Fighting Fair: Increasing Healthy Communication During Arguments

At GroundWork Counseling in Maitland, we often work with couples seeking therapy to improve their communication skills. As part of a couple; two unique individuals raised in two separate families, during the course of your everyday lives together, it is normal to have different viewpoints. You can expect that you will have some differences on what you regard as “right” and “normal” about religion, politics, finances, childcare, having a pet, ambition, fitness…the list goes on. As your relationship progresses, you learn each other’s perspectives. Some issues are no big deal, they are easy to resolve one way or the other – “Sure, go ahead and put the toilet roll unwinding backwards instead of forwards; Sure we should both continue our individual hobbies; Sure we can paint the wall this color.”

Other issues are more complex. Both of you discuss them and possibly argue about them. You will try and convince your partner why this means so much to you or why your viewpoint is the right one. Ideally, with the respect and trust between you, the two of you will resolve the disagreement. One partner graciously gives way, or you reach a compromise so both of you are satisfied at the end.

Couples in healthy relationships know that the PROCESS of this discussion, the WAY that you try and convince each other and HOW you reach a decision is of the utmost importance. To use a sports metaphor, it is not win or lose, it is how you play at the game. At the end of the discussion, do both of you feel that the other person heard what you had to say? Do you understand each other better even if you do not agree? Do both of you feel respected by the other?

In a healthy relationship, there is caring and consideration. The overriding commitment is to “I care about your thoughts and feelings, I want to hear what you have to say because you are important to me.” When couples do not follow the rules of good communication during arguments, their relationship is damaged. They become so focused on winning that they will slash and burn on their way to victory. They dismiss the partner’s viewpoint or refuse to discuss the issue. They might belittle the partner’s knowledge or competence in the area. The partner feels devalued and unloved. This inevitably hurts the relationship.

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Learning how to navigate differences is an essential part of every couple’s journey together. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when you disagree with each other. Some of these relate to your overall attitude, others are specific things to say or do:

  1. Present information and remain respectful. It is very appropriate to shine a light on the topic, to use facts and information to make your case. Why should you add crown molding during the remodeling as a way of boosting resale value to the house? Why should children get timeouts instead of being spanked? Pay attention to your attitude during these conversations and take care to be respectful. Do not get personal in your attacks by dismissing or demeaning your partner.
  2. Approach the argument with the attitude that this is about learning about each other, not about winning.
  3. Do your best to understand your partner’s point of view: Why do they feel so strongly about this? What value or belief is informing their opinion? Once you understand where they are coming from, it is often easier to accept their view.
  4. Stay on topic and get to the core issue. Do not bring up other problems the two of you are having or the history of disagreements. Solve this one problem. What is the real issue? When you understand that the real issue is trust or not feeling good enough or fear that the relationship is breaking up, then you can move towards a meaningful solution.
  5. Provide feedback on what you hear. Say the sentence “I hear you telling me that ____.” This tells your partner that you are listening, and lets them give better information if they meant something else.
  6. Understand that “I hear your point of view” is not the same as “I agree with you.” You do not lose anything by saying you understand where they are coming from, even though you still disagree.
  7. Avoid ultimatums. They are about power. Power is not a friend of a healthy relationship.
  8. Monitor yourself. If you feel yourself getting worked up or emotionally overheated, it is time to cool down. Ask for a time out. If you are not able to think calmly and remain respectful, protect the relationship. Say something like “I really want us to work this out, but right now I’m getting a bit angry. Let’s take a time out, we will talk about this when I can handle this better.” Keep your word. When you have cooled down, request to resume the conversation within the next day. Do not use this as a delaying tactic to postpone the conversation. It is OK to go to bed angry. Sleep helps us get perspective on a situation!
  9. Monitor your partner. If you see them getting worked up or emotionally overheated, take steps to postphone the conversation. Be careful in how you phrase it – extra diplomacy is required because your partner is overheated. They are likely to blow up if you say something direct like “I can see you are getting angry. We should talk about this later.” You might say something like “It looks like it would be better for us to take a little time to think about this, this is getting intense. How about we take a breath and come back to this in a little while?”
  10. Understand that some things are non-negotiable. These are bottom-line necessities. If the argument involves one of these types of issues, e.g. infidelity or dishonesty, know that you can argue until you are blue in the face, your partner’s position will not change. Having continued arguments about the same non-negotiable issue is a waste of time. The best course is to recognize it and accept it.

If you are in a relationship where you feel stuck in a circle of repeated arguments and are not able to resolve them, a few sessions of couples counseling can be very beneficial. Couples frequently learn communication techniques that are very valuable in strengthening their relationship. They also gain a fresh perspective on their partner, and are able to apply their new skills to resolve old arguments. Very importantly, by seeking help they also show their commitment to their relationship. It speaks to the desire to protect what they have built together. The therapist uses this motivation to help the couple strengthen their relationship.

 

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