Even in the strongest relationships, getting on the same page about big questions can feel impossible at times.
For instance, it’s common for partners to have different wishes, beliefs, or ideas about where to live, whether (and how!) to get married, how to balance work and personal commitments, whether to have children or not and how many, how to navigate other relationships with friends and family, and how to manage finances.
And that’s just to name a few! Even seemingly more minor conflicts around things like household chores or social media can be hard to work through.
Luckily, there are a few strategies you can use to resolve even the toughest disagreements. Here are some things you can do if you and your partner want different things:
1. Brush up on your communication skills
The first step in getting on the same page with your partner can often just be rethinking the tools you’re using to communicate.
Melissa Kester, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City, notes: “There is no room for judgement and defensiveness in compassionate conversations. Just because your partner feels something doesn’t mean you did anything—it means they felt and they experienced something.”
Next time you’re headed into what might be a difficult conversation about a big disagreement, try preparing by keeping a few key practices in mind:
- Active listening: No matter how hard the conversation, do you best to listen attentively and show that you’re doing so. For example, you can explicitly acknowledge that you’ve heard what your partner is saying by mirroring their words (“I’m hearing that it’s really important to you to focus on saving money right now”) or asking for clarification (“Could you tell me more about why your job is especially stressful right now?”).
- “I statements”: You’ve heard it before, but it really does help: try to talk about your perspective -- for example, “I felt rejected when you stayed late at work again” -- instead of your partner’s -- “You rejected me when you stayed late at work again.”
- Stay connected: Even small gestures like eye contact, touching hands, and nodding can keep you and your partner feeling like teammates instead of opponents. Put those mobile phones and laptops away when having important discussions!
- Create a safe word: You might also consider having a “safe word” that you can use if either of you needs a break from the conversation. For example, you might agree ahead of time to say “Alaska” if you want a time-out.
If you’ve recently had a fight with your partner, you can also check out our guide to healing after a fight before you move on to tackling the next big conversation.
2. Name the issue
With the above concepts in mind, set aside a time to clearly identify your disagreement together. Even defining the problem can go a long way, especially if you haven’t directly discussed it before.
For example, you and your partner might know that you disagree about where you want to live, but you might never have said outright: “You’d love to get a job in California, and I love being near my family here in Michigan. I wonder how we can keep living together and still meet both of our needs.”
If you start by identifying and agreeing on the specific problem, and acknowledge at the outset that you’re both committed to finding a solution, you may find that even issues that seemed enormous feel a bit more manageable.
3. Gather facts on each other’s perspectives
Once you’ve named the issue, it can be helpful to gather every detail that might be relevant to the situation.
Pretend you’re detectives trying to piece together a case, and start by “interviewing” each other about your perspectives. Each of you should get the chance to outline your perspective in detail without being interrupted (“Here’s exactly why I think it would make sense to live near my parents…”), and you should each get a chance to ask all your questions, too (“How long do you think it would take you to find a new job if you quit this one?”).
Then, work together to identify what you don’t know and make a plan to get that information.
For example, if you’re discussing whether to live in the Bay Area and you’re on a budget, you might realize that you don’t actually know much about the cost of living in the Bay Area, or its different suburbs. Decide who’s going to do what research, and set a timeline for coming back together to talk over what you find out.
4. Identify what you can and cannot compromise
With all the facts on the table and everyone’s perspective heard, now’s your chance to come to an agreement.
Together, try asking the following questions and discussing your answers:
- What did we learn from hearing each other’s perspectives?
- What new information did we gain?
- Given all of this, what’s negotiable and what’s not?
It might also help at this point to each name one or two top priorities (e.g., “I want to make sure our kids grow up near at least one family member,” or “I want to live somewhere where I can easily spend time in nature”) as well as one or two deal-breakers (e.g., “I can’t stay in my current job” or “I know that getting married at city hall won’t work for me”).
And finally, the big one:
- What are some compromises that might meet both of our needs?
Remember that there’s not just one solution — chances are, there are a least a couple of scenarios that could work for both of you, especially once you figure out exactly what each of you can and can’t budge on.
Try to keep an open mind in this part of the conversation especially, since you might find by this point that your partner’s needs (or your own needs!) aren’t exactly what you once thought they were. For instance, you might have started out saying that you can’t imagine moving away from New York City, but now you realize that any major urban center could work.
5. Consider couples counseling
Sometimes, you and your partner may still disagree after working through the above steps, or get stuck due to lack of wiggle room for compromise. You might also find that you have a hard time resolving conflict more generally.
In those cases, working with a couples counselor can help offer a professional, objective third party perspective.
In couples counseling, you can practice effective communication skills, get support in having difficult conversations, and work on any underlying issues that may make it harder to agree. Couples counselors are skilled at helping partners see each other’s perspectives, build an appreciation for each other’s needs, and reach a resolution.
Check out Zencare’s guide to finding a couples counselor to find out more. And once you’ve started the process, you can also learn more about what to expect in couples counseling and how to prepare for your first session.