Before diving into these ill-advised behaviors and why relationship therapists recommend against them, it’s helpful to understand that they often stem from an emotional response to to the conflict itself. “In heated conflict, you enter a fight, flight, or freeze state,” says relationship and sex therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT.
“When we feel like we're being attacked, our instinct is to get defensive, to fight back, and to escalate the argument.” —Emily Sterns, LMSW
You can experience that response physiologically, too, at which point, you’re interpreting the conversation in terms of an attack. “When we feel like we're being attacked, our instinct is to get defensive, to fight back, and to escalate the argument,” says therapist Emily Sterns, LMSW. Interruptions and accusations on either side of the argument fuel this process, and as tension ratchets up, you become more likely to say something hurtful, or to do something damaging to the longevity of your relationship.
To avoid that, keep in mind the below worst things to do in an argument, so that you’re keen to navigate your next conflict with grace while also safeguarding the loving partnership you’ve worked so hard to build.
9 of the worst things to do in an argument with your partner, according to therapists:
1. Talk at or around your partner.
If you enter the conversation with a plan that is not malleable and use communication solely as a means to convince your partner of your perspective, you’re essentially talking around them, says therapist Elizabeth Marks, LMSW: “This allows no room for collaboration, compromise, or growth, and can easily invalidate your partner’s feelings or negate their needs.” And in the worst of cases, it can have the exact opposite effect from what you’d hope, making your partner increasingly uncompromising.
Similarly, talking at a partner is what happens when you recite an endless monologue, into which your partner cannot interject or offer a contrary opinion, which will just frustrate them further.
2. Interrupt, or speak without responding.
If you’ve ever been interrupted, you know just how upsetting it can feel: Not only does it prevent you from relaying your thought in its entirety, but it also gives the impression that the interruptor is dismissing the importance of whatever that thought may be.
It’s essential to take turns communicating in any conversation, says Wright—and to take it a step further, try pausing for a moment between each turn. “Before you move on, make sure you understand what the other person has said. That way, you can actually respond to what they said and not what you think you heard,” says Wright. To do that effectively, start by validating their statements by restating, in your words, how they feel or what they need, says therapist Gabrielle Morse, LMHC.
And even if you’re not necessarily interrupting, speaking without actually responding to what has been said will have a similar “your point doesn’t matter” effect. Sometimes, a helpful response looks just like acknowledging what was said, and other times, it may require you to ask clarifying questions in order to better understand what has upset your partner, and how they’d like you to act differently moving forward, says therapist Eliza Davis, LMSW.
3. Use accusatory ‘you’ statements.
To make sure you don’t direct the conversation into the danger zone of an attack, steer clear of “you did this” or “you did that” statements. Even when well-intentioned—in terms of trying to help the other person understand when and how they upset you—these statements often come across accusatory or judgmental. “Instead, using ‘I’ statements can ensure that your feelings are translating authentically, and help take the spotlight off the other person’s wrongdoings,” says Sterns.
4. Disengage your body or eyes.
We can sense so much of another person’s mood and attitude based on body language alone—which is why it’s all the more important to keep your body and eyes physically engaged when you’re in the midst of a conflict.
This is related to the above point of actively responding: When you turn away, tense up, redirect your eyes, cross your arms, or otherwise close off your body, you’re sending the signal that you don’t care about the matter at hand. By contrast, facing the person who is speaking, nodding your head, and retaining eye contact demonstrates that you’re present and ready to listen, says Davis.
5. Add other people into the argument.
Ganging up on your partner is a surefire way to increase their defensiveness. “There is nothing worse than saying that someone else agrees with your point during an argument,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW. “This can make your partner feel extremely judged and alone—not to mention, it creates the potential for an unnecessary secondary conflict.” Teplin also advises talking through any conflict in a private space, in order to avoid the potential for unsolicited opinions, too.
6. Apologize when you don’t mean it.
Yes, it’s easy to just tell someone what they want to hear—especially if you’re eager to put a conversation to rest—but saying ‘sorry’ when you don’t mean it or when you don’t understand why you're apologizing just creates space for the issue to fester and re-arise down the line. “It’s important to actively try to recognize how your behaviors have or could have hurt someone,” says Davis, and then apologize only once you do.
7. Bring up past gripes.
Stick to the issue at hand in order to keep a conversation from snowballing into a potentially devastating fight. While it can be tempting to hurl accusations from long-past disagreements, going off the rails won’t lead you to a resolution, says Marks.
And this applies to situations both related and unrelated to the person with whom you’re speaking, says Rachel Holzberg, LMSW. Bringing up a previous experience involving someone else can be just as damaging for the conversation as resurfacing old issues that happened between the two of you, in terms of shifting blame in places it shouldn’t go.
8. Walk away without a resolution.
So long as you feel physically and emotionally safe, aim to stay engaged, says Marks. In general, negative feelings only worsen if left unresolved, and marching off in the heat of the moment can be perceived as a decision to give up on your partner or their emotions.
The one caveat here is if you feel that you absolutely need to cool off alone before resuming the conversation in earnest, says Morse: “Some people prefer to self-soothe if they get too heated, and it’s okay to explain this to your partner before exiting the room.” The important part is that you create a plan to continue the conversation once you’ve simmered down so the other person doesn't feel like they were left hanging.
9. Offer an ultimatum.
This is perhaps the biggest no-no. No matter what, do not threaten to end a relationship or make an impulsive decision while in the midst of an argument about a specific issue, says Holzberg.
“I want a divorce” or “I want to break up” statements redirect the entire conversation; stoke defensiveness, anxiety, and uncertainty; and fall under that category of things that are really tough to un-say. If your emotions are bubbling up to that point, consider stepping away from the situation to gather some fresh perspective—but as noted above, give your partner a clear indicator of when you’ll plan to return and work toward a mutually beneficial resolution.
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