Conflict is inevitable in a relationship. People are different, and no matter how compatible you are with someone, you’re going to have times when you’re frustrated with one another. What matters most is how you choose to work through that conflict and hopefully develop a stronger relationship. It’s not always easy to tell your significant other you’re mad at them, but if you do it in the proper way, it can prompt a healthy discussion about both of your needs.
I know what it’s like to be conflict-avoidant. It’s never fun to bring up a subject that might lead to an argument, but otherwise, you start building resentment toward someone about the things that make you mad. If your partner doesn’t know you’re angry at them, they can’t take steps to fix the situation or change their habits — and that benefits no one. But how do you voice your frustration without making things worse? To get clarity on this, I spoke to Erika Martinez, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist who specializes in helping young people with their dating lives. And she gave me a tip that honestly makes addressing conflict feel way less intimidating.
The key is this: Don’t address your anger when you’re actually angry. “Wait until you have a cooler head,” Martinez suggests. “It's not a good idea to talk to your partner when you're irate.” If you go into a disagreement with elevated emotions, you’re more likely to blow up and say something you might later regret. Instead, Martinez recommends taking time to think through the situation and calm down. If your partner said or did something to you that made you upset, take some space to think about why you feel the way you do. That way, you can address it with them in a composed and rational manner.
When you feel like you’re ready to share your feelings, Martinez says to approach the situation without judging or jumping to conclusions. “Stick to the observable behavior(s) (i.e. something said or done) and explain how it made you feel using ‘I’ statements,” she says. “This helps your partner hear your message in a clearer way and can reduce the chances of him/her getting defensive or angry.”
She provides this example: “I feel really disappointed and betrayed when you make promises that you fail to keep. It happened again last night when you said we'd have dinner together and didn't get in until late. I don't feel like I'm a priority." You don’t want to presume that your partner feels a certain way — instead, you’re simply stating how their words or actions are affecting you. “Starting the conversation like this makes it more likely that you'll be able to have a productive discussion and work through it,” Martinez says. You’re opening up the discussion for them to explain how they perceived the situation.
Of course, as hard as you try, you can’t guarantee your partner won’t feel caught off guard. “If your partner gets defensive, angry, or doesn't want to talk about it, then you may need to give them some breathing room,” Martinez says. “Tell them as much, but explain that you still want to talk about this once they've calmed down.” Just like you, they may need time and space to process the situation — then, once they’ve thought it over, they’ll be more ready to receive your words openly.
No matter what happens, don’t avoid talking about your anger just because it’s hard for both of you. “The key here is circling back to the issue later on, which many people don't do,” Martinez explains. “It gets swept under the rug and piles up over time.” The longer you go without telling your SO you’re angry, the more it will build and cause you to hold a grudge against them. And deeply-held resentment is much harder to solve than anger that gets immediately addressed.
Remember that even though this is difficult right now, it will help your relationship move forward when you can talk openly about what bothers you. The best relationships aren’t the ones with no conflict — they’re the ones that embrace conflict as a natural and healthy part of loving someone. If you practice both compassion and bravery in all your disagreements, you’ll learn to express yourself without making your partner feel like you’re attacking them. And from that place of vulnerability, you can start to heal together.