Couples - You Could Use these 4 phrases When Fighting with your Partner

Jul 28, 2023
Four Phrases to use when fighting with your partner. Simplicity and straightforwardness can help with Couples' Arguments! Try this technique.

Fighting with your partner? Use these four phrases.

Last weekend, as I was cleaning up a mess in the kitchen, my husband was parked in the living room, absorbed in his phone.

I asked him for help. Silence. I asked again. Nothing. As I shoved plates and bowls into the dishwasher, I slipped into an old habit: I imagined a thought bubble above his head.

“Life is good,” it said. “I’m kicking back while my wife does everything! My time is more valuable than hers!”

This relationship-sabotaging practice is known by many names: Some call it “the story I am making up,” or “the story I am telling myself right now.” Terrence Real, a family therapist and the author of “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship,” calls it “unconscious storytelling” — and it happens when you imagine what your partner is thinking or feeling.

Making these assumptions can escalate an argument and distort the issue, Real said. Instead, he counsels people to share perceived slights using a therapeutic tool known as “the feedback wheel.” This simple, four-sentence method — adapted, he said, from the work of the therapist Janet Hurley — helps loved ones share grievances in ways that speed the repair process.

When you find yourself in a storytelling spiral, pause and remind yourself that you care about the person who has upset you, Real said. Then ask if it’s a good time to talk.

If they’re open to hearing about your frustrations, use these four statements:

1. “This is what I saw or heard.”

Describe what happened in one sentence, Real said. “Share only the facts — ones a camera could record,” he said. The key to this statement, and the feedback wheel overall, is its brevity, Real said.

2. “This is what I made up about it.”

Explaining your personal point of view “acts as a circuit breaker,” said Alexandra Solomon, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and the author of “Loving Bravely.” Not only does this take the heat off the other person, she said, but it compels you to examine your own emotions. “The stories we tell ourselves are informed by our internal landscape of wounds and tender spots and traumas and patterns,” she said.

Using this phrase helps acknowledge that your perception might be inaccurate. “It’s taking responsibility that this is your construction,” Real said.

3. “This is how I felt.”

Take a moment to focus on your emotions. Then describe them, concisely, to your partner, Real said. You might say that you’re scared, hurt or angry, he explained. “Feelings only,” he said, “not thoughts or beliefs.” Sharing your feelings helps you move from the “reactive parts of your brain,” Real said, and into what he calls “the wise adult.”

4. “This is what would help me feel better.”

This final statement, Real said, is one that most people leave out. But making your needs clear is a necessary step because “you can’t complain about not getting what you never asked for,” he said.

By sharing the story you made up, your feelings, and your needs, Real said, you’re shifting from anger to vulnerability. You “say what needs to be said,” Real added, but it’s done with respect.

Ideally, Dr. Solomon added, “the other person responds feeling grateful for their partner’s vulnerability rather than guilt-tripped or defensive.”

Using these statements with my husband has been a game-changer: Sometimes my interpretations of his behavior are so off base that when I tell him, we laugh — and the tension is broken.

In the case of the dishes, I eventually stormed into the living room and told my husband that I’d concocted a story that involved him deliberately ignoring me and prioritizing his leisure time over mine.

“I’m sorry, what?” he said, taking out his earbuds.