The Meaning We Make

By Karen Focht, MA, LMFT

I recently read an article written by a New York City based Marriage and Family Therapist, Esther Perel, who touched on so much of what I see both personally and professionally when it comes to relationship conflict.   The article, titled, “How to Stop Having the Same Fight With Your Boyfriend All the Time”, addressed different dynamics that play into frequent arguments for couples. I couldn’t help but ask myself “what is the meaning we make in conflict with our partners”?

While providing relationship therapy to couples of all different walks of life, I find that I am often addressing the common issue of repetitive arguments. Are we really talking about who is taking out the trash?   It is so easy to get caught up in content.  Content refers to language, circumstances and events within a relational argument. 

It is hard work to take that step back and look at the meaning underneath it all.  I often refer to this meaning as as Process.  Going back to our original question of “are we really talking about who is taking out the trash?”, the initial response might be “yes, yes it is important!”.  The reality is that the messages underneath it all are so much more powerful when it comes to implementing lasting change.   When I hear “the things we argue around are small and don’t hold much meaning” I will quickly point out this idea of Process VS Content to explore the meaning we make through our conflict. 

Here are some things to pay attention to as you switch gears from “content” to “process”. 


“I statements” work towards removing blame while creating an opportunity to identify and express thoughts and feelings. When you do “X”, it makes me think “Y” and feel “Z”.  X represents the content while Y and Z represent the process and meaning that is taken away.

Let’s go back to that same couple that often argues about the trash and switch gears to express the meaning made from this issue.  “When I see you haven’t taken out the trash “X” it makes me think “Y” our family home is not a priority to you, and makes me feel “Z” unloved and unappreciated.  Not only does this statement express meaning to the listener, it also helps the speaker identify what meaning they are taking in during conflict. 


Validation is not necessarily saying that you AGREE or UNDERSTAND your partner, but it is showing a level of respect, care and curiosity of what they might be expressing to you.  For example, responding to the above I statement with “I see where you are coming from” or “I appreciate you sharing your feelings with me” is much different than jumping directly into explanation or defense.  A healthy process includes validation and the willingness to accept one another’s experiences regardless of intent. 


I will often implement weekly check-ins with couples in order to intentionally practice looking deeper into the process within their relationship.  Making changes in our lives doesn’t come easy or naturally most of the time and we need to be patient with one another and ourselves in order to implement lasting change!  Try scheduling a weekly 15-minute “check in” where you are expressing process, using “I Statements” and paying attention to validation. 

So the next time you find yourself arguing about something in your relationship, I encourage you to take a moment, a breath and ask yourself…. “what is the meaning I make in conflict with my partner”? 

To check out the article mentioned above go to