Not long ago, I had a triggering conversation with my partner (yes, therapists are human and have triggering conversations too). But rather than going in on him, I said, “I need time to process what I’m feeling.
At the time, I was not sure which one of my selves (the grown-ass-woman or the inner child) was likely to respond. Because I have to tell you my inner child has no filter and she gives zero f*cks about hurting feelings. Thankfully my grown-ass-woman self knows how she acts and takes precautionary measures. Because here’s the thing, once something comes out of your mouth, it cannot be unsaid.
There is no such thing as striking it from the record. And while apologizing can initiate the healing process, it doesn’t make wounds magically disappear. For this reason, when I am upset, I stop talking until I can articulate my feelings and have a productive conversation.
Taking time to pause and reflect was an excellent idea, but it was also uncomfortable — for both of us. Once I came up for air, we talked about it. I expressed my feelings, and he explained where he was coming from. There was no anger or malice. We did not raise our voices or become defensive. There was no blaming or shaming. We were just two people who love one another, listening with our hearts wide open.
And for the record, we disagree often. But neither of us expects the other to conform or be something other than their authentic self.
Now don’t get me wrong; our relationship is imperfect. But rather than viewing disagreements as obstacles, we make them teachable moments that allow us to see ourselves and each other — differently.
Relationship-ing is something we typically learn through observation. But if you’re like me, the things you’ve seen haven’t exactly given you the tools to relationship in a healthy way. This is especially true when it comes to disagreements.
I want to take a moment to clarify the difference between a disagreement and an argument (in my opinion):
⇒ An argument is a heated exchange of opposing views.
⇒ A disagreement is an “unacceptable difference between two perspectives.”
Both can be equally unproductive, but from an energetic perspective, arguments tend to be more charged, which can make arriving at a resolution all the more difficult.
Learning how to disagree is vital to the survival of your relationship.
Disagreements are a good thing.
Disagreements are a form of communication. Let me say that again, in case you didn’t get it; disagreements are a form of communication. But the fact that “dis” appears to negate “agreement” makes us uncomfortable.
We have been conditioned to believe that opposition is destructive, but that’s just not true. Conflicting ideas invite us to a greater understanding and deeper connection. Your beloved is not your adversary or your competition. They are your partner. That means that you are on the same team — whether you agree or not.
Disagreements are pointers that indicate the parts of the relationship that need tending. Like a signal that beckons your attention. Conflict is a messenger that says, “Hey, you missed a spot.”
Of course, this new awareness is not a cause to pick a fight. Remember, just because you do not see eye-to-eye doesn’t mean you have to argue. You can disagree in a way that allows both of you to feel seen and heard. So that you can continue to grow and evolve — separately and two-gether.
What’s the story underneath?
Before I address an issue with my partner, I take time to process what I’m feeling. Because what I have come to know is, if there is a trigger, there is also a story. And there are two things you should know about stories (1) they usually have nothing to do with the other person and (2) they are seldom true.
That’s why you need to recognize the story underneath the trigger. Here are a few self-reflective questions that will help you get down to the nitty-gritty:
- What am really upset about? (nobody is ever angry for the sake of being angry)
- When have I felt this way before? (triggers are evidence of old trauma)
- What am I making this mean? (this is the story)
Taking the time to self-reflect is essential. Self-reflection makes way for clarity. Once you’re clear enough to put words to your feelings, you need to ask yourself one more vital question, “What is my desired outcome?”
Knowing what you want.
There can be no solution if you don’t know what you want. You need to be clear about the end game before you can ask your partner to meet you there.
I’m sure you know what it’s like to talk in a circle about the same thing over and over again. Issues often go unresolved because you don’t know what you want.
Now I am not promising that you’ll always be happy with the outcome. But I am suggesting that having a clear idea of what you want increases your chances of fulfillment. And remember, this is about making requests, not demands.
This next step is crucial, regardless of what side of the disagreement you sit on. You must be able to listen.
Wear your generous listening ears.
Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.
Listening is an art in and of itself. But I’m afraid most of us are not very good at it. If you tend to formulate your response while the other person is talking — you’ve got some work to do.
Listening is about understanding, not responding. When you are working through a disagreement, making peace hinges on your ability to understand where your partner is coming from. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree.
This is not a game of “competing answers,” it’s about asking productive questions and generously listening to your partner’s response. Sometimes your partner’s responses will trip your insecurity wire. And your natural inclination will be to defend yourself, which is a perfectly reasonable response. But keep in mind the intention is to maintain a connection, even when you are both experiencing dis-ease.
Learn to understand and accept the differences.
Admit when you’re wrong. Shut up when you’re right.
Sometimes there is a clear distinction between right and wrong. But most of the challenges that show up in relationships are in the gray.
It’s less about this or that, and more about yes/and.
Healthy disagreements require pliability. You must be willing to bend and flex. You need to become well-versed in the language of understanding, which may not result in consensus. Emotional maturity affords space for acceptance in the absence of agreement.
Cooperation vs. self-interest.
When it comes to conflict resolution, it’s easy to miss the point. If you’re like most people, your goal might be to get your partner to see things your way. But what you actually want is their cooperation.
In loving relationships, self-interest takes a backseat to cooperation. When both people feel safe enough to express themselves without fear of retribution, they each make a concerted effort to work things out.
Middle ground is almost always an option.
When you come together with another person(s) for the purpose of relationship-ing, conflicts are bound to arise. The more comfortable you are, the more you show yourself in all your imperfect glory.
Imperfections can get mighty prickly. And sometimes you’re the prickee and other times you’re the pricker. But if you are willing to sit with discomfort, dismantle your stories, know what you want, listen to understand, and compromise — love becomes medicine.