Learning How to Fight Fair: Navigating Arguments Without Damaging Your Relationship

No matter how emotionally close you are to your partner or how “in sync” you both feel, you are individuals with different backgrounds and perceptions. Unless your partner is a clone of yourself, conflicts will erupt. This is normal and, as counter intuitive as it may seem, a sign of a healthy relationship. “If you are intimate with someone, you are going to have arguments,” writes clinical psychologist and Columbia University professor Dr. Xavier Amador. “The reason is that with closeness comes cost—the stakes are much higher than with a casual friend or stranger.”

How couples argue can make or break a relationship. Family therapist Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., in her Arguing Constructively series, writes that arguments can have positive consequences. An argument can “clarify each partner’s needs and allow each to maintain a sense of personal integrity within the relationship,” she says. In a healthy relationship, partners must feel they can safely express themselves. Yet, fights that become a power grab rather than a sincere attempt to reach agreement can destroy trust, goodwill, and the relationship.

Fighting techniques to avoid:

Don’t play the blame game: Who is right? Who is wrong? Who caused the problem, and who is the innocent victim? These types of questions create a you-against-me framework that is not helpful. Instead, present your differences as “I see this as a problem. How can we fix it together?”

Don’t stockpile grievances: You may have a slew of minor complaints about your partner, but spilling out every little irritant clutters up the disagreement and sidetracks the discussion. Stay on point. If your argument is over a major purchase, your annoyance with your partner’s apparent inability to lower the toilet seat lid is irrelevant. Leave it out of the argument (unless the major purchase is a self-closing toilet seat.)

Tit-for-tat arguments are not productive. If your partner complains you are chronically late for dates, don’t hit back with your own complaint about your partner's slovenly habits. Instead, discuss the tardiness issue.

Take care with your language: Threats, insults and sarcasm are the tools of intimidation and contempt. They have no place in a loving relationship. Keep it civil. Don’t exaggerate. Just because your partner forgot your anniversary doesn’t mean he/she never really cared for you. Just let your partner know you believe it is important to celebrate anniversaries.

Own your feelings. You, not your partner, control your feelings.  If you say, “you make me feel stupid,” you are not being honest. If you are honest you will say, “When you say things like that, I feel stupid.”  Don’t make your partner responsible for your feelings.

No hitting below the belt: You know your partner's sensitive areas. Attacking these may gain you some control, but it will be at the loss of your relationship. Be kind, even when arguing.

Don’t drag the mother-in-law, or anyone else, into the argument: This is your personal relationship. Throwing in cousin Jane’s opinion of your partner is not material. Stick to your view, your beliefs and your hopes for the relationship. Leave everyone else out. 

Guidelines for constructive arguments:

Listen: This may seem obvious, but note how often you begin forming your own response while your partner is still speaking. Take the time to really listen and try to understand your partner’s point of view. You may want to restate what you heard your partner say just to check if you understood clearly.

Let your partner know what you want: Unless your soul mate is clairvoyant, you need to be specific about what you want—really specific. Rather than make a complaint — “You never help with the housework,” make a suggestion —“Could you take over laundry chores? I’m really overwhelmed right now.”  It is a starting point for discussion that lets your partner know your needs.

Timing is important: When you feel you must discuss a difficult issue with your partner, select a time when you both are able to sit down and sort through the problem. Just before bedtime, when you are both tired and need sleep, or in the morning when you are heading out to work, are not good times for a productive discussion.

When an argument is becoming overheated — voices rise and rational discussion takes flight — stop. Take a breath. Ask, “What are we fighting about?” and then work together to root out the problem. Arguments can draw couples closer as they learn more about each other and help build confidence that they care enough to work through their conflicts.

Dr. Barb Nefer, PsyD, is a licensed counselor who's worked with couples and families for more than 10 years. She specializes in relationship counseling, self-esteem issues, and working with adults who grew up with addicted or dysfunctional parents. She takes an eclectic approach but favors cognitive/behavioral techniques. Barb is also the author of "So You Want to be a Counselor," a career guide from Frederick Fell Publishing.


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