How to Talk to Your Partner About a Problem Without Them Getting Defensive
Communication is vital to every relationship, from work to romance, but its importance doesn't make it easy. When a partner (or friend, or colleague) is intentionally or inadvertently ignoring our needs, or doing something we disagree with, figuring out how to tell them can feel like walking on eggshells.
That being said, if your partner feels they're being attacked for a personal failing, they're likely to get defensive, a response that can quickly spiral into a conflict.
The 'I' statement
"Defensiveness is a protective measure," said Daheem Din, a certified marriage and family therapist based in Pakistan who has been working with couples since 2009. "You're not protecting yourself from the partner, you're actually protecting yourself from your own self."
Understanding that your partner's responses stem from their relationship with themselves, not necessarily with you, will make it easier to hold space for both of your needs, which allows you to stay authentic to yourself and your partner without disregarding either of your feelings.
Jasmyn Rana, an integrative therapist with a specialty in couples, recommends the classic "I" statement approach to further mitigate hurt feelings in a conflict.
"The biggest thing is to start with a statement that isn't attacking. As far as language goes, attack leads to defense," Rana said. "You might not say, 'We never have sex.' You might say, 'I really miss having sex with you.' You don't say, 'Why don't you ever…' because that might be a way to give rise to the defensiveness. So, start with a way that is nonattacking. Move toward saying, 'I feel, I want, I need, I miss,' or 'I really like….'"
Din further explained why "I" statements are so popular and so effective.
"The partner can receive this communication without the chances of blame or feeling pressured, as it becomes more about one partner's needs rather than the pressure that they are not meeting the need," Din said. "It helps to focus on the impact of the behavior and their partner's needs."
Give yourselves space
At the same time, Din reminds us that conflict is not always bad. As a relationship evolves, what previously worked may not work anymore.
However, what happens when your communication and attachment style differs greatly from your partner's? Let's take, for example, a couple where one partner is anxiously attached and feels the constant need to communicate, while the other partner is avoidantly attached and gets overwhelmed by conversations. Where do we go from here?
Rana acknowledged while most people are somewhere near the middle of the spectrum, in this hypothetical situation, the best model is for both partners to acknowledge their needs for communication and withdrawal, rather than avoid the conflict.
"You have to be able to say: 'This is overwhelming me right now so let's talk about this tonight or next weekend,'" Rana said.
She further explained that by postponing the conversation to a set time and date, it allows space for both partners. The future date allows the anxious person to ground themselves in a specific time and trust their own and their partner's ability to self-regulate, while allowing the avoidant partner the space to process through their feelings and respond later.
This highlights the importance of the role of accountability and adaptability while keeping in mind the needs of both partners to maintain their connection.
You should be dancing
Din emphasized relationships are a dance—to keep the dance going, we must turn inward and do the necessary work. As we learn new moves, we take new steps and change our music, attempting to sway in unison and trying to connect. Whether we're dancing in confusion, fear, eagerness, trust or hope, the important part is to keep moving.
Yet if you cannot continue dancing, remember that you are more than your relationships, and someone's response to your needs does not dictate the worthiness of them being met.