with Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Conflict Is Normal
- Approaching Conflict With Relational Framework
- Conversation Starters For Tense Exchanges With Your Partner
- Choosing When To Have Difficult Conversations
- How To Repair If The Conversation Goes Sideways
Conversations with our partners become very high stakes after children are born. We come from different upbringings with different ideas of what parenting looks like, yet need to learn to work as a team. This can be a recipe for tense conversations or conflict with those we love. Licensed marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw is here to introduce key skills that strong and thriving couples use so we can learn to disagree in a way that strengthens our relationships rather than weakens them.
Conflict Is Normal
“All couples fight. All friends who are very close are going to have differences. Families have differences,” Elizabeth said. We’re all different people formed by our own life experiences. It’s only natural that when we interact with each other, we’re not always going to agree.
“The stakes are never higher than when you have someone to take care of,” she explained. We each have our own expectations of what parenthood will be like and our own set of dreams for our child. Usually, both partners want what they think is best for the child, but that may not be the same thing.
Approaching Conflict With Relational Framework
“The big framework to all of it is that you have to have relational awareness,” Elizabeth explained. “And what that means is holding on to yourself.” We hold onto ourselves by remembering our values and beliefs, and why these things are important to us. But having relationship awareness also requires us to hold onto our partner’s feelings during the conversation.
If we’re giving into our partner when it doesn’t feel right, because we don’t want them to be upset with us, we’ve lost relational awareness. We’re now working in what’s called “other awareness.” We’re aware of the other person and their feelings, but we aren’t being true to our own.
If we go into the conversation with the idea that our partner has no clue what they’re doing and we must be right, we’ve lost relational awareness this way too. We have to consider both perspectives and remember we each have something to offer the child we’re debating how to raise.
“We know that the way a conversation starts is the way it’s going to end,” Elizabeth said. “If you start a conversation criticizing, if you start a conversation with a harsh tone, if you start a conversation by embarrassing the other person in front of other people or your kids or whatever it is, it’s going to end with the same kind of feelings.”
If a conversation is important, it doesn’t have to be discussed the moment we realize we need to talk. It’s okay to take a moment and pause. Be aware of how your body is reacting to whatever you’ve noticed and know you need to talk about. Then approach the conversation when you’re calm.
If we can approach the conversation with, “Can we talk about this? We really need to figure this out,” then it’s going to go very differently than if we start with, “What’s wrong with you?”
A conversation starter Elizabeth recommends is “I’ve noticed X when that happens I feel ___. What I need is ____.” For Elizabeth, she noticed that she’d done a lot of research to find her son’s preschool and felt resentment that her husband complained about the price. She wanted him to read the links she’d sent before they talked about the price.
The last part—the “what I need”—is really important, because it helps you set the boundary. But it’s also important to remember that no words come between “I feel” and what you feel. “I feel mad/sad/glad/angry/resentment when X happens” follows the framework. “I feel like you’re a jerk,” or “I feel like you don’t care about me,” are criticisms disguised as feelings.
Choosing When To Have Difficult Conversations
The timing of difficult conversations can matter as much as how we start them. Pay attention to your body. If your heart is racing and you’re struggling to breathe, you’re not calm enough for the conversation yet. Take twenty minutes and come back.
Other indications that it may not be the best time for a serious conversation might be the state your partner is in. If they just came in from a hard day at work, received bad news, or are obviously flustered this might not be the best time either. And if you’re in an overstimulating environment with kids screaming, phones ringing, and a million other things going on, that may not be an ideal time.
How To Repair If The Conversation Goes Sideways
We’re human. These conversations aren’t always going to go as smoothly as we’d like. “Whatever it is you’re noticing, saying it out loud can help bring your partner closer to you while also helping you stay in body,” Elizabeth said.
When we go into fight or flight mode, our focus is centered around ourselves. “The actual, physical ability to have relational awareness goes out the window,” Elizabeth explained.
Hot conversations are different from disagreements. Hot conversations happen when one of us is in survival mode. Once fight or flight has been triggered, we lose our ability to use humor, affection, or problem-solving skills. We can’t have a conversation like this.
The best thing you can do in a hot conversation is to take a break and come back to it. In fight mode, this can be hard to do, but we can remind each other. If our partner is in fight mode, we can walk away and come back to the conversation. But we need to be able to let them do the same for us.
If you’re finding these conversations often go awry and it’s causing you to resent your partner, the Unpacking Resentment Workshop is a great way for you and your partner to build the skills you need.
Over the last decade, Elizabeth Earnshaw (LMFT) has become one of today’s most trusted relationship teachers. Elizabeth is a renowned Gottman therapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Clinical Fellow of The American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy (MA), and influential Instagram therapist who has helped transform countless relationships. Out on November 30, 2021, Elizabeth released her debut book, I WANT THIS TO WORK. Couples will learn to work with three challenges they must tackle to repair and strengthen their relationships: conflict, healing, and connection. Culturally inclusive, LGBTQIA+ friendly, and written for both married and unmarried couples, this book brings an accessible guide to healing relationships and creating enduring intimacy.