How to disagree with your partner?
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
This post is an article we just did in request for a piece on “disagreeing with your partner.” As you see, we disagree with the very premise of the request!
The first thing to say is that if you’re disagreeing with your partner, you’re already doing it wrong. The last thing a relationship needs is two people sitting there disagreeing with each other! Disagreeing is never the path to anything good. Much less anger!
What, then, are we talking about here? Clearly, your partner has put something on the table that you don’t like. It makes you feel uncomfortable, challenged, mad, threatened...something unpleasant that you’d like to make go away. We’ve all been there.
So now what’s your best move?
Tip #1. Do not respond until you size up what going on. And what IS going on? There are three possibilities.
Your partner is having their feelings. Like, in a loud angry voice, “I’m so sick of this lockdown.” There is nothing to agree or disagree with. It doesn’t matter if you are sick of the lockdown or if you think your partner should be sick of it. When someone is having their feelings, what they need is for you to acknowledge, validate, understand, and empathize.
Your partner makes a statement defining reality. It could be “Ugh, it’s so hot in here,” or “You never help around the house.” Here, I beg you, on my knees, do not get into a discussion about whether what your partner said is true or not, or how true it is. Those discussions almost never turn out well, no matter how sure we are that they should turn out well. Instead, move things right along to a discussion of solutions.
Your partner expresses a need. This is good. This is always a step in the right direction, even if it’s not a need you find particularly welcome. “I need you to do more to help around the house.” So, okay, that’s what your partner wants. It’s likely a festering sore for your partner. So now you get down to finding solutions that work for both of you.
Tip #2. Make sure your partner has a full and fair hearing. Now here you are about to discuss solutions to a problem where your needs conflict. Your partner has just said, “I want my mother to move in with us.” I get it: you’d rather drop dead. Every instinct in you is to squash this proposition like a bug. But DON’T. You’ll only be fanning the flames of drama, agony, and pain. And you’ll only be assured that your partner won’t be able to hear or sympathize with a single thing you say.
Instead what you do is find out what your partner has in mind. Why do they want this? For how long? How would it work? How would it affect your family life? Listen as hard as you can and ask all the questions you want, but watch the tone of your questions; if they’re harsh and challenging, the whole thing is a waste of time.
Do this until your partner really feels you’ve heard them and understood their feelings and situation.
Tip #3. When it’s your turn, talk about your concerns, not your objections. Objections are rejections and create opposition and polarization. Your concerns, however, are personal and will get a better response. Make sure to let your partner know not only what a particular concern is but also how important it is to you and also why it’s important to you.
You can stay in this space of talking back and forth, in a spirit of caring and the desire to understand, as long as it takes for you both to get the whole picture. Then and only then can you move on to solutions.
Tip #4. Approach finding a solution like problem solvers. Not like go-for-the-throat negotiators, that is. Remember: you’re looking for a solution that works for both of you, one that’s sustainable, and one that will keep your relationship in good shape. Negotiators can walk away from an agreement hating each other. You guys have to walk away from your agreement looking forward to making love to each other.
And what do problem solvers do? They generate options, they discuss those options, they tweak the options, they play around with the options, and—as anyone knows who’s planned a dinner party—eventually a solution emerges that is good enough to leave everyone pretty happy.
These tips should take you a long, long way. For a thorough understanding of how we get into trouble trying to get our needs met and how two people can both get their needs met without their getting into trouble, check out our new book, Why Couples Fight.