How to have better arguments
Conflict within a relationship can be tiring, frustrating, and monotonous. When a couple becomes stuck in the same repetitive arguments, even small conflicts such as arguing over who empties the dishwasher most often can make you feel trapped in a circle of conflict. But the good news is that if just one person within the relationship is motivated to improve things, the relationship can and will change.
When it comes to arguing, we all have our own style of dealing with conflict. Perhaps you have to win an argument at all costs, or maybe you long to keep the peace whatever that entails? You might be the queen of the last word, or maybe you’re the surrendering kind. In fact, the key factor when it comes to the success of a relationship is not whether you have a tendency to sulk or shout as an individual during conflict, but how you interact as a couple.
According to psychologist John Gottman, conflict is natural and inevitable. Throughout forty years of research he has identified five conflict types for couples and found that some types have better outcomes than others. So, when you think of recent arguments, does the way you and your partner handle conflict help or harm your relationship? See if you can recognise your own conflict type below.
If you are an avoidant couple you are not very emotionally expressive and tend to avoid arguing. You prefer to focus on your compatibility rather than your differences.
You believe that talking about difficulties makes matters worse and that problems will sort themselves out eventually if you leave them alone.
You tend to be quite independent people with separate interests and refrain from trying to influence each other. There is warmth and respect between you.
If you are a volatile couple everyone around you knows it. Your interactions are intensely emotional and expressive.
You love to debate and you believe honesty and connection are important in your relationship. You have no secrets.
You fight passionately and you love making-up. Your sex-life is a high priority. Jealousy can cause friction between you but there is also a lot of humour and fun in your relationship.
If you are a validating couple you are likely to be generally positive and calm. You are very empathetic and take time to understand and appreciate each other’s differing points of view.
You choose your battles. You might become competitive and heated on some topics but normally one of you will back down.
You tend to be good-natured in your interactions and will use humour. Being good friends is more important to you than total honesty.
Hostile couples are made up of one avoider and one validator.
Often the validator wants to talk issues out and the more avoidant one doesn’t want to. If you are the validator you see your partner as uncaring and if you are the avoider you think your partner is ‘needy’ and negative.
You aren’t very good at empathising with each other. There is lots of criticism, blaming, contempt and whining. You just wish your partner would accept that you are right.
Gottman in his latest book, Principia Amoris, the new science of love (Routledge 2015) describes hostile-detached couples ‘like two armies engaged in a mutually frustrating and lonely standoff.’
If this is you – then one of you is naturally a validator and the other is volatile. It is a toxic combination. The validator will only endure the conflict up until a certain point and then they shut down but the volatile one is like a dog with a bone unwilling to let the issue drop.
This relationship drains you of energy with its negativity. You are often blowing up at each other or giving each other the silent treatment. This is not a fun relationship to be in or to be around.
All conflict is not equal. If you recognise yourselves in any of the first three types – that is good news. According to Gottman’s research yours is more likely to be a happy and stable relationship.
However, the other two types of relationships are more likely to be unhappy and hostile-detached couples are the most likely to split up.
If you recognise that you are stuck in a toxic relationship – it would be worth seeking help from a therapist or coach to help improve the situation. Visit relate.org.uk or welldoing.org for expert help. But whatever your style – there are things you can do to improve your approach to conflict as an individual and as a couple.
Ten top tips for healthy conflict
- Raise issues early. Don’t let problems fester and grow. Your partner can’t read your mind, so if something is upsetting you and you can’t let it go – gently explain what it is and how it makes you feel.
- Pick your moment. Arguments are more likely to escalate if one or both of you is feeling tired, hungry, hormonal, stressed or flooded with emotions. If you want to have a constructive conversation you might need to sleep, eat or calm down first.
- Don’t generalise. Avoid saying ‘you never’ and ‘you always’.
- Remain respectful. Disagreeing is OK but showing contempt is likely to be toxic to your relationship.
- Don’t opt out. Non-responsiveness is likely to come across as not caring. Take time to listen and understand each other.
- Say what you mean. Often when we are upset we avoid saying the last 10% - the most important bit. If you feel sad or angry let your partner know what is really going on for you.
- Don’t get defensive. Own your part of the problem rather than trying to lay all the blame back on your partner. You might win the battle but you are very likely to lose the war.
- Keep short accounts. Apologising and forgiving regularly will help to avoid resentments and hurt building up.
- Use ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ or ‘you’. Researchers discovered that couples who use ‘we’ in their conversations are more likely to be happy in their relationships. When discussing disagreements – try to find ‘us’ solutions.
- Maintain a 5:1 ratio. Gottman found that happy couples have at least five positive interactions for every negative one. So, make sure that you are constantly investing in your relationship. It will mean you’ll be able to weather the storms better when they come.
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