Negotiating the difference

It's not easy for couples going through a period of difficulty that leaves both partners feeling angry, resentful, and generally unhappy. The usual advice is to keep talking. However, for some couples, this just seems to escalate tensions rather than calm things down.


Author Deborah Tannen suggests that this is because the way couples are talking to each other is adversarial - framing the discussion as a competition so that there needs to be a winner and loser. This damages the relationship to the point where one partner decides they have had enough and ends the relationship, leaving the other often confused and not sure what they did wrong. Systemic therapists take the view that the couples were unable to talk about their differences, their expectations, or how their own family stories inform how to maintain a successful relationship.

Family narratives

For those trained in systemic therapy, our early life lessons taken from our parents and the stories they tell us initially form our ideas about what is right and what is wrong, how to behave, how to build relationships with others, and how to (or how not to) raise children. When we meet that special someone, it could be the case that the partners have very different ideas of what a successful relationship looks like.

For example, different approaches to parenting could potentially lead to conflict, because both partners, informed by their childhood experiences, have differing views on parenthood. To feel that they both have something to offer, the couple needs to compromise, negotiate what will work for them, and limit conflict. Couples can do this by either taking equal parts from both childhood experiences or create a completely new family story.


When we begin a new job, we expect that we will have a boss, or at least have to report to someone in authority. We accept this individual has (with some exceptions) power over us. Systemic therapists call this the 'definition of relationship'. The relationship is defined by the labels that are given i.e. employer-employee, teacher-student, husband-wife, father-son, etc.

For couples, this definition can sometimes become blurred, with both partners unsure of what is expected of them. Or, they assume they know. This could be down to the fact that we very rarely ask at the beginning of a relationship, and with very good reason - we want the relationship to succeed and are afraid that, if the relationship fails, we could be alone.

Expectations also change as relationships progress - becoming parents, a new promotion at work, or different needs or wants. Partners may have said to the other "You are not the person I married”, or "Things are changing for me but not for you". It is important to remember we are not the same people in our 40s compared to our 20s. Change is inevitable in a relationship, so to reduce potential conflict, it would be helpful for couples to discuss how change may affect their relationship and what they expect that change will bring.

A soon-to-be parent may say to their partner "You can’t do this/that when the baby comes". This could be seen as an instruction leading the partner to feel they have no say, so it may be better to say "I feel we should discuss what might change for us when the baby comes", so both parties feel a part of the process and more able to discuss their expectations.


In the world of business, the ability to negotiate is a vital skill, because the company cannot grow without being able to negotiate prices with suppliers, form alliances with other companies, or win contracts. Our perception of business negotiations through films may inform us that these meetings are often cutthroat, and the goal is to take everything from your opponent. Here, the meeting is framed as adversarial and, in some cases, it is. Businesses take this approach when there will be no ongoing relationship because this approach will effectively end that working relationship.

However, most businesses need to have good relations with others, so a more collaborative approach is taken. Both parties lay out what they want, and they compromise until they feel they are each getting something out of it. This is what couples who find themselves in conflict struggle to do, and there are reasons for this.

Unlike with business, couples share a living space, so they are unable to give each other space and then return to the negotiating table. Because of their emotional connection and history, it can be difficult to take a pragmatic approach, and like with political negotiations, they can be public affairs, in the sense that family members and friends can often way in with advice that is not always helpful.

The couple needs to recognise that while it is helpful to have outside support, they are the only ones who know what works for their relationship. Like with business, compromise is key to maintaining an ever-changing relationship. If one partner takes too much this can leave the other feeling being taken for granted.

To be able to negotiate with our partners, we must not be afraid to ask where we feel our relationships are not working. Sometimes it is not what are we going to do about it, it is how are we going to talk about something. This highlights the need for couples to be inventive and find ways of communicating, bringing about change that both partners would be comfortable with.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH
Written by Anthony Purnell, BSc (Hons), MBACP (Accred) MNCS (Prof Accred)
Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH

I am a BACP registered counsellor providing low-cost counselling for couples, individuals and Small and Medium size organisations. I create a safe, therapeutic and comfortable environment to discuss sensitive and difficult issues. I hold a BSc in Systemic Counselling (Relational) and is my main area of training.

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