Arguing gets a bad rep. Yes, it can be exhausting. And sometimes stuff gets said that you later wish, with all your heart, that you could take back. But, like list-making or highly caffeinated coffee, arguing is a tool that can be used for good or bad — to clear through the clutter, or to pile more on.
In the interest of fighting fairly and productively with the ones we love most, we turned to relationship experts, David & Sally, authors of the Coupled With blog. Their tips, gleaned from years of real-life experience — including lots of mistakes — lay the ground rules for how couples can argue their way to a happy outcome.
* * *
I told a close friend the other day that you should worry if you never argue because it’s a giveaway that you’re not in love. You argue with the people you care about. However, there is a right way to argue and a wrong way to argue.
The right way to argue is to remember that the goal of an argument is not to win. It’s to reach a workable compromise about mutual frustrations so that you can understand each other’s perspectives better and love each other more.
There’s a good reason why this is important: even if you do win an argument, you may lose something else. Words can do permanent damage. David and I, respectively, still remember dreadful things that we said to each other when we were 20, and they still cause each of us angst. But if you can find compromise quickly rather than resorting to blame and one-upmanship, you avoid damage and actually practice getting along better.
There are some specific things that you can do to fight to love rather than fight to win. One good practice is to communicate openly about how you fight about your fighting. (Read that again.)
Make sure you have this conversation when you’re not fighting. As with sex, which is probably the next most passionate thing you do with your partner besides fight, communication is key. You’ve got to tell your partner what feels good, what feels bad, and what you want. You’ve got to be willing to listen, accommodate, and give back generously.
These conversations build empathy. If you learn to identify where the other person is coming from when they get upset about the way you’ve scattered shoes around the apartment and how you can’t handle being rushed out of the house, you’ll be less likely to rehash the same arguments in the same way later.
Finally, talking about how you argue can help you avoid the bad habits you learned from Mommy and Daddy. When we fight, we subconsciously revert to the patterns we observed growing up, which — take my word for it — are all completely dysfunctional. As Tolstoy noted, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Your ingrained fighting techniques will clash with your partner’s and seem completely alien to him; combining two different ingrained approaches can create an unhappy family indeed.
The key is perspective. If you both share where you’re coming from and get his outside perspective on your habits, this can give you both the insight you need to build a better, healthier way of organizing the cosmetics in the bathroom or managing your mother-in-law’s visits. You develop a happier family with its own boring way of arguing.
Even tiny, everyday tasks can become imbued with heavy emotion in a long-term relationship and cause arguments to flare up. Couples that argue the wrong way only pile on things to argue about, including the argument itself. This constant, escalating conflict isn’t sustainable.
So, how do you argue civilly when everything seems at stake and you have real concerns to address? Rules can help. Seriously. Establish guidelines for arguing that will let you focus on settling immediate issues, establishing space to talk about bigger things later, and not killing each other.
Here are four important rules we find useful in our better moments:
1. No personal attacks, name calling, or psychological assault. This leads to ugly, offensive exchanges far beyond the problem of who does the dishes.
2. Leave the past in the past. If you talk about what happened yesterday, last year, or ten years ago in response to the moral quandary “Do we watch Girls or True Detective tonight?” you will never get to watch anything because you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of regret.
3. Stop accusing the other person. This just puts her on the defensive and leads to childishness like “No I didn’t” or “But you started it.”
4. Instead of the above distractions, focus on the immediate conflict and consider her side as much as yours. “I know you tried to do _____, but it came across as _______ and I was trying to ______.” That way, you acknowledge the other person while stating how you feel and what you need.
Focusing on both parties’ intentions and needs will let you chalk up the argument to miscommunication and leave room for negotiation. Neither of you has to back down completely because both of you get to air your grief.
Easier said than done, right? Establish your rules during a time of peace. Yes, it will take practice to recall the rules during an argument without seeing the rules themselves as an attack. With time, however, your rules for arguing will become reminders of the true goal — getting along happily together and preserving the relationship.
David & Sally’s Consensus
Talk about the dynamics behind the disagreements themselves, and create rules of engagement for your most heated and vulnerable moments.
As you start practicing the art of good arguing as a team, here are some things to remember:
• Each of you knows which tactics make you go ballistic. Agree to avoid pressing those buttons under any circumstances.
• Admit fault when you’ve broken the rules, apologize, and negotiate. This will help you find solutions together and move on to something else.
• Not winning doesn’t mean losing, but it does sometimes mean only getting part of what you want. You should both back down some and both get some of your demands met.
• That said, someone who is wronged shouldn’t back down about important emotional needs, and one partner should not be the one backing down all the time.
PRINTABLE TIP CARD #25: A couple’s guide to arguing
David & Sally offer nonjudgmental, nontraditional advice about dating, sex, love, and life. They met as college students in 2000, married in 2006 and, in their 14-year relationship, have survived practically every dramatic up and down a couple might face, from crime and medical crises to life abroad in foreign countries. Visit their website Coupled With D&S for their trademark “he says, she says” take on effective online dating profiles, finding closure after a break up, tricky second date politics, and more.