In the heat of an argument, it’s far easier to say what we don’t want than what we do. Stan Tatkin, the founder of the psychobiological approach to couples’ therapy, proposes that people are better built for war than love. It certainly seems that way sometimes, right?
We say, “Stop being so sad!” instead of, “I wish you would tell me what’s making you sad.” Or, “You’re always neglecting me!” instead of, “I feel really lonely and need your attention.” The problem with expressing needs in a negative way is it comes off like criticism. Despite what some people say, there’s no such thing as constructive criticism. Criticism triggers a person to become defensive and protect themselves from an attack, which blocks the resolution of a conflict.
It doesn’t matter how much trust and intimacy there is in a relationship, it’s still nearly impossible for someone to listen to a personal attack without becoming defensive. This is true even for very happy couples.
If you want to have productive and successful conflict conversations with your significant other, you must state your feelings as neutrally as possible, and transform any complaint about your partner into a positive need. Doing this for your partner is the equivalent of creating an instructional guide to winning and keeping your heart.
It’s important to note that the negative emotions that lead us to blame or criticize are often signposts of what we value most. Think of a negative emotion as a clue to your hidden wish. When you express that hidden desire directly, you’re more likely to make that wish come true. For example, hidden underneath anger may be feelings of loneliness. When you recognize and openly acknowledge that loneliness to your partner, you can ask for the things you need to feel more connected.
Blaming our partner or hiding our feelings by criticizing is easy. Speaking our feelings and fears requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Often this vulnerability is mistaken as a sign of weakness, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Vulnerability is courageous. It’s a willingness to drop your shield and expose the unguarded underbelly of your fears, doubts, and insecurities.
Because of this discomfort, many of us avoid being truly vulnerable with our partners. I know I’ve done this in the past and sometimes still do. But as I’ve come to learn, owning my fears and insecurities and then naming them in my relationships is actually a strength. As Brené Brown puts it, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage.” It also determines the depth of the emotional connection in our relationship.
Finally, don’t wait for conflict to emerge to be vulnerable and express your wishes in a positive way. Pay attention to ways you can proactively be vulnerable with each other outside of heated conflict. For example, by saying, “Please slow down your driving so I can feel safe,” rather than, “You’re driving like a crazy person! Slow down!” you give your partner an understanding of why you’re feeling the way you are, rather than blaming them for what you’re feeling.