08/15/2014 05:43 EDT | Updated 10/15/2014 05:59 EDT

These Two Words Can Jeopardize Your Relationship Forever

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"I disagree" might seem like an innocent little fellow, but in personal relationships these two words can instantly zap the life out of open communication.

For highly sensitive individuals, just reading these words can bring up a gut-ache, a reminder of being closed down in conversation or witnessing someone being silenced. Useful in certain situations, the phrase drives a clear stake in the ground. This is necessary when advocating for our rights or the rights of others. Freedom of speech is a privilege not to be taken for granted. However in everyday communication with loved ones these words are a not-so-silent killer. They have the potential to set off landmines of confusion and separation.

Often spoken with absolute authority, "I disagree" places itself firmly in opposition to the other. It carves an opinion in granite, hinting that further discussion is irrelevant. In some situations, where firm boundaries need to be set, this could be useful. In intimate relationships, this approach does more harm than good.

If you or someone you know uses this often, there is no need to judge. Consider the hidden fears underneath. The opposite of "I disagree" is exploratory dialogue. Open discussion may create more connection, but it is also riskier. It can take us into emotions we don't want to feel. Delving deeper into a situation can reveal something we're not comfortable with. In those moments, "I disagree" can be an avoidance tactic, its strong outer voice secretly terrified of losing control.

When a differing opinion doesn't impact us, we let it be. If we hate chocolate and others say "chocolate is delicious," we don't have the urge to take a stand. We don't care what someone else eats. However, when things hit close to home, we feel compelled to mark our territory. The truth of someone close to us can greatly impact our lives. When the stakes are higher, we dig our heels in deeper.

Here's an example. If I prefer a clean house and my spouse likes it messy, it seems like a simple disagreement. My opinion might be that messy environments are chaotic and even downright dangerous. Being unable to find things makes me feel anxious and ineffective. If he believes that overly tidy homes are sterile, lack character, and stunt creative freedom, a feeding ground for conflict is born. If the conversation ends with "I disagree," neither of us learns anything. Stalemate.

What if our conflict could actually help us understand each other? Open dialogue might reveal that my cleanliness hides a fear of failure. Or cleanliness might hint at my unconscious need to feel in control of my life. If cleanliness is an outlet for anxiety and I justify it as "the right way," getting to know this about myself in a safe, non-judgmental relationship has the potential to be incredibly healing.

In his case, what if he feels clean environments are threatening because of something he experienced growing up, and my cleanliness is churning up an old wound? If his need for a more "relaxed" space makes him feel happier overall, it serves us both to bring this out into the open. To take it even further, imagine that his need for creative chaos increases my fear that someday his need for freedom will make him disappear! Our opposing needs will feed off the situation, each clamoring for attention. There are endless possibilities of what simple disagreements can reveal.

Sound like a lot of work? You have to decide if the relationship is worth it.

Shutting down someone's truth or trying to convince them of ours takes an enormous amount of energy. This is especially true with recurring arguments. When that energy is funneled into exploratory dialogue, we learn more and can use that information in other areas of life.

Here are some statements that help open up dialogue:

  • Help me understand why this is important to you.
  • I'm confused.
  • What you're saying upsets me and I'm trying to understand why; can we talk?
  • What does it feel like for you when we disagree?
  • What thoughts do you have when we disagree?
  • I feel really reactive to what you're saying and I don't want to feel this way; help me understand your opinion.
  • That idea doesn't resonate with me; help me understand what you mean.
  • I have a different experience with this than you; tell me about yours.

Statements that are curious instead of authoritative are revealing and healing.

Intimacy is supposed to be messy. Our close relationships are mirrors that teach us about ourselves. Nurturing intimacy requires an investment of time, energy and vulnerability. When we value openness, the stickiest conversations can lead to the greatest discoveries.

It takes mutual respect, patience, confidence and practice to explore conflict openly.

The safer we feel, the deeper we can tread into the unknown. Opening up is not always possible in the heat of an argument, but it can be a life-safer when things cool down. For tougher conversations where dialogue doesn't work or we don't feel safe, professional support is an important next step.

If we set aside our need for control and commit to listening attentively, profound truth can be excavated. Allowing 'I disagree' to die can allow our closest relationships to live.


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