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How to Get to the True Source of Conflict With Your Partner

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistJune 09, 2021

You and your partner have the same arguments over and over again. Maybe there are particular hot topics, or maybe you argue about pretty much everything. Either way, there is a good chance that the topics you are arguing about are not what’s keeping you locked in battle. Instead, the true problems are likely below the surface, feeding tensions that arise between you. As I explain in a brief video, resolving or managing conflict means naming and addressing those issues.

Two very common culprits are misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Misunderstanding. Truly understanding your partner is more than simply being able to summarize their reasoning. You can see the world as they do and have empathy for their struggles. They will feel heard and be open to your responses. But when you don’t truly appreciate their perspective, then you cannot fully connect. You may simply fail to understand each other in daily conversations. But that misunderstanding can also lead to miscommunication that fuels repeated conflicts.

Miscommunication. When you fail to understand each other, you and your partner may feel attacked, dismissed, unseen, or like the other one doesn’t care about you. Unless you step back and clear up the misunderstanding, you are each likely to remain locked in your own perspective, with neither of you truly understanding what the other one is trying to communicate.

For instance, during stressful times, Jessica helps herself feel calm by keeping her home organized. She really hates messes because they are unsettling for her. Unfortunately, when she moved in with Anna, this became a source of contention. Jessica would feel disrespected by Anna, who was constantly leaving things all over. And when Jessica would get on Anna’s case about needing to clean up, Anna would get frustrated and see Jessica as controlling. They had many conflicts about this but never made progress. Their arguments always went in circles with each one feeling misunderstood and attacked.

The solution to such arguments is often to take time apart in order to calm down, and for each partner to reflect on what is really going on inside of them and the other. Then, if they come back together with an openness to hearing each other out, they are more likely to work together to resolve the conflict.

This approach worked for Jessica and Anna. On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Jessica let Anna know she wanted to talk. She explained that her need for the apartment to be organized was not about dictating what Anna should do, but rather because she was just trying to feel “organized” and at peace inside of herself. When stated this way, by talking about herself and not so much about Anna’s behaviors, Anna understood Jessica’s need to “have a place for everything and everything in its place.” Then Anna explained what it was like to be criticized and told that she was a slob. Jessica could definitely understand how this would be upsetting. The discussion reduced the tension between them, enabling them to do better in working together and communicating their feelings in a constructive way.

To apply this approach to your relationship, let the caring between you and your partner be your motivation to think more deeply about your conflicts. It is helpful to be diplomatic in expressing your thoughts and feelings, and to be open to your partner’s experience. As a result of communicating more effectively, you will both be happier in your life together.


Photo Credit: Mixmike/E+ via Getty Images

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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