Arguments, disagreements, and conflict in romantic relationships can be challenging for partners. That is why I have explored these topics in previous articles and provided tips to solve relationship arguments and influence angry lovers. I have also discussed strategies to stop a partner’s annoying habits and ways to forgive a lover’s mistakes too.
Nevertheless, what happens when you can’t solve the problem, or continue to disagree with your mate or spouse? If the issue is very serious, a couple may choose to break-up. That is an extreme solution, however, especially for minor disagreements that occur throughout the course of a relationship.
Given that, how can someone continue to disagree with a partner, especially as routine conflicts continue to arise, while still ensuring that partner is satisfied in the relationship? How can they soothe or appease an arguing mate, without completely giving into their demands? With these questions in mind, I explored the research for a solution…
Conflict, Perceived Understanding, and Relationship Satisfaction
In my search, I found an article by Gordon and Chen (2016) evaluating the effect of a partner’s perceptions of being understood on their relationship satisfaction during times of relationship conflict. In other words, the researchers were looking at the effects of a partner feeling that their mate “got where they were coming from” and understood their side of the argument, even when that mate continued to disagree. Gordon and Chen (2016) looked at this effect of “feeling understood” across 7 studies and found some interesting results.
In the first two studies, the researchers surveyed individuals who had been in their relationships for at least six months. Those participants completed questionnaires to evaluate the amount of conflict and disagreement in their relationship, their relationship satisfaction, and their perceptions of feeling understood by their partner. Results indicated that higher disagreement and conflict resulted in lower relationship satisfaction—but only for partners who did not feel understood. In other words, when a couple argued and disagreed, if the partner felt understood by their mate, then they were still satisfied in the relationship.
This same effect was also found when participants imagined a conflict with their partner in the future—and being understood, or not understood, during that argument (study 3). The effect was also found when couples kept daily records of their disagreements and feeling of being understood (study 4). If a partner felt understood by their mate during a disagreement, then they remained satisfied with the relationship. If a partner did not feel understood during a conflict, however, then they became less satisfied with the relationship.
In study 5, Gordon and Chen (2016) furthered their investigation by evaluating actual conversations between couples, discussing sources of conflict in their relationships. In these live interactions too, participants who did not feel understood by their partner during the conflict discussion were less satisfied with their relationship after the conversation. In contrast, those who felt understood were just as satisfied (sometimes more so) after arguing. In fact, partners who felt understood during an argument continued to be satisfied with their relationship, even when the conflict itself was not solved during the conversation.
This effect was further explored in the final two studies, where participants were asked to explain why feeling understood helped them to feel more satisfied with the relationship as well. Participants’ open-ended responses to this question were coded and categorized. Overall, participants reported that feeling understood; 1) made them feel like a team with their partner and strengthened the relationship, 2) showed that their partner cared and was invested, and 3) indicated that the problem was more likely to be resolved eventually too.
Improving the Perception of Understanding in Your Relationship
Given the above, it appears that a partner feeling understood in a relationship goes a long way to ensuring they are satisfied with that relationship. Even when arguments and conflicts go unresolved, when a partner feels understood, they are still pacified and calmed. To benefit from this effect then, how do you help your partner feel understood and comfortable, even when you disagree?
The measures and results from Gordon and Chen (2016) above offer some clues. For example, the statements they used to evaluate feelings of being understood include:
- My partner nearly always knows exactly what I mean.
- My partner not only listens to what I am saying but really understands and seems to know where I am coming from.
- (Reverse scored) My partner does not sense or realize what I am feeling.
Furthermore, open-ended explanations by participants included:
- I feel more satisfied after conflicts when I feel understood because it is nice to know that my opinions are taken into consideration whether my partner actually agrees with me or not.
- If we are arguing and they take the time to see my side it makes me feel like we have a good relationship with strong communication.
Therefore, making a partner feel understood is about helping them feel comfortable, heard, and recognized. This can be accomplished through the following:
1) Establish Comfort and Solidarity with Mimicry and Positive Body Language: One of the best ways to make a partner feel comfortable, understood, and “on the same team” is to copy their expressions and body language. In fact, studies have shown that such mimicry increases feelings of comfort, liking, helpfulness, and attraction. This can be particularly powerful, if you selectively copy the open and positive body language of your partner, which is an aspect of attractive body language too. If your partner starts a conflict by being closed off and distant, however, then given them some space and open up over time to be most persuasive.
2) Use Your Words to Build Rapport and Connection: After helping your partner feel in sync and on the same team through body language, it is also important to speak and behave in ways that further build connection and rapport. Specifically, speak with your partner in a way that is genuine, empathetic, and warm. Also, when possible, show your appreciation and understanding by summarizing what you have heard them say (“It sounds to me that you are upset because… Is that right?”) and sharing sympathetic statements (“I can see why you are upset”). This type of conversation builds attraction too. When possible, highlight points of agreement to increase motivation to solve the problem and touch or hug your partner for persuasive effect as well. All of this will help your partner feel that you care and are invested in the relationship.
3) Attempt to Find a Solution: If possible, actually work toward a solution. Follow steps to compromise and resolve the argument. Give your partner a good reason to stop their annoying habit. Allow them to earn your forgiveness too. Of course, that ideal is not always possible. Nevertheless, even when it is unsuccessful, simply showing effort in trying to solve the problem constructively helps a partner feel understood and cared about as well.
Overall then, even when you argue, helping your partner feel understood will go a long way toward keeping them (and you) satisfied in the relationship. When conflict occurs then, it may be worthwhile to take time developing a feeling of solidarity and comfort through body language, speaking in ways that show you care and empathize, and showing that you are invested in (at least trying) to solve the issues at hand. Whether you ultimately solve the agreement after that or not, your relationship will be better for the effort.
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© 2017 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.