Disagreements within couples can be heated, intense, scary and painful at times. However, these same disagreements can also bring a couple much closer together and help cultivate a partnership by getting on the same page. Relationships are difficult in part because it is a bringing together of distinctly different people with very different upbringings. Of course there will be differences of opinions and different perspectives, which means some disagreements and arguments. It is a matter of respectfully disagreeing and trying to understand the other persons’ viewpoint that makes all the difference.
Communication is key in relationships and disagreeing is inevitable. I’m usually much more concerned for the couples who do not argue because they really haven’t learned how to communicate with one another. In this case, one person is often more focused on keeping the peace instead of living their truth, authenticity, and ultimately finding ways to compromise with their partner. This kind of communication is true intimacy.
Due to the heightened emotions on both sides during disagreements, it can help to have some basic rules to keep things from getting too heated and make fighting more respectful and fair.
Fair Fighting Rules
- Avoid global statements, such as ‘always’ and ‘never.’
- Use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements.For example, “I feel as though I do not get enough help around here.” Rather than, “you do not help out enough around here.”
- Avoid ‘right and wrong’ thinking. Many arguments are power struggles, during which each party is fighting to be ‘right.’ Don’t fight to be right, work together for the good of the relationship.
- There is no need to blame your partner. Blame is not productive and it is inextricably linked to shame.
- Stay present – do not bring up things from the past.
- Stick with one topic at a time – choose one topic and stick with it. Try not to veer off onto another topic until there is some resolve to the topic at hand.
- Remain calm and keep your voice down. Yelling just keeps people at a distance and makes them not want to or unable listen.
- Do not attack your partner. Do not curse. Refrain from name-calling.
- Step away. If you feel the need to step away, that’s okay. Let your partner know that you need a break. You may need to take an hour, or the night to sleep on it – things often seem clearer in the morning. Coming back together to continue the discussion is the key to resolving it, so make sure you find a time to revisit the discussion.
- Do not shut down. Withdrawal is a harmful tool, yet so many people use it. Taking a break is not the same as withdrawing. You can step away, as mentioned previously, but you will agree to reconvene the discussion. Withdrawal can take many forms, such as shutting down and simply not engaging, refusing sex, or leaving and when you return you refuse to continue talking. These types of withdrawal are not productive and can be damaging to any relationship.
- Focus more of your effort on listening than talking.When your partner is talking, do your best to actively listen and resist the temptation to think about what you’re going to say next.
- Do not threaten or mention divorce or break-up.This is hurtful, creates anxiety, and adds many more layers beyond the current disagreement.
- Attempt to be more curious and less defensive.Ask more questions of the other person rather instead of assuming you know what he or she is thinking.
All of these ideas are difficult to practice, especially in the heat of the moment, so try keeping them in mind during less intense conversations with your partner as well. I also advice you to pick only a few of these points and focus on them. Only try to implement one or two at the same time. You can still do this even if your partner isn’t willing to join you right now. Focus on your own communication skills, not on your partner. They are responsible for their own change and growth. You can, however, inform your partner that you no longer want to be spoken to in a certain way or need them to be more respectful of you and give them a specific example. This is you taking care of yourself and completely appropriate. Keep in mind, you are not seeking perfection, just improvement. Be kind to yourself throughout this process.
Kimberly Atwood is a licensed psychotherapist and certified sex therapist in private practice in Princeton, NJ. She specializes in sexual health, intimacy and relationship issues. For more information, please check out her website.