Communication: Direct Accusation vs Problem Identification

When problems arise in a relationship, couples are often told they need to “communicate” – or talk to each other. If a couple is in crisis, my feeling is that they need to talk more and not less. However, even those who do this often do not know how to talk about problems effectively and communication only makes the situation worse.

For the most part, there are two basic ways talking of about issues: Direct Accusation versus Problem Identification (described below). Unfortunately, most couples use Direct Accusation rather than Problem Identification when trying to resolve conflict.

Direct Accusation is more likely to produce the kind of response that will shut the discussion down or will result in the kind of defensive behaviour associated with “point scoring” and “tit for tat” back and forth interaction that leads nowhere fast.

Direct Accusation – Focus on Partner’s Behaviour:

When upset or angry, many people confront their spouses or partners by focusing on their behaviour. These accusations can be made directly “You did this or that” “You made me upset because you…” or even in the form of a question “Why did you…?” The motivation behind making such accusations is typically to change a spouse’s or partner’s behaviour or to the extreme, control. People believe that if they get upset and point out their partner’s mistakes, things will change. This rarely works.

If you accuse a partner of wrongdoing, partners typically:

get defensive – fight back or withdraw (stop listening and stonewall)

offer an (insincere) apology designed to stop your attack

hide and conceal similar behaviour in the future

The long term outcome of directly confronting a partner is:

increased distance

less understanding and greater dissatisfaction

the lack of a genuine resolution

increased future conflict

A more effective approach involves focusing on owning the problem and assertiveness not a partner’s behaviour.

Problem Identification – Focus on Assertiveness and Owning The Problem

A better way to resolve relationship problems involves focusing on being less accusatory rather than blaming a partner for what happened (even if, your partner deserves blame). It is easier for a partner or spouse to hear what you have to say when you focus on your own feelings and not dwell on his or her mistakes. For example, if your spouse has a habit of coming home late – rather than make a direct accusation –

“I hate when you’re so late – why do you do that?” 

It helps if you can focus on your feelings instead:

“I am feeling sad and a little frustrated. Can we discuss something that is bothering me?.”

In the above example, no blame was assigned and the focus was on problem solution.  Phrasing a concern as “I feel…” rather than “It makes…” is a more effective way of solving problems. Even a phrase such as 3It makes me uncomfortable” can bring a defensive response. The motivation for dealing with problems this way is to get your partner to hear what you have to say. If you can get your partner to under-stand your point of view, you are much more likely to create a meaningful and lasting resolution.

By focusing on your assertive approach instead of a partner’s behaviour, more likely is that people will:

listen to what you have to say

empathise with your position

discuss the problem in a constructive manner

And there are many benefits of approaching relationship problems in this way:

increased closeness, satisfaction and understanding

greater potential for resolution and change

less future conflict

Simply put, directly confronting a partner often leads to greater resistance, more conflict and resentment. Of course, it is easier to get angry and make accusations, but doing so rarely leads to positive, long term outcomes.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

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