It’s hard enough to sustain a good relationship when neither partner is facing a health challenge. Illness ranks high on the list of life’s stressful events, so it’s no surprise that it can have a negative impact on a close relationship. Couples may benefit from counseling, one of the principal reasons being that the presence of a neutral party in the room can facilitate more calm and constructive communication.
What follows are three techniques, outside of a therapeutic setting, which can help resolve conflicts between couples. Before reading this, you might think of a sensitive subject or current conflict that you’d like to raise with your partner.
Focus on the issue at hand and on how you feel, as opposed to what you perceive your partner should be doing or not doing.
In discussing a conflict, try to avoid the use of the word “you” because it tends to make your partner feel as if he or she is being accused of something. Instead of using phrases such as “you should” or “you shouldn’t,” stick to talking about the issue itself and about how you feel.
Here are two examples.
1. The conflict you want to discuss: Whenever you ask your partner for help around the house, he or she gets upset and you wind up in a fight.
In this situation, when talking to your partner, instead of sending what’s called a “you message,” such as “You should help more,” or “You shouldn’t get mad just because I ask for help,” focus on the fact that you need help around the house. Try saying something like: “We seem to get in a fight whenever I ask for help around the house. Can we talk about whether there’s anything we can do to change that? Maybe we could make a list of household tasks and divide them up in a way that we both can manage.”
2. The conflict you want to discuss: When you’re in bad pain, your partner ignores you, as if it can’t possibly be that bad.
In raising this, instead of sending a “you message,” such as “You should believe me when I say I’m in pain,” or “You shouldn’t ignore me when I’m in pain,” focus on how it feels for you to have your pain disregarded. Try saying something like: “On days when I’m in terrible pain, I feel bad that I don’t know how to let you know just how much I’m hurting. Can we talk about a good way for me to talk to you about my pain levels?”
This is called communicating with “I messages” as opposed to “you messages.” When you use “I messages,” because you’re not accusing your partner of anything, there’s no reason for him or her to get defensive and this minimizes the chances that the conflict will escalate into a fight. In addition, since you’re simply describing how you feel, it’s easier to hold your ground because…you feel the way you feel! No one can deny that.
This new way of talking takes practice. Most of us are used to sending “you messages.” I certainly am. There are several books on the subject and even Googling “you messages I messages” will bring up some helpful sites. If you try the technique and you don’t get the wording right, say those magic words “I’m sorry,” as in, “I’m sorry. Can I take back what I said and try to say it in a clearer and more helpful way?
Put yourself in your partner’s shoes.
“Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” helps resolve conflicts because it breaks you free from that stubbornly held position that the only solution is for your partner to see things your way. In my experience, when my mind gets stuck in “my way of seeing things is the only right way,” conflict resolution becomes virtually impossible.
Understanding a conflict from the other person’s point of view helps you see that a seemingly callous or indifferent reaction to the difficulties in your relationship does not automatically mean that your partner doesn’t care about you. Instead, it may reflect his or her worries and fears about your medical condition—a reaction that stems from love and concern for you. Understanding this makes it easier not to take his or her behavior personally.
For example, your partner may be struggling to deal with the upheaval in both of your lives, not to mention worries over issues that may have become more pressing and serious as a result your chronic illness, such as finances, isolation, and what the future holds.
Here’s a concrete example of how to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You want your partner to accompany you to a doctor’s appointment, partly for support and partly so that he or she can learn more about your medical condition and the challenges you face. If your partner refuses to go, your first reaction might be to assume that he or she doesn’t care enough about you to be bothered. But the very opposite might be true: your partner may love you so much that it’s too hard to be a witness to your suffering.
In this situation, the best way to see the conflict from your partner’s point of view is to try what’s called “active listening.” This is a technique in which you actively demonstrate to your partner that you understand how he or she is feeling by putting those feelings into your own words: “I know you prefer not to come with me to the doctor. It’s not a pleasant experience for you. I’m thinking that if you came, though, we’d both have a better idea of what’s going on with my health. Then we could work on making life as easy and pleasant as possible for both of us.”
In those moments when I’m able to put myself in my partner’s shoes and see my illness through his eyes, compassion arises for him. If this happens to you and makes you want to reach out—do! A hand on a hand, a rub across the back, a hug can do wonders to alleviate tension when two people are in a conflict. The slightest show of affection can break a deadlock, and then you can begin anew. Every moment is a chance to begin anew. Often both people in a conflict want this to happen but no one wants to be the first person to reach out. If you can, try to be that person.
Know thyself … and then try something different.
When raising sensitive subjects with a partner, you can communicate more effectively if you know your own tendencies when you’re in a conflict situation. Are you quick to get angry? Do you start yelling, or do you withdraw and become very quiet? Do you get sarcastic? Are you “the nice one” who always wants to accommodate others in any way possible because you don’t like conflict or are afraid of it?
Set the intention to become mindful of how you tend to respond when you’re in a conflict with someone. It might not be obvious to you at first, so take some time and see if you can pinpoint your behavior. It’s highly likely that this is the very way your partner is going to expect you to behave as soon as a conflict arises!
Having pinpointed your behavior, you can use this bit of self-knowledge to help break down communication deadlocks that arise as soon as you raise a sensitive subject. The technique involves consciously switching your usual mode of behaving. If you tend to withdraw, instead, speak up. If you tend to get angry, instead, resolve to stay calm. I’ll share my experience with this technique so you can see why I recommend it.
The more upset I get about something, the more I tend to lower my voice and speak quietly. I didn’t realize this until a friend pointed it out to me years ago as she watched me handle a conflict with my toddler son. When I do this, I appear calm on the outside, but it’s a fake calm because inside, I can be extremely upset.
When I read about this “switching tactic,” I decided to try it out. The next time I found myself in a conflict with a loved one, I made a conscious effort to speak up. I didn’t start yelling—that’s rarely a good way to communicate—but I raised the volume of my voice. I was so astonished to hear myself speaking up in this way that I found myself being much more articulate in communicating my concerns about the conflict at hand (which I will keep private).
In addition, I noticed that my loved one was taken aback by this “new me.” He sat up a bit straighter and paid more attention to what I had to say. The conversation that followed was constructive and productive and, to my surprise, we resolved the conflict quite easily.
Although all of these suggestions take practice, in my experience, they’re well worth the effort, as is seeking the help of a counselor should communications continue to break down. In describing these techniques, I’m not suggesting that all conflicts between you and your partner will magically resolve. In fact, some conflicts in relationships remain unresolved. That’s OK. Close relationships can thrive even when there are conflicts, so long as each of you is respectful of the other person’s point of view. The best way to be sure you’re doing that is to practice being mindful of how each conflict appears in the eyes of your partner.
Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.