them – set a time to sit down and have a dialogue. Be calm and prepared and be aware that you’re sitting down for a problem. If you approach them with a time and they are unable to sit down to discuss your issue, propose a different time. If they still cannot accommodate you, ask them for a time that works for them. If your partner is unwilling to have this conversation about something you’re upset about, your problem is bigger than simply one issue and you will need to accept and confront that. You want to tell them it’s really important to you and you want to resolve it. If they don’t agree, then you know you have a secondary problem. Most people don’t get to this point. For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to assume your partner is willing to sit down with you to discuss things.
- Be very specific. Share the problem that you’re concerned about. Not putting away the dishes,(say it without blame), if your partner has not kept their promise to do something for you. You need to state that you asked your partner to put away the dishes at a reasonable time and that didn’t happen. “You told me you would do it and I was hoping I could count on that”. It’s a very specific statement. Don’t bring up past issues; don’t bring up what it suggests to you from a doom and gloom, “like you really don’t care about me” perspective. You make a statement specific to this particular problem. It’s important that you stick to one issue at a time. If your partner starts talking about something that you did that concerns them, you need to steer the conversation back to the topic. Tell them that you’re perfectly willing to have another sit down where you talk about that issue. But today. We’re going to address this thing today. It can’t be about who has done more to whom, or who has hurt each other’s feelings the most. You have to work on the problem resolution for this particular issue.
- The next step is to talk about your feelings about this issue. This is where it’s appropriate and important for the partner to talk about the meaning you attach to your partner not doing the behavior. If it makes you feel alone you have to share that in a vulnerable way, but you have to be very positive about your partner. There’s nothing more important to them in spite of their behavior and let you down in this area you have to come at this believing your partner wants you to feel close to them and that they care about your feelings. You want to express them not in angry terms, but I feel alone, I feel lonely I feel empty, I feel bad when we’re not feeling close and if I ask you to do something and you don’t do it. That has me feeling unimportant to you. I know I am important to you but this didn’t help reinforce that for me. So now you’ve set a time, stated the problem, then talked about the feelings surrounding the problem. Now comes the next step:
- You have to propose a change. You can’t leave it to your partner to propose it. The rule is, you cannot bring up a problem to discuss unless you can suggest a viable solution to fix it. Obviously, you’ll need your partner to agree to this proposal, but you have to come to this meeting with a proposal already in mind. “I want you to be more supportive about the things I ask and I would like to propose that we set up a specific time that will have you make a commitment to have it done at that time. Instead of putting me off when I ask you do empty the dishwasher, you will make it a point to get it done when you say you’ll do it.” The agreement is that if they don’t follow through you’re going to talk about what the consequence is in terms of emotions and how it’s only going to cause more distance between you. The consequences of the two of you not being able to come to a resolution are just the continuation of the disconnected feelings you’re having now.
- If your proposal is not something that your partner is comfortable with, it’s now up to them to do a counter proposal and suggest their own solution. Stick to the issue at hand. They may have a problem or disagree with your proposed solution and can’t get on board or commit to it. You then, need to be open minded in listening to their proposal to solving the problem you stated. The only problem you’re still going to discuss is the original one you stated of them not following through on the specific issue you raised when you first began the discussion. You want to avoid escalation. Be careful when you’re having this dialogue that the non-verbal signals you’re giving do not trigger your partner. You want to avoid intensity of your tone and language. Be careful about how you approach your partner so that they don’t get defensive and put up a wall as soon as you bring up an issue that concerns them.
- The last thing is to draw up an agreement. If there’s a counter-proposal, you draw it up as a counter proposal. I recommend that some couples do this in writing because it clarifies exactly what was agreed to so there can be no question later on about what the two partners said, or agreed to do. If there’s a pattern in your relationship where you cannot always agree about what you agreed to in the past. Put it down in writing. Have it there to check back later on to see if you’re both living up to it. Check back in about 2 weeks and talk about the agreement you made and if it’s helping solve the issue.
- If this happens and your discussion begins to escalate, one of you might call for a time -out.
I’ve done a previous article on how to do a time-out, and if you’ve never seen or learned about this, a time-out is a valuable tool for de-escalating emotional discussions.
Please let me know if this has been helpful. Keep in mind that the most important thing here is the bond and emotional connection; both of you feeling incredibly important to each other.
Many thanks to: The Communication Book by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning for the inspiration for this article.
Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW helps couples to overcome the disconnection in their relationships As an author, blogger and podcaster, Stuart has helped couples around the world to experience a unique relationship in which they can feel special and important, confident in knowing they are loved deeply and that their presence matters.
His weekend workshop, Two Days: Seven Conversations has become a popular venue for many to set off on their journey of connectedness. The Couples Expert Podcast consists of weekly provocative conversations offering the perspectives and insight of experts from a variety of relationship related fields. Stuart also offers daily relationship video tips on The Couples Expert YouTube channel and by subscription in Stuart’s Daily Notes. Stuart is happily married and a devoted father of 2 daughters. He lives and works in Scottsdale, Arizona.