LILY Letter 147: Communicating Without Contention

February 1, 2024

We recently had a disagreement where one of us suggested having a deeper conversation about the topic to figure out how we could both have what we wanted. The other said, "How is that possible? How could we both have what we want?" Demanding the solution at the beginning of a discussion suggests that we will look for the solution only after we already know it--which is nonsensical. The REASON for the discussion is because we DON'T know the answer.

Too many discussions in marriage focus on two participants each pushing for the thing they want. One tries to persuade the other. The other pushes back to make his or her argument for his or her position. Both keep trying to reason with each other as to why their individual preferences are correct or the most sensible. As frustration increases and people don't feel listened to, tensions mount and these discussions often erupt into anger and unhealthy interactions. You have likely seen this dynamic many times in your life. You have probably repeated the same discussions over the same problems over and over again without resolution--sometimes for many years.

The following are some suggestions that, if implemented, can dramatically improve communication in a dating or marriage relationship:

1. First, recognize that most disagreements are just about preferences. Too many of us equate our partners' disagreements with our preferences as signals that our partners do not care about us. This is seldom true. Loving my partner does not necessitate giving up my preferences so he or she can have theirs. Some relationship disagreements are about clear moral issues like boundaries with opposite sex friends. Many are not. Recognizing when a disagreement is about preferences can take some of the intensity out of the discussion.

2. Decide that you are unwilling to "win" at your partner's expense. This does not mean letting your partner "win." It means that you continue the discussion until you find a solution you can mutually agree on and feel good about. Fights always have a winner and a loser, but in a love relationship, if you win at your partner's expense, you also lose. Make the commitment, and express it clearly to your partner, that you are unwilling to win at his or her expense.

3. Treat your disagreement as a brainstorming session rather than an argument. It is generally frustrating and fruitless for two people to continue arguing back and forth about a particular issue, trying to persuade each other why they are wrong. They generally both walk away feeling misunderstood and assume if the other actually understood them, they would naturally agree. This is faulty thinking. I can understand someone's position and not agree with it. Rather than continuing to argue "positions" or to ascribe meanings to our partners' past behaviors ("what you did means you don't care about me"), why don't we turn discussions into brainstorming sessions? This means we look at what each of us wants and try to think of a solution that gives each of us what we want.

Steven Covey gave the example of two people sharing the same office. One wanted the window open and the other wanted it closed. As long as they argue back and forth about why it should be open or closed, they're going to get nothing but frustration. But if they try to understand each other's point of view, they might solve the problem. Why does one want the window open? He wants fresh air. Why does the other want it closed? A breeze comes through the window and blows her papers all over the place. How can they both have what they want? Maybe they can crack the window open in a way that lets fresh air in without the draft. Maybe they can pile some books up to avoid having the breeze come in at a level that blows on the person's desk. Being solution oriented allows for a couple to find creative ideas that are better than either person could think of alone. But as long as each is only concerned with their own well-being and preferences, pushing to manipulate the other to give them what they want--the couples gets stuck. If we start to look at discussions as brainstorming sessions rather than fights, we will have peaceful and happy lives.

4. Focus on deeper needs, feelings, and values. Disagreements are like icebergs. Most of the argument is below the surface of the discussion as most of an iceberg is below the surface of the water. The part above the water represents issues and positions. That is where we generally get stuck. We go back and forth discussing conflicting positions that are incompatible and feel hopeless to resolve anything. But behind our positions are emotions and values underneath the surface that need to be considered.

Consider the following example: Jeff may want a slower pace on the weekend because he keeps a very busy schedule and works more than 50 hours during the work week and wants time to unwind. Cathy may want the pace to increase and get things done around the house because she finally has more of Jeff's attention and wants to use it to accomplish things on the home to-do list. Who is right? Cathy feels neglected and Jeff feels overloaded.

No one is particularly right or wrong. And in this example, Jeff and Cathy have different needs and different preferences. One is not more important than the other. What are the emotions and values behind these differing positions? Jeff wants a chance to recharge and perhaps experience some variety. Cathy wants to get some things done that are more difficult without the support of another adult. Both of us want to feel loved by being supported in these needs.

If we stay stuck on whether weekends are for catching up on tasks or for relaxing and variety, we can argue that back and forth until the end of the world. But what if we have a different kind of discussion? What if we discuss how to structure our weekends so we both get what we want? Maybe Cathy carefully considers which tasks she really needs Jeff's help for and those are given priority. In addition, maybe Jeff can do some family errands at a leisurely pace because being out and about contributes to the variety he wants; and he feels less "cooped up" than if he was in his office staring into a screen again. Maybe, together, they limit Saturday tasks on most weekends to be done by 2pm and spend the rest of the day in recreation or relaxation?

There are a variety of possible solutions to the differences people have. Disagreements generally come from different needs, emotions, and values. If we stay focused on the disagreement about the particular issues or positions, we will get nowhere. You will have two people insisting on having their way at the other's expense. If we talk about our needs, values, and emotions, we can creatively brainstorm a lot of different ways to meet those needs that might allow for the other person's needs to be met too.


Jeff & Cathy interview later married couple Karen & Trace (after both experienced divorce from other people). They proudly proclaim that in the 8 years they've been married and blending families that they've NEVER had a fight! Learn their success secrets to build a "fight free" relationship for yourself.


152. Marriage Without Fighting with Karen & Trace Tiberius


Marriage Without Fighting with Karen & Trace Tiberius

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