Every relationship has conflict. Conflict occurs when needs are not being met by our companion or in some other area of life (work, friends, extended family, health, etc.). Unmet needs have a way of being deflected into our closest relationships, creating challenges that can be difficult to navigate. It is part of the human condition.
The way in which we deal with this conflict has the power to facilitate closeness or force distance. The closeness occurs when both parties feel understood and take appropriate action to make the necessary adjustments. Additionally, the act of sharing our vulnerabilities has the power to create emotional intimacy. Sharing our real selves (defects and all) with another can be scary but is often liberating and helps the relationship move forward.
If dealt with carelessly, conflict will create a chasm that may lead to distance, hurt feelings, and resentment (all of which lead to unfavorable long term relationship results). The goal of this post is to provide practical tips to encourage closeness through conflict and avoid the pitfalls that so often harm relationships.
I have found the following steps to be effective in both communicating and listening to unmet needs:
- Timing: Not everyone is ready to have a heart to heart discussion immediately. Often times we are occupied with other things that would not allow the discussion to get the attention it ought to. This is easily resolved through a “heads up” request to talk when “the kids go to bed” or whenever the time is best for both parties.
- Remember Your Purpose: Why are you talking with your partner? Is it to win an argument or is it to progress your relationship towards a happy state. Keep this front of mind in everything you communicate.
- Clarity: Be clear on what you want to communicate. Be able to say it simply and concisely. For example, I have a need that I don’t think is being met. My need is ——. and I would really appreciate it if you ___________. In the past, I would spend several minutes talking about my issue. I would go on about my emotions, everything it does to me, and all the reasons why I would like it to change. I have learned that this excessive approach causes more harm than good. It puts the other party on the defensive and increases escalation. Simplicity is best. If you are the receiving party seek clarity in what is being communicated. As much as possible detach yourself from what is being said. Seek to understand through clarifying statements such as “So what you are saying is…”. It may seem redundant but it is very important that both parties understand the issue before proceeding to solutions.
- Stay in the present and avoid exaggerations: As much as possible try to speak about the present and not about the past or what the future may look like. We have a habit of bringing up old misdeeds, contradictions, or how things used to be. These are often described with words like “never”, “always”, and “everybody”. Past exaggerations add fuel to the emotional flame of conflict and may detour the road towards closeness and intimacy. Always try to stay with today.
- Avoid excuses and show increased love: When someone comes to you to share an unmet need they do not want to hear excuses (however valid those excuses may be). They want to feel heard, understood, and some degree of assurance that some action will be taken to address the need. This can be very difficult for the listening party as most feel defensive if the need is tied to our behavior in any way. Although difficult, both sides will come out better if we learn to bite our tongues as it relates to excuses.
Being able to communicate unmet needs is critical for a healthy and happy relationship. Accept that such communication is vital and expected. Our job is to make the vital and expected a pleasant experience that will allow the relationship to grow into what you and your partner want it to be.