How To Talk Openly About Relationship Problems Without Pushing Each Other Away

How Imago therapy-based communication skills can help.

How To Communicate Effectively About Relationship Problems & Avoid Arguing Using 4 Imago Therapy Communication Skills getty

Just about anyone in a relationship can recall a time when they got into a huge fight with their partner. Words were said — or maybe even shouted — and tempers flared. You didn’t talk to each other for hours, or even days, in some cases.

Afterward, it might have felt like there was a vast canyon between you and your spouse that took a lot of time, effort and energy to heal. In some cases, however, the argument — and the wound — remained, and now it’s just a problem stuck between you that you never talk about because it’s so sensitive.


Arguing is normal in every marriage, but there are ways you can learn how to communicate effectively as a couple about relationship problems that are both smarter and healthier for your relationship.

The key is using Imago relationship therapy-based communication skills to create a safe space for effective communication with your partner.

RELATED: What Is Imago Relationship Therapy, And How Can It Help You Build A Stronger Marriage?


In Imago therapy, there’s an idea about marriage that there's a space between you and your partner where your relationship "lives." When there’s a divide there because of a fight or an issue you can’t resolve, it means that your relationship isn’t healthy. How can it be, when it’s got a proverbial hole right in the middle of it?

Learning Imago-based communication skills for how to approach difficult conversations — even over a topic you’ve argued about a thousand times before — can keep you both from getting hurt feelings and pushing each other away in the end. It will help make sure that the space between you and your partner, where your relationship exists, will be well-protected and strong against any future arguments that may arise.

Here's how to communicate effectively about relationship problems using Imago therapy-based communication skills — without pushing each other away:

1. Recognize when the time isn't right.

Timing is crucial in deciding when you should try and sit down to discuss any issues with your spouse. If you approach while they’re trying to write an urgent email or they’re not feeling well, then chances are good you’re not going to get their best, most attentive selves.


One of the easiest ways to circumvent this problem is to ask if it’s a good time for them to talk, or even to make an “appointment” where you and your spouse agree to sit down, shut out distractions and discuss the situation, even if it means holding off until tomorrow.

By reaching out and creating this time together, you’ll make sure that you’re both being respected, you’re on the same page, and nothing is cutting into your important discussion. You also won’t get distracted by another task you need to take care of. Being able to provide your attention fully to the topic will also cut down on arguing, confusion, or misunderstandings.

Choose when to make your case, tell your partner you have something important you’d like to discuss with them, and then settle on a time that works for both of you.

2. Use “I” language instead of "you" language.

No one wants to feel as though they’re being attacked in a conversation. And even if the anger or hurt is completely justified, there are ways to discuss the problems calmly and without accusation. After all, you don’t really want it to escalate into a fight — you just want to get your point across.


Using “you” language like, “You shouldn’t have done that,” or “You upset me,” will quickly make your partner feel as though they’re coming under fire. Their defenses will raise, they’ll get upset, and they may shut out your argument, no matter how valid it is.

When approaching your spouse, use “I” or “me” language, instead of “you" for more effective communication based on Imago therapy techniques.

“You made me feel stupid when you corrected me in front of my friends,” becomes, “When you corrected me in front of my friends, it made me feel stupid.”

“You were mean when you told that joke about me,” becomes, “I didn’t like it when you told that joke. It hurt my feelings.”


By approaching the conversation gently and without accusation, your partner will be more open to understanding where you’re coming from, how you feel, and be less likely to get defensive and feel like they have to prepare for a verbal assault.

RELATED: 17 Ways To Fight Less & Communicate Sanely In Your Marriage

3. Own what you’ve done wrong in the past.

In your relationship, it’s likely that one of you is going to be the one who withdraws from conflict, or “minimizes” it, while the other doggedly pursues or “maximizes” it. Each of you will have a default behavior when it comes to resolving conflict.


The minimizer will withdraw when the maximizer becomes “too emotional”, whether it's due to anger or just being upset in general. This is an unhealthy way of communicating that will create an imbalance in your relationship, where neither partner feels safe to talk and doesn’t feel truly heard. It limits your ability to share your true self and makes you both feel stunted and unsupported.

If you can't talk to your partner because they withdraw, or they feel they can't talk to you because you get too emotional over it, you'll never be able to resolve differences and will instead resort to stuffing problems aside and growing resentful over their inability to hear you.

Acknowledging your role in previous arguments is a wonderful way to take responsibility and address it, so that your partner knows you’re trying to make a change for the better.

You can do this when you approach your spouse by saying, “I know I’ve said this to you before, and you’re probably tired of hearing it, but I want to try again in a very different way. Can we talk about it?”


You can also admit that you know in the past your words may have come off as accusatory or sounded like you were complaining or yelling. Owning your part in the conversation — and your past behavior — will give your partner the chance to drop their defenses and really listen to what you want to say.

4. Understand that it's not just what you say, but how you say it.

In the movie Three Men and a Baby, there’s a scene where Tom Selleck’s character is reading the violent details of a boxing match to baby Mary in a soft, gentle tone. One of the other characters comes in and asks, “What are you reading to her?” to which he replies, “It doesn’t matter what I’m reading; it’s the tone.”

And while this was clearly done for laughs at the absurdity of a boxing match being a bedtime story for an infant, there is quite a bit of truth in the words.

What you say may have less impact on a person than how you say it, no matter how old they are.


There are many theories about the percentage of speech that’s derived from body language, but experts have estimated that as much as 60 percent of communication is in non-verbal cues, like your posture, facial expressions, and eyesight.

What that means is you can say the same thing in very different ways, and the way your spouse interprets it could change based on how you’re behaving — not just what you’re saying.

When you have something to discuss with your spouse, pay attention to your body language and tone. Say your piece kindly, without anger or intent to shame your partner. Make sure you‘re not being stiff, showing anger through your movements, or jabbing fingers when you’re trying to make your point.


“It would really mean a lot to me if you could start helping with the dinner dishes,” might sound one way if you make eye contact, posture yourself openly, and speak kindly. On the other hand, that same statement can take on quite a different connotation when your voice is clipped, your body is angled away, and your foot is angrily tapping on the floor.

The truth is that no long-term, lasting relationship can exist without occasional arguments, disagreements, and differences of opinion. You and your partner view the world through two unique sets of ideas and beliefs, so these kinds of discussions are healthy and normal.

Arguing can make you feel like you can’t be honest with your spouse, but sharing your truth is tantamount to establishing and keeping the intimacy in your marriage alive. You must be able to speak with each other about your needs and share your deepest, truest self without worrying that you’ll be hurt for it.

By employing these simple tips in your marriage, you can make sure that you’re both able to approach and speak to one another openly, honestly, and with trust so that you don’t feel at odds no matter what the topic happens to be.


RELATED: How To Make Even The Most Difficult Conversations With The Person You Love Easier For Both Of You

Christine Petrik, LCSW is a happily married psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who helps dedicated couples achieve more passionate and meaningful relationships. Learn ways you can create the relationship of your dreams by connecting with her on her website.