How To Solve Difficult Conflicts In Close Relationships

Love is a many splendid thing — until your partner does something that drives you up the wall.  Whether it’s a minor, annoying habit or a downright socially problematic behavior, I’m sure your partner has done or said something that made you vomit in your mouth a little bit.

But if everything else in your relationship is healthy, your partner’s actions don’t have to be a dealbreaker.

You absolutely can help your partner make changes if they are willing. There’s just one tiny detail: You have to tell them the truth.

Honest communication is complicated with anyone, let alone someone you love romantically. You don’t want to hurt them, and you really don’t want them to hurt you. The stakes are high when rejection is possible.  It may seem like the path of least resistance to ignore anything that bothers you for the sake of avoiding confrontation, but that isn’t fair to you or honest to your partner.

Talk to your partner about their actions and your feelings before one moment becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It can be daunting to tell others how to treat you.

I have always had a hard time asserting myself and asking for anything, so I can understand any fear or apprehension you may have.

But you owe it to your sense of self-worth and the stability of your relationship to communicate when your partner does something that upsets you.

With that in mind, here are some strategies I use when talking to my partner in this situation:

Bad Habits 1

1. It’s All in the Timing

The first time you discuss your partner’s less-than-appealing behaviors, use a safe, private space and an appropriate timeframe.

It seems obvious, but you should pay attention to details like location and context so your partner can fully absorb what you have to say.

If you drop a bomb on your partner in a public setting, you may embarrass them, and they could feel personally attacked.

If you pick apart your partner’s behavior when they already have five million other things to worry about, your message could get lost, or it could make them feel even worse.

Keep in mind that you are communicating out of love for another person.

In theory, you want to improve your partner’s life and your relationship, so make this conversation a positive experience, even if it is terrifying for you.  In the same vein, your timing affects the power dynamic in this conversation.

We’re all feminists here; you and your partner should have equal power.

If you take your partner by surprise or criticize them at a vulnerable point, it is completely unfair.

If you are thoughtful and considerate of your partner’s time and feelings, I’m willing to bet they will do the same for you.

GOOD IDEA: Talk to your partner when you have enough free time and are both awake and focused, preferably in a neutral room (kitchen, living room) or a private place.

BAD IDEA: Start yelling at your partner in the middle of their best friend’s party. Bonus terrible-points if you’re both intoxicated and it’s after midnight.

2. Take Them Out of the Equation — Sort Of

Get ready for my Psych 101 Bullshit Advice: ‘I’ statements are incredibly effective.

Basically, you want to acknowledge your feelings about an action in general so that you do not accuse or attack your partner.

Ever hear the phrase “Don’t hate the sinner, hate the sin?” Pretty much take out the religious connotations, and use that cliché as your guide.

Think about it: You clearly love this person to the point where you’re putting in effort to improve the relationship. As irritated as you may be with their actions, you do not hate them personally.

It will be easier for your partner to understand what you have to say when they do not feel victimized, I promise.  If you take the direct focus off your partner, you can concentrate on the actual underlying issues and dynamics of their behavior.

Your language can determine whether your conversation will become a productive discussion or a fight.

GOOD IDEA: “When people ask if I’m sure I can pay for dinner, it makes me feel really embarrassed and inadequate. Can you please try not to do that again?”

BAD IDEA: “You always make me look poor in front of our friends! You’re so condescending and domineering. I can’t take it anymore. “

3. Acknowledge Intents, but Emphasize Effects

People make mistakes.  We all know that.  Most likely, your partner hurt or upset you completely by accident.

If you convey understanding that your partner did not mean to hurt you, you will prevent them from feeling unnecessary guilt.

That being said, you should not let your partner’s intentions take precedence over the results of their behavior.

You are allowed to dislike something your partner does, even if it is not on purpose. Your feelings matter. Even the ones that aren’t so pretty.

I’d also like to point out that if you truly believe your partner did intend to hurt you, that idea should be addressed explicitly. As I mentioned before, you do not want to phrase this in an accusatory way.

Trust me when I say that will only end badly.

Show your partner the sensitivity and understanding you hope they will show you.

GOOD IDEA: “I think you’re just trying to be funny, but that face you make when I get excited about show tunes makes me feel really embarrassed. It seems like you’re ridiculing me, even if you don’t mean to.”

BAD IDEA: “I’m stupid. Never mind,” OR “You don’t believe that I’ll be the next Barbra Streisand! You don’t really love me! You’ve never believed in me! Don’t tell me not to live, just sit and putter.”

Bad Habits 2

4. Admit Your Own Faults

I’ll say it: I don’t trust people who act superior all the time.

I don’t want to tell them things. I don’t want to listen to what they have to say. I don’t want to get close to them or let them get close to me.  You know why?

Others’ unrelentingly superior behavior make me feel like I am somehow broken just because I have flaws and make mistakes.

When people act as though they are perfect, it makes me feel inferior and insecure.

I’m sure you don’t want to make anyone feel that way.

One way to make sure you don’t sound as though you are better or in control of your partner is to check your mistakes, in the same way you might check your societal privilege.

This is also an excellent opportunity to apologize for your past behaviors that upset your partner.

You have a limited range of lived experiences that differs from your partner’s. You are in no position to tell them how to live their life.

GOOD IDEA: “I’ve been the worst about doing the dishes lately, but I really want to try and take pride in our apartment. It would mean a lot to me if you did, too,” OR “I’m really sorry I snapped at you earlier. When the apartment is messy, it makes me feel super-anxious, and I took it out on you. I want more help around the house, but I shouldn’t have yelled.”

BAD IDEA:  “I always have to clean up after you! Stop being lazy and pick up your shit!”

5. Applaud Improvement

Don’t you like it when someone notices your hard work

Honest, specific praise can make anyone feel important. Not to mention, it’s incredibly motivating.

One day, your partner is going to show you that they listened when you asked them to reconsider their behavior. Through their actions, they will show you that they value your feelings.

It’s awesome, in the original sense of the word. Celebrate any and all progress your partner makes.

GOOD IDEA:“I was so proud when you got that drunk woman into a cab home last night. It reminded me of that Sexual Assault Prevention PSA we watched. I love that you did it just because it was the right thing to do. This is why I believe in feminism, and I’m so happy you could apply it. I love you.”

BAD IDEA: “God, are you ever going to be a good feminist? It’s like you don’t even listen when I talk.” Or silence.

If you got this far in the article and are still wondering how it relates to feminism, it pretty much boils down to this:

If you want to see change, you have to communicate with sensitivity, accessibility, and encouragement.

When you and your partner want to see each other improve, it’s not always easy. The stakes are high. It takes so much time and patience.   You both have to let go of your egos to accomplish anything.

The payoff is that you will both know the transformative power of love.

Or, if you’re not as sappy as I am, the payoff is that you won’t have to hear your partner smack their gum/use racial slurs/fart in public anymore. Either way, you win.

Navigating relationships takes so much work, but the growth you and your partner experience makes it all worthwhile.


Originally published on Everyday Feminism

Maddie McClouskey is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a twenty-something lesbian in New York City and currently writes weekly dating advice pieces for the LGBTQ event app and website SheSeekOnline and was a regular contributor to the sexuality and feminism site ToughxCookies. When she’s not writing articles about gayness, she’s performing stand-up comedy, singing show tunes to her girlfriend and dog against their will, or making up jokes for Twitter @SoundofMaddie.