Couple outside communicating

“The quality of your closest relationship determines how long you will live.” –John Gottman


What do you fight about most often with your spouse? It may surprise you to know that the real reason most fights escalate (and one of the leading causes of relationship breakdowns) is not the issues themselves. Whether a perpetual issue, like finances, or a one-time issue like forgetting to turn the house lights off, most fights are really about feeling unheard and unvalued—feeling your partner does not have your back, as a friend would. As Dan Wile writes, a couple fight “is a deadlock in which one partner’s feeling that his or her own point is not appreciated makes it impossible to appreciate the other’s point” (p. 175). Once this negative cycle of “unappreciation” begins, it becomes impossible to resolve the issue because it is no longer about the issue—it is about emotional needs being unmet. Such fights usually end in withdrawal, tears, silence, or short-term (and ineffective) agreement by one person. Both partners need to do something very different; they need to identify their own needs, make a positive request, and try to meet their partner’s needs.

When we do not feel heard, when our needs are not met, we either escalate or withdraw. You may feel misunderstood, disrespected, or hurt, and say, “How could you do that! You hurt me so much. You know I needed to be at work by 8!” The problem is that instead of telling your partner your feelings and how to help, a lot of other information is added which makes it very hard for him or her to hear what you really need. What one person says in an effort to be heard makes the other person feel unheard and unvalued (Wile). The solution is for each partner (in turn) to identify what it is that he or she does need. The key here is to describe what you do need, not what you don’t want or what you feel your partner is doing wrong.
Just describing your need as a positive request is often not enough, however. The listener must also work very hard to not become defensive and to actively identify “this is what my partner needs; it is about her/his need rather than me.” To do this, a listener must postpone his/her agenda and focus on the other’s need. I often spend several sessions helping couples fine-tune how to do this and how to avoid getting derailed. It can be really hard to focus on each other’s feelings and needs and not be upset with your partner. The basic principle here is that when you can fully listen to your partner who is describing his or her own needs (rather than your emotions, errors, shortcomings), then you too will be heard. Even couples who know that escalation will get them less of what they do want (which is to be heard and valued) need guidance in order to put this principle into action. The following steps can help you begin the process of relationship change:

How to make a positive request:

  1. Speaker-Listener: One person talks and the other listens; this works much better than both people trying to be heard at the same time. Being as good listener is the cornerstone of intimacy. And when speaking, try to talk about your feelings and your reality; avoid commenting on your partner and their feelings/reality.
  1. Speaker: Use “I feel” statements and tell your partner how you feel. Avoid using the word “you.” Downloading a list of feeling words is a good place to start (I give clients a list of 30-40 feelings to use in session). Also avoid blame for why you feel that way.
  1. Describe your situation: Again, avoid commenting on your partner or their motives. This is your opportunity to describe your reality–you had a long day at work and wanted some physical affection. Your mother was sick and you felt guilty for your upcoming trip to Mexico.
  1. Ask for what you do need: “I really need a hug whenever you come through the door” for instance. You may need to fine tune the request; it is also normal to go back and forth a few times in order to have a request met, as your partner may need something in order to meet that request, or they might have another proposal, “How about if I could do this . . . instead?” And, it is not out of the ordinary to have to make the request several times (remember, you are reminding your partner of your unique needs; don’t assume that the he or she always knows those needs).
  1. Be Specific: “I need you to respect me” is a start but it is too general–a concept rather than a request. In order for a request to be met it needs to be something very specific, something your partner can do today. “I really need some positve comments on my new work promotion” is a specific request.
  1. Switch roles:
    As a listener you will need to suspend your own agenda and listen for your partner’s needs. This applies even if your partner does use criticism; it makes it much harder to listen, of course, but keep trying to stay present.

    Example of a negative request (which won’t get you what you want): “I need you to stop making a mess and leaving your dirty dishes everywhere; it’s just gross, everyone knows that.”

    A positive request: “I really appreciated when you put your cup away last night. It would really help me a lot if you put any dishes used in the dishwasher when you are done with them.”

    Can you feel the difference?

Of course, this work requires two active participants and if you find that making the requests is not enough, get some help. I can help fine-tune the process, ensuring that a positive pattern becomes your default mode of interacting when conflict arises. I think conflict is an opportunity for you and your partner to connect at an emotional level, receive needed information, and learn to meet each other’s needs. In other words, conflict can be an opportunity “to learn to love our partner better” (J. Gottman).

When you can express your needs as a positive request it eliminates the blame and criticism which escalate a negative cycle of hurt and disappointment. Feeling understood, respected, and important, and being able to offer support to your partner so that he or she feels the same, is what relationships are all about. Your relationship really can be a fulfilling source of comfort and friendship. Here’s to a great friendship.

References: Dan Wile. After The Fight. 1993. Guilford Press.