Ask the relationship counsellor

In intimate relationships, our awareness, attitude and commitment to prioritising our partner's feelings over the actual ...

In intimate relationships, our awareness, attitude and commitment to prioritising our partner's feelings over the actual issue go a long way. Photo: Getty

QUESTION: When we argue, my wife cannot stick to the issue. She always brings in other things that are irrelevant or happened so long ago I can't even remember them and then it all goes out the window. Can you suggest some techniques for fighting more fairly?

ANSWER: When we're trying hard to follow someone else's train of thought, keep up with them and digest what they're saying, a "laundry list" of complaints being peppered at us can be confusing and irritating. It's possibly even more annoying when we're not actually listening to someone else but mentally trying to formulate our response. If you are like most couples, you will end up in a power struggle of who-needs-to-listen-to-who-more, with no resolution and even less enthusiasm for broaching the subject again. But not discussing issues is just as damaging to a relationship as arguing about them.

I suspect what might seem irrelevant to you is important to your wife – so it needs to be heard. In long-term relationships, old hurts keep resurfacing, often in times of stress or vulnerability, until they are healed, so it's important to distinguish the need for a "problem-solving" talk from a "healing hurt" one. They each require different skills.

Our relationship with our partner is like no other, so it makes sense that the way we communicate with them should be different, too. Intimate relationships are emotional; we need to communicate feelings as well as fact – and be open to hearing our partner's. A resolution might be only one goal; having a better understanding of each other or repairing hurt are more important, and these conversations require more from us than just "fighting fair".


In intimate relationships, our awareness, attitude and commitment to prioritising our partner's feelings over the actual issue go a long way. Openness, curiosity and a desire to really know the fullness and depth of our partner creates trust and intimacy. Fair-fighting guidelines (one person speaks at a time, "be hard on the issue and soft on the person" and take time-outs to cool down) create safety. As well, intimate conversations take time and need to be private. Maintain eye contact, you are more likely to pay attention. Give information in small chunks, otherwise it feels like a lecture. Allow for silence. People often shift emotional gears during conversations and it's the deeper, quieter feelings underneath we want to access and give voice to. Ask questions: how long have you felt that way? What do you need from me? If you fall silent, explain what's going on inside. If you don't understand something your partner has said, ask for clarification before you move on. If you say something hurtful, apologise before continuing. Aim to be heard and understood by each other, rather than come up with a solution – that can come later.

All of this might feel awkward in the beginning. Be learners together, make mistakes and forgive each other, and you will both soon be fluent communicators. And your relationship will be all the richer.

Elly Taylor is a relationship counsellor and the author of Becoming Us: Loving, Learning and Growing Together.

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  • So basically you are saying that her issues are more important than his, and expecting your partner to deal with the current issue instead of changing the subject and obfuscating is being unreasonable and not caring about their feelings.

    Yes, issues are generally much larger than what is currently being discussed. But what you are saying here is that the feelings of the person changing the subject are more important than those of the person who started to conversation in the first place - the person making the effort is the one who needs to give up the most ground and eat humble pie. You are asking the productive member to understand the feelings of the other, with no expectation that the other do the same.

    If this scenario is rare, then yes, what you say is right. But if EVERY TIME a discussion is initiated one partner changes the subject and refuses to discuss at the other persons level, then maybe, just maybe, the right thing to do is NOT suggest that it is the initiating persons responsibility to make it better.

    Date and time
    May 01, 2013, 10:17AM
    • I was really looking forward to an answer but I glazed over after twenty seconds.

      It's a good case in point.

      My suggestions for women trying to talk to men - get straight to the point. Say what you want to say. Don't beat around the bush. We can't guess what you are really thinking when you say something else.

      If you have a problem. We will try and solve it. So check out the hook while my DJ revolves it...

      Date and time
      May 01, 2013, 10:40AM
      • You're advice isn't clear; some is for him, some if for her, but you've treated it as a river of advice, not following you're own advice to "Give information in small chunks".

        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 12:57PM
        • I was looking forward to reading this advice, being in a very similar situation. Very disappointed with the reply.
          I felt that the advice was so irrelevant that it was in fact a reply to a different question. Why were none of the issues in the question addressed?
          I found the complete lack of empathy for the questioner, his point of view and his frustration astounding! As the reply was purported to be from a professional counsellor, I am alarmed for that person’s clients!

          Kakui Kujira
          Date and time
          May 01, 2013, 2:13PM
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