How To Argue With Your Partner Without It Going Nuclear
Illustration by Ms Lauren Hall
Watching other couples fight can be entertaining. But as we recently saw with the war of words between Tom and Shiv in that episode of Succession, fuelled by unresolved tensions, arguments can escalate quickly into accusations of having a cracked mother, being incapable of love and serving undrinkable wine. Ouch. Little wonder we are not keen on having a barney ourselves; research shows couples avoid rows, especially if they are about the relationship.
But ducking disagreement is unhealthy. According to research from the University of Michigan and Penn State University, it can cause mood swings, bad sleep and even affect life expectancy. Studies also found the happily paired don’t argue less, but differently. “The strongest couples have these discussions because they want to understand each other and not have the issues grow so large that they threaten the relationship,” says couples’ psychologist Dr Gary W Lewandowski Jr, author of Stronger Than You Think.
Constructive rows strengthen relationships, according to a study from the Society for Social and Personality Psychology. And fights are normal, argues relationship therapist Ms Elizabeth Earnshaw, author of I Want This To Work. “They happen when someone ineffectively brings up a disagreement point or the other person ineffectively receives it – or both.”
So, can we row in an effective way that avoids sleep deprivation (and without bringing our parents into it)? We examine some routes to relationship safe harbour.
Give each other the benefit of the doubt
Offer your partner what psychologist Dr Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard”. Meaning always believe them to be a good person, even if they are also a person who leaves the toilet seat up.
Give each other a heads up
If you’re starting the argument, you’ll have had time to rehearse your cutting remarks about your partner’s dysfunctional parents. Your other half won’t, so cut them some slack. “Say, ‘Hey, I’d really like to talk about your mum’s expectations for the upcoming holiday. Can we chat about it over dinner on Saturday?’” Lewandowski says.
Timing is everything
Ask yourself if you both have enough time to discuss this right now, Earnshaw says. Check energy levels, environment (ideally, don’t fight in front of their dysfunctional parents) and tone. Adopt a neutral voice and phrases such as “I noticed”, “I feel” or “I need”.
“Try: ‘I feel overwhelmed, I need a clean house’,” Earnshaw says. “This can help us to begin difficult conversations in a manner that is more likely to garner positive results.”
Do say “I”
“Using ‘I’ in an argument is less likely to elicit defensiveness,” Earnshaw says. “When we point fingers at the other person, it is normal for them to respond by defending their character. Instead, we can share how we are perceiving something, feeling about something, and what we need.”
But don’t use this as an excuse to blame your partner. “Saying ‘I think you are really lazy’ isn’t really an ‘I’ statement,” Earnshaw says. “Instead try, ‘I need more help around the house’.”
Say this one thing
It can be difficult to recall the above when your partner is a person who never takes the bins out. But there is just one sentence you need remember. “I’d like to focus on the things we agree on” is a good way to navigate the conversation towards points of agreement, according to a conflict management study from the University of Wisconsin.
Alternatively, insert the word “agree” into the disagreement. But not: “I think we can agree that I’m right”.
Ask two questions
To avoid getting defensive, ask two questions for every one statement you make, Lewandowski says. “Asking questions allows you to ‘fill in the blanks’ and more fully understand the issue,” he suggests. “They also help your partner more clearly explain what’s bothering them.”
Accept the critique
If you truly value your other half, it is important to hear them out. “In many ways, the person closest to you knows you best, so they’re in the optimal position to see your flaws,” Lewandowski says. “Because they love and care for you, they’re also in the best position to give you tough feedback in a caring and respectful way.”
Adopt different tactics for different problems
Some issues are examples of wider, problematic behaviour. Understand your boundaries and do not let your partner overstep them. Serious concerns demand a less cooperative response. “It’s better to be direct by demanding change, taking a non-negotiable stance and showing anger, especially if your partner is able to change,” Earnshaw says.
Take a 20-minute time out
If you become hot-headed or freeze, it’s likely that this is a result of a strong physiological response to the fight, causing your body to pump stress hormones. Time, then, to cool things down.
“We know it takes at least 20 minutes for a body to dump the stress hormones from the bloodstream and return to baseline,” Earnshaw says. Take the time out and don’t use it to send them photographic evidence of your formerly white T-shirts that they washed with the colours.
Apologies, but if you want your relationship to heal, there is no getting away from this one. Be courageous, take responsibility for your role and offer an apology or a restart. This cuts both ways.
“Learn how to think of the issue as a problem you both need to solve,” Earnshaw says. “If you can do that then you’ll be more likely to look for ways to compromise and move forward.”