All couples have disagreements and different ways of doing things. It’s inevitable. We are different people. Arguments are not necessarily lethal to a relationship and many very happy and successful couples argue a lot. In fact, I worry more about a couple who says they never argue or disagree-that’s a lot of sweeping under the rug going on! If you rarely talk about things that bother you,it can lead to a host of problems. It isn’t conflict that destroys relationships, it’s how you handle conflict that matters. Here are some simple guidelines to help make disagreements remain a side note and not the main event in your relationship.
1) FIGHT FAIR
The point of bringing up a problem is to solve the problem, not punish the other person for doing something you didn’t like. In a relationship nobody ever wins vendettas. To solve a problem you need to avoid being insulting, condescending or ridiculing. “It really bothered me when you did…..” not “how could you be such a jerk like that!” Cursing does not enhance the effectiveness of your position. This is the time to bring out your big girl words. “I didn’t feel like that was a nice way to handle me” not “that was really a shitty thing to do.” Even if you are not cursing at your partner and just using a figure of speech, cursing is provocative and raises the emotional threshold of the conversation-and not in a positive way. We all become less able to think clearly when we are stressed so making the other person more anxious by cursing (or yelling) just raises their anxiety and makes it much less likely that they will respond in a helpful way. Again, remember the point of conflict should be to solve the problem.
Yes, you’ve heard this one and it matters. Use “I” language. Not “I hate you” but how “I” felt. “I felt, uncomfortable, unhappy, frustrated, upset when you did…..” “I was unhappy you didn’t call to let me know” not “You are always so self-centered and thoughtless.” Insults and shaming will not fix the situation. Not even a little bit.
Do not use aggression. I’m not just talking about hitting. It’s not okay to go about banging tables, slamming doors, or throwing things down, even pillows. You aren’t allowed to restrain the other person either.
2) FIND OUT HOW, WHEN AND WHERE YOUR PARTNER LIKES TO HANDLE DISAGREEMENTS
Couples can greatly strengthen their relationships by having a conversation, separate from handling a particular problem, about how, when and where their partner prefers to talk about disagreements. Have a set framework that you both try to follow. Do you do better having a serious conversation earlier or later in the day? Privacy is essential for most couples. Don’t take things up in front of the children, the in-laws or among friends. Email can be a great way to frame a problem for discussion. You can lay out your concerns without interruption. You can and should re-read and proofread what you write so you express your ideas as well as possible. Email also gives the other person a chance to reread and think about what you said before answering.
Email is different from texting, which is more heated and immediate. Text arguments don’t tend to go to well as there is no reassuring hand to calm you, no silly face to defuse anger, or a winsome smile to show you aren’t really that angry.
If your partner asks you not to ruin an evening out, talking about something difficult, ask when they would be willing to talk about what’s bothering you. Be respectful and show that your partner is a priority by setting a time and place and following through on the conversation. Don’t try to avoid the problem by saying, “well you didn’t bring it up again.” Problems are hard enough to bring up the first time.
Respect your partner’s needs. Some people need to think about things before they are prepared to discuss them. It isn’t fair to demand, “we need to talk about his now.” If a day passes without follow up, then ask again to talk about the issue.
3) SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
That’s what we are here for. If you are ineffective at resolving conflict, get the input of a skilled mental health professional. When you come to a counselor’s office we watch your arguments in real time and can observe and give feedback on what is keeping you in circles. Of course there are some problems that can’t be solved but a fundamentally sound relationship can be improved a great deal with professional help if arguments keep getting in the way.