Thomas Fiffer points out the #1 mistake we make when our partner complains about us and offers a 3-step program for successful conflict resolution.
It happens every time—for some couples on a daily basis. Your partner brings up a complaint, legitimate or not. You go on the defensive. And the fight is on.
There’s tons of advice out there about how to resolve conflicts. How to listen. How to mirror back what your partner is saying. How to phrase things to make it about your feelings and not what your partner is doing to you. And all that advice is legit. But the experts haven’t told you about the one thing you do in nearly every argument that actually erodes your ability to deal with disagreements going forward and makes it likely that real points of contention will never be addressed.
And yet it’s alarmingly simple.
When your partner complains about something you’re doing (or not doing), never, ever introduce one of your legitimate complaints to the argument.
This may seem counterintuitive—and nonsensical—partly because we tend to see our problematic behavior as reactive to our partner’s, and partly because when we feel attacked, we instinctively look for the most effective way to fend off the attacker and put him or her on the defensive, which is bringing up something in which you have full confidence you’re in the right.
But here’s the reason you should never bring up your valid issues when your partner is complaining about you. As soon as you do it, your real and sensible complaint gets framed as an angry response to your partner’s issue, and it immediately loses its validity as a real problem affecting the two of you.
Let me say that again. When you bring up a valid issue you have with your partner in response to your partner’s criticism of you, you lose the ability to bring that issue up again and have it taken seriously. It will inevitably be seen as something hostile your brought up during the previous fight.
Here are three ways to avoid shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to the real issues you have with your partner’s behavior.
1. First come, first served. When your partner complains about you, let him or her finish, and then say, “OK. Let’s talk about this.” Nothing more. Just keep your mouth shut. This conveys your willingness to hear your partner out while serving as a reminder to you to keep the focus solely on the issue your partner has raised. Your partner may repeat the problem or may have nothing more to say. If you encounter silence, reframe the problem back to your partner with a sentence such as, “So you get upset when I … ” or, “So, when I [blank] you feel [blank].
2. Focus on your own feelings. Express your feelings about what your partner has said, not something else that your partner does. You might say you feel sad, angry, surprised, confused—or whatever emotions you are experiencing. This enables you to present a valid, personal response without bringing your partner’s behavior into the picture.
3. There’s a time and a place for everything. As the things you want to bring up about your partner that drive you crazy come to the tip of your tongue, say to yourself, “Now is not the time. Now is not the time. Now is not the time.” This allows you to validate your own feelings of frustration about your partner while reminding you that you are better served by bringing them up in another discussion.
Playing by these rules when your partner complains about you isn’t always easy, and the temptation to counterattack looms large. But the benefits of sticking to this program are larger. Becoming unable to raise your own valid complaints, because they’ve been labeled, makes you bitter and resentful, and renders you powerless to address your relationship’s real issues. Addressing the complaint raised, and only the complaint raised, reserves—and preserves—your right to have your own valid complaints heard, taken seriously, and, if possible, resolved.