Conflict in Relationships: The Importance of Language

There is simply no way to avoid conflict in a long-term relationship with an intimate partner. Conflict is an intrinsic part of relationships. You are two different people who are spending a lot of time together. As you are each your own person, you are bound to find things about your partner that do not agree with you. Couples counseling does not try to eliminate conflict — that is not possible. Instead, the focus can be on improving conflict dynamics so that conflict becomes a positive force in your relationship. This article should help get you started on that path by providing a guideline on one way to change the language used in arguments into something more successful.

One of the quickest ways that arguments become unproductive is when criticism is present. Criticism will cause the other partner to immediately get defensive, and there is almost no way for a meaningful dialogue to take place at that point. This is most commonly seen in what I’m going to call “you” statements, which are typically accusatory and blame your partner. An example of this is: “You never do anything around the house!” Such “you” statements are almost never effective means of communicating as they express a negative need or something your partner is doing wrong. “You” statements come across as highly critical and the recipient can feel personally attacked. That starts the argument off on the wrong foot, and does not tell your partner what they need to do to help resolve the problem.

Instead of resorting to these “you” statements, research has shown that it is better to utilize “I” statements. “I” statements are all about expressing a positive need, or what your partner can do to improve the situation. Instead of focusing on the things going wrong, focus on what can be done to help you feel better. One way to rephrase the “you” statement above into an “I” statement is to say: “I need some support cleaning the house today, and would really appreciate it if you could vacuum the living room.” You are still addressing the problem as with the “you” statement, but doing it in a way that will make your partner hear you and give them a chance to shine by meeting your need.

“I” statements are typically more difficult than “you” statements. You have to change your mentality, eliminating any blame, criticism, or feelings of contempt in order to have your partner hear you. “I” statements also require you to be more vulnerable because instead of saying what your partner is doing wrong, you are expressing your own needs. This forces you to name your inner longings and desires. “I” statements help transform the landscape of conflict into a place for learning: a place where we can discover what we need from our partners and what they need from us. This allows us to create a dynamic in which conflict, while not necessarily pleasant, becomes an opportunity to strengthen the relationship instead of damaging it.