What is the Best Way to Talk About Problems?

When problems arise in a relationship, couples are often told they need to "communicate"—or talk to each other.

In many cases, however, couples do not know how to talk about problems and communication only makes the situation worse.

For the most part, there are two basic ways of talking about problems: Direct Accusation versus Problem Identification (described below). Unfortunately, most couples use Direct Accusation rather than Problem Identification when trying to resolve conflict.

woman cryingThe idea that Problem Identification is a better way of solving problems draws upon Gibb’s work on defensive communication and Cupach and Canary’s work on conflict management. Cupach and Canary’s book is a great resource for dealing with conflict management as well the book Broken Trust (written by a founder of this site).

Direct Accusation – Focus on Partner’s Behavior

When upset or angry, many people confront their spouses by focusing on their partner’s behavior. These accusations can be made directly “I am upset because you…” or even in the form of a question “why did you…?”

The motivation behind making such accusations is typically to change a spouse’s or partner’s behavior. People believe that if they get upset and point out their partner’s mistakes, things will change. This rarely works.

man yellingIf you accuse a partner of wrongdoing, partners typically:

  • get defensive—fight back or withdraw (stop listening)
  • offer an (insincere) apology designed to stop your attack
  • hide and conceal similar behavior in the future

The long term outcome of directly confronting a partner is:

  • increased distance
  • less understanding and greater dissatisfaction
  • the lack of a genuine resolution
  • increased future conflict

A more effective approach involves focusing on one’s feelings, not a partner’s behavior.

Problem Identification – Focus on One’s Feelings

A better way to resolve relationship problems involves focusing on one’s feelings, rather than blaming a partner for what happened (even if, your partner deserves blame).

It is easier for a partner or spouse to hear what you have to say when you focus on your own feelings and not dwell on his or her mistakes. For example, if your spouse has a habit of coming home late—rather than make a direct accusation—“I hate when you’re so late—why do you do that?”—it helps if you can focus on your feelings instead “I am feeling sad and a little frustrated. I sometimes feel lonely when you are not home.”

When trying to discuss a problem—it’s important not to assign blame. Even saying something as simple as "It makes me feel uncomfortable..." can come across as an accusation—leading to a defensive response. Phrasing a concern as "I feel..." rather than "It makes..." is a more effective way of solving problems.

Your motivation for dealing with problems this way should be to get your partner to hear what you have to say. If you can get your partner to understand your point of view, you are much more likely to create a meaningful and lasting resolution.

By focusing on your feelings instead of your spouse’s behavior, partners are more likely to:

  • listen to what you have to say
  • empathize with your position
  • discuss the problem in a constructive manner

And there are many benefits of approaching relationship problems with this way:

  • increased closeness, satisfaction and understanding
  • greater potential for resolution and change
  • less future conflict

Simply put, directly confronting a partner often leads to greater resistance, more conflict and deception. Of course, it is easier to get angry and make accusations, but doing so rarely leads positive, long term outcomes.

For the latest research on lying, infidelity and relationships, please visit our blog.

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