6 Tips for Managing Difficult Dialogue With Your Partner

5 min read
Alex Green / Pexels

Alex Green / Pexels

Research shows that 69 percent of relationship conflict is rooted in perpetual problems. This means about two-thirds of partner disagreements are about fundamental differences—differences in personality, preferences, or core needs. This also means that the underlying issues couples argue about have likely created conflict for years.

It may come as a surprise that the goal of most relational conflict is not about finding a solution. This is because these types of issues are not resolvable. Instead, the “solution” is figuring out how to engage in constructive dialogue.

Without being able to manage these conflicts, couples run the risk of entering relationship gridlock. When this happens, partners feel polarized, disconnected, and unable to hear one another. Below are tips for how to manage difficult dialogue to keep it from getting gridlocked in conflict.

Alex Green / Pexels

Source: Alex Green / Pexels

1. Partners must first initiate the conversation in a way that optimizes connection over conflict.

If this first step doesn’t go well, it can derail dialogue.

How? Use a softened start-up when beginning difficult dialogue. It should be an invitation, not a demand or criticism. Lead with a mindset of openness and commitment to partnership rather than starting from a place of negativity and resentment.

This is so important that seminal research demonstrates the predictability of divorce by observing how a discussion of marital conflict begins. So, keep negativity and criticism at bay because if you start the conversation harshly, it will likely stay on this trajectory.

Say something like, “I know we often get stuck when we try talking about X, but I was hoping we could try again to see if we can hear each other in a different way. I’m committed to better understanding you and want you to better understand me, too. Is now a good time?”

Avoid saying something like, “I feel like you don’t care what I think about X, and don’t even try to understand me. If this is ever going to work, you’re going to need to make some big changes now.”

When? Initiate dialogue when you and your partner will be physically and psychologically able to engage. Check-in with yourself to see if you have the mental and emotional capacity to participate in difficult dialogue, and give your partner the same courtesy.

Perhaps it’s the end of the day, and you’ve finished your to-do list, so finally feel able to focus on tackling this difficult topic. It’s possible, however, that by this time of night, your partner feels wiped and doesn’t have the same capacity. Trying to force your partner into a difficult dialogue now would be unproductive.

Where? Find a location without distractions where everyone also feels safe to engage in dialogue. If you’re stuck in gridlock, couples therapy can be a good place to start these conversations.

Once the conversation is ready to begin, below are research-based interventions for helping difficult dialogue go more smoothly:

2. Use I-statements.

If you are speaking, use I-statements (versus you-statements) about one specific issue at a time. I-statements center your experience and feelings. This approach allows your partner to better hear your core message without getting overwhelmed, critical, or defensive. Here is an example of an I-statement:

Alex Green / Pexels

Alex Green / Pexels

“I feel unimportant when you don’t respond to my text messages, and I’m the one initiating communication. The way I feel loved is when you show me you’re thinking of me when we’re not together.”

Compare this to a you-statement: “You never text or call me! You don’t even care about me, do you?

3. Practice reflective listening and validation.

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If your partner is talking, instead of problem-solving, reflect back the feelings and needs you hear. In doing this, you are providing your partner validation by recognizing their experience.

It also reflects back to your partner that their perspective makes sense, regardless of whether or not you are ready to make changes at this point in the discussion. Reflection and validation are more important as the listener than trying to solve the problem because, remember, there is a good chance if you’re gridlocked, there isn’t a clear solution.

4. Try self-monitoring and soothing.

Throughout the difficult dialogue, keep a pulse on your internal temperature. If you feel dysregulated or flooded, meaning you are feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed, it will put the conversation at risk of going off-course.

Reduce the impact of flooding by engaging in self-soothing, such as deep breathing, positive self-talk, or visualization. If self-soothing doesn’t work, take an intentional pause.

5. Take intentional time-outs.

If you recognize you are too agitated to move the dialogue forward, communicate this clearly to your partner and request a later time to return to the conversation.

Alex Green / Pexels

Alex Green / Pexels

State something like, “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I want to be able to hear you and you me. I need a break to be able to engage in this conversation productively.” If you are the person requesting the break, you must then also offer a time to return to the conversation as a demonstration of dedication instead of withdrawal. During the time-out, partners should prioritize self-soothing and perspective-taking to be able to return to the conversation successfully.

6. Make repair attempts.

If the conversation still doesn’t go as planned, partners should engage in repair. Repairs are verbal or non-verbal attempts to diffuse negativity. Get to know your partner to understand what works best at repairing relationship ruptures.

Some examples might include physical connection (e.g., giving a hug), stating an apology (e.g., “I’m sorry I said X; I can see how that hurt you. Can I try again?”), giving appreciation (“I see why what you said is important…”), and/or making behavioral changes (e.g., partner verbalized a specific behavior is hurtful, demonstrate repair by engaging in requested new behavior).

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