A certain amount of arguing is essential to the health of any long-term relationship. If you’re not arguing with your significant other from time to time, your relationship may not be growing. At the same time, daily arguing about the same pet topic accomplishes nothing. How can you trade-in negative fighting with positive growth? Take a look at some of our recommendations…
Avoid sarcasm and yelling
Instead, say exactly what you mean, simply and directly. Say, “I’m mad that you’ve gotten home late these past three nights.” Do not say, “I’m thrilled you bothered coming home tonight, even though all the local bars count on your business.” Sarcasm communicates weakness and insecurity. You won’t win an argument with clever one-liners. Same goes for raising your voice. When someone yells at you, all you really hear is the yelling. Any point you’re trying to make with a raised voice can be better made with your “inside voice.”
When you argue, do you listen to your partner carefully, or do you use the time he/she is talking to plan your comeback? If you’re not hearing your partner’s point, they are not hearing yours. When your partner speaks, listen without interrupting (this includes non-verbal interrupting, such as eye rolling, tapping your fingers, etc.) When your partner pauses, repeat back what your partner said in your own language–just like your credit card company does when you call in to dispute a charge. Careful listening does not indicate you agree or disagree with your partner. It means you’re engaged in the conversation and showing respect for your partner’s point-of-view. A good reflective statement: “It sounds like you’ve been feeling neglected since I’ve been working longer hours, is that right?” A bad reflective statement: “Because you’re so needy all the time, you want me to never leave the house, is that what you’re saying?”
Watch the timing
Some people prefer to work out conflicts in the moment. Some prefer to sleep on it. Both strategies can work. If you need some time to think things through, say “I realize this is important, and I do want us to resolve this. But I need to think things over and was hoping we can revisit this topic tomorrow at lunch.” Committing to a concrete future time to work things out is essential. The same holds true if you want to work things out in the moment, and your partner needs some time. Calmly ask him/her to commit to a time to discuss the issue following day. What doesn’t work: Trying to force your partner to talk things out when they aren’t ready. You may have to “self-soothe.” Go to the gym, go to a movie, call a friend. Do what you need to do to take care of you, but don’t depend on your partner feeling better for you to feel better.
Focus on what you DO want
Arguments tend to be a list of criticisms traded back and forth. This puts both parties on the defensive and rarely leads to meaningful resolution. Don’t say, “You didn’t fix the dishwasher. Hardly surprising since you never do anything I ask you to. Just like when we were planning our wedding. You were supposed to book the band, but . . .” Do say, “Can you please have the dishwasher fixed by Wednesday? But can we agree, if you can’t get around to it by then, I’ll call the handyman?” Arguments are only effective when they genuinely aim for a solution that works for both parties. “Educating” your partner about their flaws, their moral inferiority as a person, etc., in an argument, doesn’t get the trash taken out. Asking your partner, in a reasonable, non-condescending tone, to take the trash out in the next 24 hours is much more likely to do the trick.
Know when to pull the plug
It’s important to recognize when things are escalating past a healthy point. Red-faced yelling, vicious name calling, pounding on tables, ominous threats. These tend to indicate you are past the point of no return at this particular time. Remove yourself from the room, from the house, wherever. But don’t make a dramatic exit and stomp out. Say, “This just isn’t working right now. I’m going to leave, so we can both cool off, but I’ll be back in a few hours. Let’s try this again then, when we’re both more clear-headed.” And that “I’ll be back” part is really important, even if you’re just stepping into another room to cool off. Heated arguments engage old brain circuitry and fears of abandonment. Tell your partner you WILL BE BACK even when you think it’s obvious.
It’s the rule more than the exception that relationships hit various bottlenecks. We all have our “buttons,” and these can be hard to move past in an intimate relationship. Many studies show that it’s not necessarily the content of arguments that end relationships. It’s the way we discuss this content with out partner. When you find yourself arguing about the same topic again and again, or when small disagreements quickly grow into major ones, it may be time to seek the help of a couples counselor. A good couples counselor doesn’t take sides. They are there to help you discuss longstanding issues without falling into old patterns.