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How To Deal With A Difficult Partner Using The #1 Skill

how to deal with a difficult partner


How To Deal With A Difficult Partner Using The #1 Skill

Knowing how to deal with a difficult partner or parent is essential to create peace and harmony.

The #1 Skill You Need With a Difficult Partner or Parent

Speak to the differences!  Learn to say, “You know Mom, I see it differently.  Let me tell you how I see it.”  

I shouldn’t really call this a “skill” or “technique.”  It makes it sound too easy.

Learning to speak to the differences with a partner or family members is difficult.  It is also the most growth-fostering exercises you can practice to strengthen your relationships–and build your own self-esteem.

What does it mean to “speak to the differences”? It’s not about confronting a family member, which is rarely a growth-enhancing move.  When we head into a confrontation, we’re out to change or convince the other person, which isn’t possible.  We may secretly want to make the other person feel as bad as they’ve made us feel, which also won’t happen and won’t help.

In contrast, speaking to the differences means that we can calmly share our thoughts and feelings, and allow the other person to do the same, without getting too nervous about differences and without having to fix or shape up the other party.

Far from letting the other person off the hook, practicing this rule invites the other person to sit in the hot seat and tolerate some discomfort.

Joanna, a therapy client who was married to Carolina, was on the receiving end of homophobic comments from her mother who treated Joanna’s marriage to a woman as a problem to be tolerated. 

Joanna would snap at her mother, try to educate her or seethe silently—none of which was productive.

The breakthrough came when Joanna spoke calmly to their differences and simply asked her mother to reflect on the matter. “Mom,” she said, “I have the impression from our talks that you think being gay is a problem I was born with and that you should accept it because you love me. I have a different perspective. When I first became aware of my feelings for women, I was scared and wondered what was wrong with me, but that’s changed totally over time.

My marriage to Carolina is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and even if she weren’t in the picture, I wouldn’t choose to change who I am or become straight. What’s it like for you that we see this so differently?”

Joanna’s mother rose to the occasion and shifted gears as she tried to honor Joanna’s marriage rather than simply tolerating it. But even if she had responded badly, Joanna had found her adult voice. In this conversation and others, Joanna expressed pride in who she was, and she affirmed the new family that she and Carolina had established.

She did this without getting defensive or attacking, and without needing to change or convince her mother. 

Sometimes, it’s quite powerful to say, “You know, I see it differently,” and leave it at that. That is, if you speak in a calm, non-blaming way.

Every marriage and family has high twitch-areas where it can be quite challenging to say, “You know, I see it differently. Let me tell you how I see it.”   If you stay on course you will build a more solid self and be more able to find your own voice in all your key relationships.

[Harriet Lerner]

Dr. Lerner is one of the world’s most respected voices in the psychology of women and family relationships. She is the author of 11 books published in 35 languages. These include The Dance of Intimacy, Marriage Rules, and The Dance of Anger, a New York Times bestseller that has helped rescue men and women from the swamps and quicksands of difficult relationships. Dr. Lerner hosts a blog for Psychology Today.

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