Even when you really love each other, disagreements can drive a wedge between you and your partner. You turn from caring partners to tense rivals. As you each focus on winning the argument, you fail to see that you are losing your partner in the process.
Many people get caught in a false dilemma when they’re in disagreements. They think that they must either win or let their partner win. And if they let their partner win, they believe they are giving up a piece of themselves. But the truth is that you don’t have to choose which one of you will win – you can choose your relationship instead.
To make your relationship the winner, you need to find a way to continue feeling emotionally close even as your thoughts and feelings are at odds. Of course, the more important the topic and the more you disagree, the harder this can be to do.
You and your partner can keep your relationship strong through conflicts by agreeing to work together. Four steps for doing this are:
Take the conversation slowly. Couples often have particular arguments that tend to repeat. The “script” can become like a well-oiled machine that quickly and flawlessly leads them to the same tense stalemate. When you slow the conversation down, you are more likely to see when the conversation is taking a problematic turn – such as through a misunderstanding – and immediately get it back on course.
Ask your partner to share their perspective, including their view of the situation and their feelings. As you listen, your job is to fully understand their thoughts and feelings. You do not need to agree with them, but rather to just get as good a sense of what the situation looks and feels like to them (even if you disagree with the “facts” as they see them). When they are done talking, reflect what you are hearing to make sure you get it. Ask them to correct anything you might have gotten wrong. Repeat this back-and-forth as many times as necessary for them to feel that you really get both what they are thinking and how they are feeling.
Focusing on your empathic understanding, share how their experience affects you. If you have successfully remained in an open, empathic frame of mind, you will hopefully be able to express empathy and compassion. (While empathy refers to sharing someone’s feelings, compassion involves empathizing with their pain or distress and wanting it to lessen.) You might say something, such as, “It hurts me to see you so sad and to know I’ve hurt you. I wish I could take away your pain.”
Many people are tempted to jump over this step or zip through it quickly so that they can argue a point. DON’T. Remember that the foundation of your relationship is the connection and caring you have between you. By taking time to recognize their experience, you are honoring this bond.
Now repeat the process with you offering your perspective, focusing on your thoughts about the situation and how it makes you feel. Encourage your partner to share what they’ve heard, and correct any misunderstandings. Once they fully understand the situation, it is their turn to express their empathy and compassion.
At this point, you may still need to talk through your differences of opinion, but you will feel emotionally connected as you do. Even if you still want your partner to change their mind and agree with your perspective, you will be more likely to accept differences without it creating as much distance between you. In fact, as long as you and your partner respect each other and remain emotionally in sync, you can disagree and still feel emotionally close and strong as a couple.