Every couple has arguments and disagreements from time to time. How is it that some couples seem to resolve their differences and end up feeling closer to each other, while others’ fights push them further apart?
The difference isn’t that successful couples don’t disagree. Rather, the difference is in how they fight. In fact, some therapists claim that if you have given up on arguing with your partner it may indicate that you have given up on the relationship. Although some people who are conflict averse want to avoid a stressful situation opposed to wanting to give up.
Personally, I hate arguments. I have a strong need for peace and harmony. And so, I’ve had to find ways to resolve issues and differences without nasty fights that would drive us apart. I’ve also learned that it is better to address your anger and any problems than to let them fester until you blow up.
Here are the practices that make for more constructive arguments:
1. Realize that some conflict is inevitable.
Arguing doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed. According to clinical psychologist Deborah Grady, “Relationships that can’t be saved are relationships where the flame has completely gone out. Or it wasn’t there in the first place. If you are indifferent you won’t care enough to fight.” Remember that a healthy relationship includes anger and arguments. The couple in a healthy relationship handles disagreements in a constructive way that brings them closer together over time.
2. Schedule time to discuss conflicts and issues.
It does no good to try to have an important discussion when your partner is busy or has just come home or after a poor night of sleep. This is not the time to handle a difficult conversation. Pick a “Time for Conflicts” when you are rested and calm, not harried and stressed. Get some childcare in place so you can talk undisturbed. Consider going for a walk so that you can hold hands and face the future forward together. Nature has a calming influence. So walking in a park or along a beach or stream is ideal. The most important thing to do during your conflict resolution time is to focus on listening to your partner.
3. Avoid discussing problems or issues on your date night out.
Save the thorny stuff for your conflict resolution meetings. If you don’t, you’re likely to spoil what could have been a fun night out. It is important to have some relaxing fun time to bond as a couple. Save the hard stuff for another day.
4. Only tackle one issue at a time.
Avoid bringing up a lot of difficult topics at once or you risk overwhelming your partner. If you have regular conflict resolution meetings, then you’ll gradually work through all your issues and concerns together. Start by addressing one thing at a time so that neither of you gets overwhelmed. Avoid bringing up past issues unless that is the one thing you want to focus on resolving.
5. Give fair warning.
It helps to let your partner know ahead of time what topic you want to discuss.
6. Keep a neutral tone of voice.
You can say just about anything to anybody if you speak with a flat, neutral voice. If you feel you or your partner are starting to raise your voices, then agree ahead of time that you’ll switch to whispering. If one person starts whispering, then you need to move into whispering immediately. It’s okay if you start to feel heated and angry and lose control of your voice. Just say you need a few minutes to calm down. Take a break. Take some deep breaths. Come back in 5-20 minutes, depending on how much time you need to cool off. You could say, “I do want to talk about this, but I need some time to calm down. I’ll be back in five minutes.” Or reassure them by saying, “I love you. I’m not going away. We’ll get this resolved.”
7. You don’t have to resolve everything on the spot.
It can take time to internally register a issue or concern raised by a partner. So, your initial response may not be the best one. Defensiveness, denial of the problem or a strong emotional reaction are normal, common first reactions. You could each take five minutes to share your thoughts about the issue while the other listens. Then come back in 20 minutes, the next day or longer, once you’ve had time to think about it. Not everyone can resolve issues immediately. Give your partner the time they need to think things through. You might even ask them how long they need to think about something.
One of my friends told her partner that she changed her mind about not having kids and decided she wanted them. She said he could take as long as he needed to think about it before giving her an answer. It took him a year before he said yes. They now have two kids. I doubt I would have been as patient with my biological clock ticking away in the background, but this is why they have a rock-solid marriage. They respect each other’s need to think things through.
8. Have firm boundaries around abuse.
No name calling, no yelling, no throwing things or slamming doors. If there are any signs of violence, then you must end the conversation immediately. Leave the house if you are hit. Then call the police and get therapy. If you feel things are starting to get heated, then call a time out. It is better to take a break and calm down before you continue the conversation.
9. Never threaten the relationship.
Therapist, Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D. says you shouldn’t take every argument as a threat to the relationship and never threaten divorce. “This type of emotional blackmail puts the other partner in a panic/flight or flight mode. While you’re telling them you want to leave, they may be making plans to find a roommate. In addition, they may be so devastated by the thought of losing their family they can go into a deep depression and be unable to give you what it is you need.”
10. Make requests, not complaints.
Don’t say, “You always leave the dirty dishes on the counter.” Instead say, “I’d appreciate it if you’d put the dishes directly into the dishwasher.” You can use this simple 4-step Communication Model to prevent most arguments from happening by nipping them in the bud.
As a bonus point, underlying some of the surface issues can be unmet personal and emotional needs. It really helps to know what you and your partner need from each other. Often it is difficult to know, let alone articulate, our deepest emotional needs. You can take the free Emotional Index Quiz here to find out what are your top four personal and emotional needs.
For more on boundaries and emotional needs, read The Secret Laws of Attraction by Talane Miedaner.