What we’ve got here….is failure to communicate.

Raffi Bilek · March 13, 2019

Sometimes the answers to our relationship struggles come down to the simple things.

One of the most common difficulties people have in their relationships is communication problems. It can be intensely frustrating finding yourselves in repeated arguments and fights – often about minor issues that everyone will agree hardly matters. What gives?

Sadly, few of us learned communication skills as we were growing up, and we all tend to reenact the patterns we grew up with or saw on TV. The result is arguments that go nowhere, fights that escalate over nothing, and ultimately unsatisfying or broken relationships.

What’s the alternative?

Here are a few tips you can use starting now that will help improve communication in your relationship and reduce the number and intensity of the arguments you experience.

  1. Don’t try to solve problems when you’re mad.

This is a tip you should follow before opening up any discussion. If you’re mad or hurt about something that has just happened, that is not the time to try to address it. You can be angry or you can solve the problem, but you can’t do both!

Remember the old adage about never going to bed angry? It’s terrible advice. If you’ve ever been angry at bedtime and tried to resolve the issue right then and there, you may recall being up until 3 in the morning, yelling and arguing, and still getting nothing done. Did that make things any better? Probably not.

There is no harm in going to sleep knowing you and your partner are irritated at each other. That does far less damage to the relationship than the early-morning blowout will do.  When you wake up, you will almost certainly find yourself calmer and in a better space to deal with the problem.

When you are riled up is not the time to discuss things. It just doesn’t work.

  1. Validate, don’t debate

If you agreed with everything your partner was saying, you wouldn’t be arguing. And yet trying to convince them of your point of view is rarely an effective way to end it. Instead, start by validating their point of view.

Validating doesn’t mean agreeing. It just means you accept the fact that that’s how they see things, and, if at all possible, understand why they feel the way they do.  You can disagree that your tone was too harsh when you answered the phone, as your partner claims. But you can acknowledge that they are feeling hurt because of it. Yes, their perception of what happened may be factually incorrect – but you are not going to convince them of that in that moment. And if you try, you will find yourself arguing in no time. (I suspect this is a familiar situation to many.)

Allow your partner to have their perspective and try to understand where they’re coming from. Only once they feel that you accept their experience as real will they be willing to listen to yours.

  1. Focus on one issue at a time

If you are looking to resolve a disagreement, it’s important to stick to that one issue in the course of the discussion. If you are looking to stir up a big fight, then, by all means, start launching accusations about your partner’s past misdeeds!

It’s not uncommon for resentments to build up over time, especially if you don’t have a working mechanism for talking about and dealing with them. That’s why it’s all the more important to keep past issues out of current discussions. It is impossible to fix a problem if you keep piling other problems on top of it.

You may have any number of valid grievances. If you want them to be dealt with, keep them on the waiting list and bring them up at a good time – not when you’re already embroiled in another issue.  It just adds fuel to the fire, and again – you can be angry or you can solve the problem, but you can’t do both.

  1. Stop trying to be right

One of the hardest things for people to do is to bite their tongue when they feel they’re in the right.  The problem is, when a couple is arguing, they both feel they’re in the right! Trying to convince the other person of your position is rarely a winning approach (see #2 above).

Being right is actually not a prerequisite for getting what you want in a given situation. Not only is it not prerequisite, but it can also often be a hindrance to achieving your goal. Have you ever out-argued your partner to the point where they were compelled against their wishes to acknowledge you were correct – and then had them cheerfully go along with your idea? No, you have not.

A happy relationship is not about who is right more often but about the connection that is built despite and even through differences of opinion, the connection that can be achieved when the focus is on each other’s needs and feelings. Instead of “let me explain why I’m right here,” try “let me understand why you’re so upset here.” That kind of discussion breeds closeness and happy relationships. The other kind, where you try to prove your position, drives you apart.

 

This is not a comprehensive guide on how to manage difficult issues in a relationship. It will, however, provide you with some starting points to doing things differently. If there is a lot of conflict in your relationship, then what you’re doing currently probably isn’t working. Consider trying some of these ideas and seeing how things turn out.  They’re free to try, and they just might make a difference in your relationship.

 

Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, is a couples counselor and the director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. He helps people repair and enrich their relationships, whether romantic, social, familial, professional or any other relationships people find themselves in. He can be contacted through www.baltimoretherapycenter.com