How to Work Through Relationship Problems

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Working Through Relationship Problems, AKA "Conflict"

I refer to "working through your problems" as "conflict". It's an essential part of any relationship. Maybe you have some healthy or not-so-healthy ways of  having conflict. Whether it's with your boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or partner, how you work through your problems can make or break a relationship.  

How do you let your partner know when they're doing something that bothers you? Do you just say "that bothers me." Do you yell? Do you pretend it's "no big deal" to avoid having conflict in the first place? 

According to Dr. John Gottman, who has studied relationships for over four decades, there are several essential ingredients to healthy conflict that help a relationship stay healthy, connected, and sustainable. I have adapted Dr. Gottman's "Conflict Blueprint" to help couples in my Atlanta Counseling office learn how to work through any difficult problem, complaint, or annoyance in their relationship using the following steps. 

The process is easy, but it's so simple that smart people tend over-analyze it. Don't! Just remember that each person in a couple needs to hear the other person's position, feelings, and needs. Take turns speaking and listening. In heated arguments, which are never productive, it's easy to forget these basic communication skills that can help you work through everyday problems:

Healthy Conflict: How to Work Through Problems In a Relationship

Step 1. Ask for Conflict 

It may seem strange to ask for conflict, but I swear it helps. It's as simple as saying, "Honey, can we have some conflict?" The main reason it helps is that it puts you on equal footing to only get started when both people are prepared for it and consenting to it.

Bombarding your partner with your complaints without warning is a quick way to make your partner defensive and get nowhere fast. No one likes to feel suddenly attacked out of the blue, so asking their permission to have a difficult conversation gives them a heads up, as a courtesy.

Giving them a heads up beforehand lets your partner know that you have something you'd like to work through, to help the relationship, rather than attacking them as if they were the problem. It communicates "Let's work through this" rather than, "I have a bone to pick with you".  

Also, it gives them an opportunity to decide if it's a good time right now or not. However, you have to be willing to allow some time before discussing it if that's what your partner needs. 

Step 2: Take Turns Listening

Once you have both agreed to talk, you have to put aside your agenda and your desire to persuade your partner.  The most essential part of conflict is really understanding each other. Even if you never solve the problem, your relationship can really benefit from each of you understanding one another better by the end of the discussion.

Slow down. Take time to understand one another fully. Support your partner when they're speaking about their perspective on the problem. Have a curious attitude, such asking "What's this?" rather than a defensive or judgmental attitude, such as asking "What the hell is this?"

Take turns as the "Speaker". Start off with one partner speaking first, without interruption, until they have fully spoken their mind. Face one another, look at each other when you're talking. No phones, no looking at your watch, no eye rolling or childish behavior.

Take breaks if needed. If at anytime before, during, or after a conflict, if you are feeling overwhelmed or flooded with emotions. take a break! Learning how to soothe yourself so that you can actually listen to your partner and have a productive conversation is a gift to your relationship. If either one of you is yelling, or overwhelmed, there is no point in having the conversation.

Rules for the "Speaker":

When it is your turn to speak, you must not blame your partner.This means that you do not use "you" statements! Use only "I" statements about a specific situation. For example:

Say: "I felt hurt when you showed up late to the dinner. I felt like everyone was looking at me." (focus is on you and your feelings, so that your partner can understand your experience better)

Do Not Say: "You were late to the dinner and you made me look like a weirdo sitting there by myself."

To get my point across to my clients, I will frequently point at them and shout "You! you! you!" louder and louder while pointing my finger at them and making angry faces. Then I ask them how it makes them feel. They almost always quickly realize they are starting to feel upset, and that treating anyone this way is ineffective.

Talk about your feelings. By focusing on your own feelings, your partner may begin to see from your perspective.

Rules For The Listener:

Just listen. When it is your turn to listen, remember to postpone your own agenda.

Better yet, take notes while your partner is talking. If you are prone to interrupting your partner, this will keep you busy listening instead of plotting an angry response.

Try to understand exactly what they are saying their experience has been like. If you're successfully listening with all of your heart, you should be feeling some empathy for your partner by the time they're finished sharing their experience.

Repeat the content of everything they said, word for word, once they are completely finished talking. This  includes their feelings, complaints, and story. Listen with empathy as if you had been standing in their shoes.

Don't change any words. When you repeat it back to them, do not put any of your own interpretation on it. If they said they felt "pissed off" at you, repeat it back to them, "You felt pissed off at me". Don't minimize their words by saying "You were a little upset with me". Don't exaggerate their words or make it melodramatic by saying "You said I was being a bitch".

Validate your partner by completing the sentence, "It makes sense to me that you would feel that way and have those needs, because..." Only validate your partner once they have completely finished talking first.

Ask them questions to understand their experience better, but only when they have completely finished talking. Questions are not for interrogation or bringing your own agenda into the conversation.

Step 3:  Share Your Needs.

Again, each of you take turns speaking or listening. Teach each other what you need in the future. Learn from this disagreement. This is the golden nugget of every conflict. Even if you can't give them everything they need, you may be able to give them part of what they are requesting. I will discuss compromise and more complex problems in future posts.

Describe something you need from your partner in a positive way, rather than something you need in a negative way. Behind every complaint or problem you have with your partner is something you long for. It isn't about putting the toilet seat down, or being on time, etc. If it upsets you, it's usually about respect, trust, feeling cared for, or something much bigger. Example:

Negatively stated need: You just flew past me when you got home, and turned the tv on as if I weren't there.

Positively stated need: I need you to  say "hi" to me when you get home. And maybe give me a hug, too.

Stating your need in a positive way helps your partner have a recipe for how to be a better partner for you. Saying it in a negative way only puts them on the defensive and definitely does not make them want to give you what you want.

Example of Healthy Conflict from Start to Finish:

"Hey baby, can we talk about something that's been bothering me about last night?"

"Okay. Can we wait for about 10 minutes? I just got home and I'm kind of pooped."

"Yeah sure."

[10 minutes later]

"Hey what's up. You wanted to talk?"

"Yeah. So can I go first?

"Sure"

"Okay, thanks. Well, last night, when we were planning to talk about vacation, I felt frustrated with you when you said you didn't have time. I felt annoyed that this was like the third time we said we were going to talk about it, and now it's getting close to the deadline to submit time off request from work, and I'm not sure if I'll get time off now. (silence)"

"Is that everything?"

"Yeah."

"You sure?"

"Well, that, and I guess that maybe I'm afraid that maybe you are mad at me about something. It's felt like you haven't wanted to talk about vacation, so I've been worried that I did something to make you mad. Okay that's it."

"Okay, well that makes sense. You felt frustrated with me last night when I said I didn't have time to talk about the vacation plans. You were annoyed that it was the third time we had said we were going to talk about it, and now you're worried about the deadline to put in a request for time off from work. You also said that you're afraid that I'm mad at you about something and that's maybe why I haven't wanted to talk about vacation. It makes sense to me that you would feel that way because you want to go on vacation and you're worried we will miss that deadline. Did I get it all?"

"Yes, that's about it."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, you got it. Thanks. Okay your turn."

"Okay. Last night I felt tired from a long day at work and the thought of planning our vacation made me feel stressed. I'm not sure we're going to have enough money, so I kind of feel angry at myself for not budgeting better. When you brought it up, I felt irritated with you that you brought it up again because I thought I had asked you to table it for a while until we can get our budget back on track. I wasn't mad at you for anything else. (silence)"

"Is that everything?"

"Yes."

"Okay, so last night you were feeling tired about a long day at work, and the thought of planning our vacation made you feel stressed out. You weren't sure about whether or not we have enough money, so you felt angry at yourself for not budgeting better. When I brought up the vacation stuff, you felt ticked off at me that I had brought it up again because you thought that you had asked me to table it for a while until we can get our budget back on track. Oh and you weren't mad at me for anything else. Did I get it?"

"Yeah mostly. I wasn't 'ticked off' with you, just irritated that you brought it up again, because I thought we said we'd table it for a while."

"Oh sorry. You were irritated with me for bringing it up when you thought we'd table it for a while."

"Yes exactly... Okay so want to talk about needs?"

"Yes. Want to start?"

"No, you can go ahead."

"Okay, thanks. So I just guess I need to know by the end of the week whether or not you want to go on vacation this year so that I can submit that request to my work or not. Oh, and just in general, I'd also appreciate it if you could help me to make our vacation a priority, because it means a lot to me. I don't really care if it's expensive or just a camping trip."

"Okay, so you want to know by the end of the week whether or not I want to go on vacation this year so you can put that request in at work. And you want me to prioritize vacation because it means a lot to you. And you don't care if it's expensive or just a camping trip."

"Exactly!"

"Okay. Well for me. I need you to help me with the budget so that we can find a way to make this vacation work this year. And I want you to let me have some time to think about it this week. I'm not so sure how I feel about camping. Oh and sometimes if I don't want to talk about things, it's usually because I'm lost in thought, and doesn't mean I'm mad at you. If you could remember that, too, I'd appreciate it. (silence)"

"Okay, so you need my help with the budget to figure out a way to make vacation work this year, and you want some time to think this week. You also aren't sure about camping. And you want me to know that sometimes when you don't want to talk about some things, it's because you're lost in thought, and not necessarily that you're mad at me. You want me to remember that. Did I get it right?"

"Yup."

"Okay, well, I can do all of that."

"Yeah, me too."

"Love you."

"Love you, too."


Please feel free to comment on this article. I'm always looking for feedback and suggestions for future topics! 

ABOUT: Stephanie Cook, LCSW, provides in-person and online counseling services to adults, teens, couples, and families; she specializes in working with young adults and couples on improving themselves and their relationships. Stephanie owns a small private practice, Counseling ATL, LLC, located in Decatur, an intown-suburb of Atlanta, GA, near Emory University. Her blog is dedicated to helping people improve their lives and relationships.