Ask the Therapist Column


“How do I communicate with my partner when we are fighting?” 


Conflict is a natural experience in any relationship, especially ones that are committed and long-term relationships and if we live with that person! I invite you to first consider that conflict can be life giving and regenerative in relationships.

Disagreements and challenges are opportunities to build trust and deeper intimacy with the ones you love. I also would like to offer the disclaimer that I am offering a general exploration to what can be an incredibly unique and dynamic experience for each couple or relationship. And to remember that physical violence and/or abuse is a serious matter that requires more than what is being offered in this article. I have included a resource at the end of this article. 

I want to point out a caveat to consider when approaching hard conversations. TRUST. In Dr. John Gottman’s, a relationship expert, research on trust, he found that when it came to trust, mutual payoff is important. That a partner, for instance, will trust his/her partner more if they know that their partner has their best interests at heart and are not just only focused on his/her own benefits. If you are asking someone to make changes that will dismantle some of the power that they hold, there will need to be a buy in. And if anything, help them see that ultimately by engaging in this conversation with you, that albeit it being uncomfortable, they may have some further perspective and intimacy with you by having it. My hope is that you will find that your relationships with your loved ones may be deepened by this experience; especially if both of you are willing to come to the table with an open heart and allow yourself to be influenced by one another. 

In his further study of conflict and trust in couples, Gottman addresses two states that couples (I invite you to broaden this across all relationships) can begin exploring conflict in. These two states are Positive and Negative Sentiment Override, first developed by Robert Weiss in 1980. Basically, this means, in what state am I approaching this person that I might be in conflict with? Do I see them as inherently good or inherently bad? It is important to find ways to both hold others accountable, speak the truth and appreciate the good in them as well. Especially when it comes to our loved ones, remembering again to keep our heart open to them while simultaneously staying assertive with what we are trying to say. Having trust supports the communication process, but we can also begin to communicate even if trust is not there. Gottman shares six steps that will support resolution in conflict and healthy communication. These five steps include:

  • Softened Startup
  • Accept Influence 
  • Make Effective Repairs During Conflict 
  • De-escalate 
  • Psychological Soothing of Self and Partner 
  • Compromise 

Let’s begin with Softening your Start-Up. Consider the energy in which you are even approaching someone to have this conversation. Specific ways you can approach conversation with a “softened start up” is take your own responsibility first. Let the person know that you are doing this work, too. Other ways to engage in softened startup include using “I statements”, being polite and being appreciative. 

Second is to accept influence. This does not mean that we have to agree with everything the other person is saying, but we can be empathic and understanding as to why someone might have the perspective they do. 

Making effective repairs during conflict may mean admitting when you do not know something, yet or when you might have said something that wasn’t exactly right. It is ok to say that you need to do some further personal reflection and come back to that point. 

De-escalation means having the skills to be able to ride the waves of conflict conversation. Make a commitment to notice when the energy is rising and when you and/or both parties will need to take a deep breath and come back to center. 

It is ok to take a break from the conversation and come back. Self-soothing can be something that allows you to become grounded back inside your body. 

Finally, compromise. To me compromise is not only about “giving in some to get some” but also about knowing when you have come as far as you can in this moment with the dialogue. It is about being willing to take it in stride and commit to keep showing up to the conversation. There may also be times in which the person you have been trying to communicate with is not willing to engage in healthy communication and conflict resolution with you. It may be time to consider some boundaries around that relationship. If this person is a partner or family member, it may require you accessing further support from a therapist to help you evaluate how to proceed with that dialogue. It is possible that in these times, we may have to separate from some to join with the greater cause. 

You will not always get this right. Staying open and as non-defensive as possible will be key in the success of these conversations. 

I hope this article has helped you begin to have these conversations and invite you to reach out for support from a professional if you need more specific guidance on how to approach the feelings within your own heart and the relationships in your own life. 

Further, if you, or someone you know needs help because of domestic abuse; please consider reaching out to our local resource, Safe Space Siouxland. or 712-258-7233.

By Jackie Paulson, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered 500 Hour Yoga Instructor. She has over a decade of experience in the helping field and offers holistic therapies that combine and east meets west approach to therapy.

Jackie specializes in working with adults who may be experiencing a wide array of concerns, including, relationship difficulties, sexuality and intimacy, depression and anxiety, trauma, grief and loss, addiction, and other life transitions and adjustments. Her training in mindfulness-based stress reduction, somatic work, existential theory and depth psychology all enhanced the investment of your time in session with her.

Ultimately, Jackie offers a humanistic approach and her overall hope is to empower individuals to seek and connect into their own deep and sacred wisdom that resides within them. Jackie believes that each person has an innate ability to heal themselves and journey through any experience with the right support. You can sit with Jackie in her therapy office located on Historic 4th Street in downtown Sioux City. She accepts BC/BS and other private pay options. 

You can submit your “Question to the Therapist” by visiting and send your question through the contact page. Please put “Question to the Therapist” in the subject line.

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