Should We Be Fighting? Turning Disagreements into Opportunities

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I recently talked about the importance of disagreements in our relationship with Taylor Lautner and Taylor Lautner on The Squeeze Podcast. Many people find themselves at a crossroads with their partner. Stuck under a storm cloud, it can sometimes feel like the never ending disagreements are stopping us from reaching our destination. I get that! And, I want to share a silver lining from that cloud - because when we shift our perspective of disagreements, and tap into some key skills on how to navigate these conversations, we can actually end up feeling closer with an opportunity for growth. 

When we avoid disagreements altogether, we inherently along the way give up aspects of ourselves. I am more concerned about the couple that shows up to my office telling me they "never disagree." This positioning in the relationship means that one or both partners are self-sacrificing, a pattern which can quickly lead to deep resentments and frustrations.


Let's consider two key reasons why disagreements might be beneficial in your relationship.

A Gateway to Understanding and Empathy. Disagreements, at their core, are expressions of differing perspectives. They illuminate the unique lenses through which we view the world. I remind people that you each have your own thoughts, feelings, opinions, desires, and wishes. When we navigate these differences with openness and curiosity, we lay the groundwork for deeper understanding and empathy. In my relationship program, people finish the "Returning to Hard Conversations" exercise and end up learning more about their partner, bringing them closer together. By actively listening and striving to understand your partner's viewpoint, you create the opportunity to learn more about their inner world, validate their experiences, and feel seen, heard, and valued in the relationship.

An Opportunity to Strengthen Your Bond. Disagreements offer the chance to grow and stretch our understanding of each other. There’s an invitation to challenge our assumptions, reflect on our values, and consider new viewpoints. While uncomfortable, it does offer the chance for both personal and relational development. Moreover, navigating disagreements successfully builds confidence in the relationship's resilience, fostering a deeper sense of security and trust. It reassures both partners that they can face challenges together and emerge stronger on the other side.


How to Turn Disagreements into Opportunities

Embracing disagreements as opportunities requires intentionality and practice. Let's explore four things we can bring into our disagreements to turn them into opportunities:

Approach with Curiosity: Enter disagreements with an open heart and mind, aiming to learn more about your partner's thoughts and feelings. We often listen with the intent to reply, gearing up for what we want to say next. When in a disagreement, practice true listening, which means you are listening to understand the other person. Curiosity comes from asking more questions about someone's interiority. Ask yourself, "Do I really know what this person is feeling and thinking? Or am I putting my assumptions and perceptions on them?" Remember to use questions starting with "Who, What, When, Where, How..." You might even use "because...?" when asking the other person to explore their desires more. By practicing curiosity, we have an opportunity to walk out of hard moments with a deeper sense of connectivity.  

Communicate Effectively: We've all been taught to communicate, but we haven't necessarily been taught how to share our needs in a way that brings our partner closer, instead of pushing them away or creating more reactivity. A great approach talked about by the Gottman's is the soft start up. Avoid criticisms of your partner and tap into complaints. Steer clear of assumptions and perceptions (e.g., "I feel like you don't care about me" or "Everything else is a priority to you but this."). Be sure to include "I" statements to express your feelings and needs without placing blame. 

Seek Common Ground: Entering into a relationship doesn't mean completely giving up your individual "I" nor does it mean completely merging into the other person. A healthy interdependent relationship is about co-creating your worlds together. This means that during disagreements, you need to identify your areas that you are willing to compromise on, and areas that you are not. I like to use a sandbox analogy: Asking your partner to forgo their desire to build castles with their shovel and bucket because you can "only play with cars" in your sandbox is not a relationship. Focus on finding solutions and actions forward that acknowledge both partners' needs and values.

Reflect and Grow Together: It can be easy to want to move past disagreements quickly, focusing on easier moments of connection. A helpful exercise is to revisit what you would have done differently and what you learned about each other from entering that hard conversation. Perhaps you reflect on how you got triggered and stuck in defensiveness, or maybe you learned that your partner actually does desire that family trip that you thought they weren't interested in. Take time to reflect on what you learned about each other and how you can apply these insights moving forward.

In embracing these moments of discord as pathways to deeper understanding and connection, we transform our relationships into dynamic spaces of growth, love, and mutual respect. Remember, it's not the absence of disagreements that defines the strength of a relationship, but the ability to navigate them with love, empathy, and courage.