Behind Every Criticism is a Wish: How to Engage in Successful Conflict Resolution with Your Partner

In the heat of an argument, why does it always seem easier to say what we don’t mean rather than what we do? Stan Tatkin, the developer of the psychobiological approach to couples therapy, suggests that we are better built for war than love. Sometimes it can seem that way.

The issue with expressing needs negatively is that it often reads as criticism. Although the intention may be good, your words may harshly impact your partner. As we’ve all witnessed before, criticism can trigger a person to become defensive and protect themselves from an attack, which can get in the way of open dialogue and ultimatelyconflict resolution.

We say, “Stop getting so upset,” instead of, “I wish you would tell me what’s making you upset.”  Or, “You’re always neglecting me!” instead of, “I feel lonely and need your attention.

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. 

For conflict conversations to succeed, you must state your feelings as neutrally as possible and transform any complaint about your partner into a positive need, or even a request for change. Mapping this out for your partner lays bare your wishes and needs in your relationship.

It is important to note that the negative emotions that lead us to blame or criticize are often our “hidden wishes” in disguise. 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 become aware of that loneliness, you can ask your partner for the things you need to feel more connected.

Blaming our partner or couching our feelings in criticisms is easy and convenient. Speaking our feelings and fears requires bravery and 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 your fears, doubts, and insecurities.

Because of this discomfort, many of us avoid being truly vulnerable with our partners. But as we come to learn, owning our fears and insecurities and then naming them in our 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.

If you’d like to learn more about the tools available to help change the conflict dynamics in your relationship and to explore the courageousness of wishes, please feel free to email me at victoria@chaminajjan.com or  contact me at Chamin Ajjan Psychotherapy.