Disagreements with a partner are going to happen. Whether it’s about something as benign as what color plates to add to the wedding registry, or something as important as what values to embrace as a family, the language we choose can facilitate a healthy, successful disagreement where both sides feel heard. See, language matters. It can bring us together and make us feel connected, even when disagreeing, or it can alienate us and break down the partnership. While it’s important to be mindful of our language in all communication, it is particularly important during a disagreement.
If you find yourself searching for the right words during disagreements with your partner, or if you and your partner’s disagreement style ends in heated blowups, try using some or all of the phrases below to keep the conversation moving toward fair resolution for both of you.
1. Let’s create a safe space to discuss this.
If disagreements feel threatening to you or your partner (or both of you), create a safe space to discuss the topic at hand. This might include your physical surroundings such as having the conversation at home, in a neutral space, somewhere quieter, or somewhere with more distractions.
Safe space also includes agreeing on parameters of the conversation. Are there certain topics off-limits in this discussion? Is there something that needs to be approached in a certain way? Maybe a volume threshold so it doesn’t turn into a screaming match? Are there words or phrases that should be avoided during this discussion? Together, decide what your safe space looks like and agree to protect the space for yourselves and each other.
2. I invite us both to be vulnerable and honest.
Remember – you are both working together, even during an argument. For many of us, even a hint of disagreement can put us on edge and bring up defenses that close down communication. If both people can find safety in vulnerability and honesty, it is easier to work toward a solution as a team. Because disagreements can bring out a combative nature in humans, it is helpful to verbalize this invitation of vulnerability and safety before getting into the discussion. Try something like, “This is a sticky conversation for both of us. Can we leave our armor at the door and approach this with vulnerability and honesty from both sides?”
3. I statements – I feel, I think, I need.
You may have heard of this one before, but ‘I statements’ are an effective tool for disagreeing, so we’re including them here. When we approach a successful disagreement, or any conversation, with ‘I feel, I think, I need,’ we are accomplishing two things.
First of all, we are owning and articulating our feelings, thoughts and needs. For some of us, determining how we feel, what we think, and what we need, is tricky. When we approach disagreements using ‘I statements,’ we practice owning and articulating our point of view, as well as asserting ourselves in a respectful way.
Secondly, ‘I statements’ tend to reduce accusations in a successful disagreement. “You always do this,” or, “You don’t care,” or, “You’re so _________,” are statements that often come up in arguments and they can bring up defenses very quickly. Instead, when we use statements like, “I feel this way when you ____,” or, “When we argue about this, it makes me think _________,” or, “For me to feel safe, I need _________,” we can express how we feel without making accusations.
4. How do you feel?
In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to forget that our partner is hurting, too. Inviting our partner to freely share how they are feeling can create a safe space for intimacy. By giving our partner the opportunity to open up, we hold space for them and send the message that, although we are not on the same page right now, we care about them and their feelings.
5. What are your thoughts?
A successful disagreement should include consideration of both sides. Usually, we know what we think about the topic, and it can be helpful if we remember to stay curious about our partner. Often, partners enter the disagreement with the intent of being heard, which is appropriate, but hearing our partner is equally valuable. When both partners have space to share their thoughts, both the full picture and the resolution become more clear.
6. What do you need?
Disagreements can be threatening for a lot of people. When a successful disagreement arises in our partnership, it can feel less intimidating when we know the other side has our needs at heart.
7. Let’s revisit this when…
Sometimes, creating safe space may include taking a break and coming back to the discussion later. Whatever the reason the conversation needs to be paused, whether it’s becoming too heated, too triggering, or it’s just the wrong place and time to discuss the topic, both partners should feel comfortable in asking to return to the conversation at a better time. It can also help to specify a time to return to the conversation so both partners are prepared for it, and to signify each partner’s commitment to prioritize resolution of the issue.
8. How important is it that we agree on this?
Not all disagreements are equal. Disagreeing on what to have for dinner will likely be less important than which values to embrace as a family. Decide together how important the issue is and how much effort to put toward resolving it. Even if we don’t feel the issue is important, but our partner does, we can still show up, create safe space, and work toward successfully resolving the issue.
9. What is a fair compromise?
Not all disagreements will be resolved. If it looks like this might be the case in your current situation, agree to compromise. This doesn’t mean one person gives in and the other gets what they want, it means both people determine what they’d consider a fair compromise and both people get as close as they can to meeting in the middle.
10. If I need to talk about this again, what is the best way to bring it up?
Some disagreements take several conversations to settle. Some partners may be hesitant to revisit a conversation, or feel as though bringing it up again would just be rehashing the issue. A statement such as, “I may need to talk about this again. If so, how would you like me to approach it?” will set up a safe space to come back to the topic, while learning how our partner would like to be approached.
If you and your partner are having trouble settling disagreements, you’re not alone. Next time you and your partner find yourselves struggling to reach middle ground, try shifting the language and see if it can bring you closer to agreement. If you continue to struggle, please reach out. We are here to help.