Resolving Disagreements? The Power of “Acting Relationally”

Nov 06, 2023

Finding the interplay between your partner’s desires and your own 

Let’s start by considering two case studies.

Lars and Marcus are a married couple. Recently, Lars has been learning a lot about the paleo diet. He’s been having some joint pain, and he thinks trying out a new way of eating will help. Swept up in the enthusiasm, he goes through their cupboards and purges out all the grains, sugar, dairy, and legumes, and replaces them with new, paleo-friendly foods. When Marcus comes home, he’s horrified. “What the heck am I supposed to cook for dinner?” 

“But, Marcus!” Lars says, “I need to really stick to this new program. I can’t have food around that will tempt me to break my diet.” 

Ok, now let’s take another example. Marina and Yousef live in a pretty conventional, suburban neighborhood, but Yousef’s been reading about urban farming and permaculture, and getting excited. He wants to replace their lawn with a vegetable garden and a restored prairie full of pollinator-friendly native plants. He orders an array of seed packets online, and explains the idea to Marina. 

“I’m sorry, but there’s no way,” Marina says. “Our neighbors will never go for it, and I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb on the whole block. Besides, I’m not signing up for all the weeding and maintenance once your energy runs out.” 

“Ok, just forget about it,” Yousef says. Not wanting to fight, he throws the new seed packets into the junk drawer and tries to forget about the idea. 

What’s the similarity between these two stories?

In each, we’re seeing a difference of opinion between partners play out; in the first, Lars has a preference, and in his excitement, he isn’t taking Marcus’ preferences into account, whereas in the second example, Yousef is quickly giving up on his preference in order to avoid conflict. In my opinion, in both cases, the partners are not acting relationally.

Acting relationally is one of those core skills that makes long-term relationships work. I define it as “holding self and other simultaneously.” When partners act relationally, each one of them is aware of their own beliefs, preferences, and desires, but also attuned to their partner. They’re aware that they may have different beliefs and preferences from their partner, but they’re not taking that personally; instead, they’re allowing themselves to get curious about their partner’s perspective. When a person is in a relational space, they’re thinking about how their partner might be affected by their choices and actions, and curious about how they might work together as a team to cohabitate in ways that leverage their strengths and create a nice environment for all. 

Acting relationally is not the same thing as a transactional compromise, where each partner gets a little of what they want and gives up a little. It’s a process, and it doesn’t have a guaranteed outcome; everything depends on what emerges as you learn more about your partner, and share more about yourself. 

That’s part of what makes it difficult to operate relationally–you have to be patient through the process, and hold steady, even if the topic is one that provokes anxiety for you. But that’s also what’s magical about operating relationally; you don’t know exactly what you’ll decide in the end, but working together brings you and your partner closer, and creates space for new possibilities that you could never have anticipated. Often, in my experience, the end result emerges as something much better than what either partner could have come up with on their own! 

Here’s another example: Let’s say you want to open up your relationship, but your partner is reluctant. You’re torn between wanting what you want, and wanting to be in a relational stance with your partner. 

If you tune in to your partner’s wavelength, you would have to get curious about their emotions, what they are experiencing, what they worry about or are afraid of. If you do that, you risk empathizing with them. Then you might end up being influenced by them, and that might lead to you shifting in what you want. Acting relationally requires you to be open to influence from your partner–without losing track of yourself in the process. That, ultimately, is how partners work with their differences, in a gradually evolving dance of mutual respect, empathy, and compassion for both self and other… and come out the other side stronger for it. 

So, how do you think you’re doing when it comes to acting relationally? Is there room to grow? If so, here are a few questions you might reflect on: 

  • Am I able to get in touch with what I want, and then hold my desire gently while also getting curious about my partner’s point of view?
  • When I disagree with my partner, am I able to hold both viewpoints at the same time?
  • Am I willing to be in the discomfort of holding multiple points of view over time?
  • How will this benefit me?
  • How will I coach myself to stay with it when I get anxious about the outcome?
  • How will I support my partner when they feel anxious about the outcome?
  • Why is it important to me to stay in a relational stance, even with tension, over time?
  • What thoughts might I cultivate, regarding myself, my partner, and our future, that would support us both as we explore sharing influence and multiple perspectives, and feeling uncomfortable along the way?

Originally published on Psychology Today.

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