To reiterate, the presence of disagreements in a relationship really isn't an issue; even the strongest relationships will be rocked by arguments—maybe even lots of ‘em. In fact, according to research conducted by The Gottman Institute, the biggest predictor of divorce is not how often a couple argues but how they argue.
“It’s human nature to disagree, get on each other’s nerves, and have misunderstandings with an intimate partner,” says couples therapist Tracy Ross, LCSW. But the way that you either run from or confront and resolve those misunderstandings can have a ripple effect on your feelings for each other and the relationship.
Why arguing can support the health of a relationship
Arguing allows both parties to voice the feelings that bubble up as a result of natural misunderstandings, “which is crucial to the health of a relationship,” says clinical psychologist Abby Medcalf, PhD. “When we avoid saying what we feel, we end up resentful and angry.”
Keeping everything in or denying your feelings also sends the signal to a partner that you don’t trust them or your relationship enough to be open and vulnerable, “which puts the relationship on shaky ground,” says Ross. Arguing, on the flip side, is an indication that both people care enough and are interested enough in the longevity of the relationship to engage. “You’re turning toward the relationship rather than away from it,” says Ross. And that allows both people the chance to address each other’s concerns and meet somewhere in the middle, growing closer as a result.
“Discord or disagreement [in a relationship] is often the vehicle for growth.” —Tracy Ross, LCSW, couples therapist
In that way, “discord or disagreement is often the vehicle for growth,” says Ross. “While you can’t change another person, you can grow together with someone by shifting to accommodate their needs—and doing so strengthens the individuals as well as the relationship.” Once you know that you can make it through a tough argument with a partner and come out on the other side together, you’ll also be more confident that you can weather future storms, she adds.
But there's an important caveat to that: If the argument unfolded in a way that left one or both people scarred or that was unfair to either party, the post-fight benefit of having resolved a disagreement is all but negated. That kind of argument is more likely to feel like a traumatizing experience than it is a useful prompt for growth.
This underscores why it’s so important to learn how to fight fairly in a relationship: Without handling arguments with care, they can quickly lead to relationship breakdown and dissolution. To avoid that fate, scroll down for advice from experts on how to fight fairly in a relationship and use any argument as fuel for greater mutual understanding.
7 pointers from relationship experts for how to fight fairly in a relationship
Before diving into fair-fighting specifics, it can actually help to re-conceptualize any relationship fight as not a fight at all. “I dislike using the word ‘fight’ because as soon as you hear that term, you think of two boxers in a ring, and you know that someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose,” says Dr. Medcalf. “You don’t want to lose, so you immediately become more adversarial than you need to be because you want to win and you want them to lose.”
That just sets you up for failure because it’s difficult to reason with someone if you’re in a win/lose mindset. Since even an “argument” can imply a win-or-lose result, it may be more productive to reframe any fight as a discussion from the outset. And in any discussion, heated or otherwise, fairness also requires no booze, drugs, or violence of any sort, says Dr. Medcalf. Taking these preconditions as a baseline, read on for seven key behavioral pointers for fair fighting (er, discussing).
1. Avoid “kitchen-sinking”
The argument you’re having is about a particular offense; it is not about every issue to ever arise in your partnership. And even if you can draw connections between the current topic at hand and previous offenses, dredging up all sorts of old stuff is not a fair or helpful tactic, says Ross. This will just put your partner instantly on the defensive, looking for ways to demonstrate that they did or didn’t actually do “x” behavior two months or 10 years ago, which isn’t relevant for the resolution of a current issue, anyway.
For the same reason, it’s essential to avoid saying that a partner “always” or “never” does the behavior in question, says Dr. Medcalf: This will just lead them to search for examples that prove you wrong, rather than to explore the nature of their behavior and how it’s making you feel.
2. Steer clear of criticism and contempt
Critical and contemptuous language are both strong predictors of divorce (and the two tend to go hand-in-hand). The first looks like “telling your partner all the things they do wrong and calling out their character flaws,” says Ross. In this way, it’s a full attack on their character, as opposed to critique or feedback, which addresses a particular behavior or situation. And the second is basically pure meanness coming from an “I’m better than you” mindset: Things like name-calling, insults, and labeling (e.g., “You’re rude,” or “You’re depressed”) fall into this category, says Dr. Medcalf.
Going for any of these low blows is certainly not a productive fighting tactic. Not only does this totally knock down your partner—which is antithetical to being in a relationship with them in the first place—but also, it puts them in the unfair position of having to defend their entire existence or character, which, again, takes you further from resolution.
3. Speak from personal experience and own your actions
In reality, you only can speak to how you acted and how you feel in any scenario, and as soon as you start speaking on behalf of your partner’s actions or feelings, you’ll stray into unfair territory. “One of the keys to fighting fairly is to stay in your own lane,” says Ross. “Discuss why you feel angry or upset or any other type of distress without telling your partner who they are, what they are, or why they did or said what they did.”
In fact, “you” statements, in general (e.g., “You did this,” or “You did that”), are best to avoid saying during an argument because they tend to come off accusatory, even if you’re just trying to state the facts of the case. And they’re particularly unhelpful when they’re used in a “score-keeping capacity,” says Dr. Medcalf—for example, after your actions have been the focus of the argument, flipping the script by saying, “Well, what about you and what you did?”
Instead, “use ‘I’ statements to talk about your feelings and to own your part in any breakdown or rift,” says Ross. And while you’re doing so, be sure to avoid falling into the trap of attributing your own behaviors or actions to your partner’s, as in, “If you hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have done that,” adds Ross. “Your behavior is not their fault, as we are all responsible for our own behaviors.”
4. Be curious and open-minded about what your partner has to say
It might seem obvious, but if you go into an argument with your mind already made up, you’re leaving no room for resolution with a partner. “The goal of a fight should be to feel heard and understood, not to be ‘right,’” says Ross. In fact, Dr. Medcalf suggests entering an argument with the intention of listening like you’re wrong, so that you’re actually fully open-minded to developing a resolution to the problem together with your partner. “This solution should not be one you’ve already conceived of because it needs to come from both of you,” she says.
“The solution to a relationship disagreement should not be one you’ve already conceived of [when you enter the discussion] because it needs to come from both of you.” —Abby Medcalf, PhD, clinical psychologist
To effectively move toward that mutual goal, it’s important to listen actively by asking open-ended questions that probe what your partner may be feeling, says Dr. Medcalf. These might look like: “What’s the most upsetting or sad or bothersome part of X?” or “How have you been feeling about X?” or “What do you mean when you say X?” With this intel, you can engage in what is essentially a productive brainstorming session with your partner, rather than getting lost in an endless back-and-forth of refuting and defending.
5. Validate the feeling, even if you disagree with where it came from
It’s very easy to disagree with how someone else feels in response to a particular situation and get stuck on opposite sides of a chasm.
“What usually happens is, one partner shares something that upsets them, but it’s not something that would have upset the other partner, so it’s hard for the second person to find compassion, patience, or empathy for what the first person is experiencing,” says Dr. Medcalf. “For example, your partner might feel humiliated that they messed up a presentation at work, but you don’t have a job where you make presentations and you find speaking in front of people easy, so you might feel like you can’t empathize. But that’s because you’re focusing on the situation and not the feeling.”
Instead of just trying to put yourself in their situational shoes (which will lead you to the same dead end of, “But I wouldn’t have felt that way”), focus on the feeling itself—in this case, humiliation—and think of a time when you did have that feeling, says Dr. Medcalf. “Ask yourself, ‘When have I felt something like what they’re describing?’ Recall the painful feeling, not a similar event, and then you can empathize and support your partner through a tough experience.”
“Even if you don’t agree or see the situation the same way, you can hear your partner’s response to it and validate the way that they’re feeling.” —Ross
That same idea extends to situations where your partner may be feeling angry or upset in response to something you did, but if the roles were reversed, you wouldn’t be feeling the same way. Again, the situation doesn’t matter so much as the feeling: “Even if you don’t agree or see the situation the same way, you can hear your partner’s response to it and validate the way that they’re feeling as a means to strengthen your relationship,” says Ross. By contrast, just digging in and justifying your actions—for example, by saying, “I wouldn’t have been upset by this, so you shouldn’t be either”—will only take you down a rabbit hole.
6. Keep any argument between the two of you
“When you speak to friends and family members about a relationship problem, you’ll get just as many opinions on what’s wrong and how to resolve it as the number of people you involve,” says Dr. Medcalf.
Beyond allowing the problem to snowball into something much bigger than it is, this can also effectively turn your loved ones against your partner, as they spring to your defense. “Then, you might forgive your partner for something at a later point, but chances are, your family won’t,” says Dr. Medcalf. In this case, your partner is unfairly left to defend themselves against everyone you previously involved, even after the fight between the two of you has ended.
7. Do not stonewall
Though you can certainly take breaks in the middle of a discussion—and this is recommended if things get heated and you need to cool off—it is unfair to your partner to put the kibosh on a discussion that is not resolved. “The threat of stonewalling is perhaps the best example of unfair fighting,” says Ross. “If one person just withdraws, the knowledge that this could happen again in the future can prevent the first person from ever bringing up gripes, thereby building resentment and eroding the relationship over time.”
So long as you feel physically and emotionally safe, aim to stay engaged in the conversation instead. And if you’re sensing internal resistance or feeling the need to escape when certain topics are brought up, pay attention to that, adds Ross. “Often the root of this is an attempt to avoid shame or embarrassment in assessing what you may have done or said,” she says. “It doesn’t feel good to confront how you may have hurt someone, but repair is only possible if you stop avoiding the issue.” And modeling this kind of vulnerability will invite your partner to do the same, she adds.
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