She Said, He Said: Couple’s communication breakdown, not about being ‘right’ but letting partner be ‘wrong’
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My wife and I have been together for about three years and we still can’t seem to have a discussion about anything important without it ending up in a fight. I feel as though I speak in a calm and neutral way, but she accuses me of being stubborn and aggressive. I am simply stating my side of the issue and believe I’m open to hearing hers, but often don’t think she ever takes into account that I might be right. We’ve gotten to the point where we just don’t talk about anything of substance in fear that it will erupt into an argument. How do we get back on the same page?
Lori and Jeff: There’s a popular saying about relationships: Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? Being right creates a duality — it requires someone to be wrong. Discussions between partners often get heated because each is trying to defend their position without being willing or able to see things from their partner’s side or fully understand their partner’s experience.
Jeff: Men often get faulted — sometimes appropriately, sometimes not — of being too aggressive, too loud or too emotionally removed from a situation for it to ever reach a resolution. Requests are often made to “calm down,” “soften up” or “open up.” It’s not that we’re necessarily doing anything wrong, but often our approach can feel dismissive or condescending. We tend to focus on what we see as facts while sometimes minimizing our partner’s emotions.
Just because you have learned to communicate in a more calm and neutral manner doesn’t necessarily mean you are being kind, compassionate or empathetic to your wife’s experience. You can talk as calmly as you want and even use neutral or passive language but if the feeling behind your words is still confrontational and you are trying to convince your wife that you’re right, it can still create unwanted reactions and hurt feelings. The goal isn’t to win a disagreement, but to understand the feelings that are driving each of your perspectives. You may be so focused on trying to prove a point that you can’t see that your wife may be simply trying to let you know where she’s coming from.
Lori: It can be helpful to think about healthy conflict as moving through four stages: content-emotion-validation-solution. Content is the details and logistics that come up in life (what to make for dinner, who’s going to go grocery shopping, how much money is reasonable to spend on a new bike). Almost every content topic, however, is linked to at least some level of emotion. Fights over whether little Bobby can have a snack before dinner is often more about the worry of being (and being seen as) a good parent than the actual cookie.
In order to get to healthy resolution, there needs to be some awareness and validation of what is happening for each partner emotionally. Anger and frustration during times of tension are often masking vulnerability, hurt, sadness, insecurity and fear. When these emotions are present, they’re driving the conversation — even when you think you’re just talking about content. It’s important for couples to practice what we call “dropping below the line”: stepping out of the content that’s on the surface, and turning your attention deeper to identify the stories and feelings that are involved. It’s nearly impossible for real resolution to happen when one partner is above the line (focused on facts, logic and analytical solutions), and the other is below the line (experiencing fear, vulnerability or hurt). If you want her to be able to acknowledge when you’re “right,” you have to drop down below and make it safe for her to sometimes be “wrong.”
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.