Arguments: What helps and what doesn't

Living in close quarters and added worries during lockdown can result in tension and arguments. Here are some tips I've learned in my years working with couples that may help to improve communication during conflict.

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During my years working as a couples’ therapist I have witnessed many arguments and seen first-hand the ways in which they get derailed, stuck and shut down rather than resolved. Part of my job has been to highlight how they get derailed and help couples establish new ways of communicating that allow both partners to feel heard as they figure out a way forward.

Most of us have picked up ways of arguing - or avoiding arguments - that were modeled by our primary care givers and significant others. Fortunately, with a little awareness and a few changes it is possible to have more productive arguments.

Here are a few ideas about what helps and what doesn’t. It isn’t an exhaustive list so if you have ideas to contribute please share.

Create a good relationship foundation

Accept that disagreements and arguments are normal. At a certain point in the life of a couple differences will emerge. Ignoring or supressing them only delays problems as the feelings remain. A lack of disagreements can suggest that one or both partner tends to acquiesce and subordinate their needs or beliefs. When we learn to work through our issues we learn about ourselves and our partners and this has the potential to build more intimacy. 

Make time to talk together regularly. Whilst the ‘big stuff’ is important everyday conversations matter too. Taking an interest in your partner’s life shows that you care. According to research carried out by psychologists Gottman and Driver the ‘mundane and often fleeting moments’ have a surprisingly strong impact on the health of the relationship and offer a way of getting closer.

Show you value each other. In healthy relationships we feel valued for who we are. Remember to tell your partner what you appreciate about them, say thank you when you are grateful, and invest in time together.

Dealing with conflict

Create ground rules. Some suggestions are no shouting, no name-calling, no violence or threats, avoid arguing if drinking or taking drugs, no storming off in the middle of an argument.

Don’t argue in front of the children or involve them in the argument. This is a great source of stress for children. And they are not your confidante, if you need to talk to someone find another adult.

Use active listening. Give the discussion your full attention. Stay away from distractions such as screens. Try repeating back what you have heard to check you have understood.

Take breaks if needed. Sometimes taking a break can be helpful. If things are escalating or feel stuck having some time apart or going for a walk can offer a breather, a chance to calm down and may lead to a new perspective or attitude. If you need a break ask for one and agree a time when you will come back to it rather than letting the issue drift into the background and allowing resentment to build.   

Use ‘I feel’ statements rather than attacking language. For instance, instead of saying ‘You ruin all my ideas’ you could say ‘I feel hurt when you don’t take my ideas seriously.’ This has several advantages:

1.     You take ownership and responsibility for your feelings and experience.

2.     It is easier for your partner to hear you and is less likely to trigger a defensive response.

3.     Details may be disputed and picked over but your feelings about your personal experience are neither right or wrong. Sharing that you feel hurt, angry, sad, upset or shut out tells your partner the impact their behaviour has on you without using blaming or judgemental language. This makes it easier for a constructive discussion to be had. 

Avoid making assumptions. In relationships, particularly long-term ones, we may believe we know our partners inside out and can explain their actions better than they can. Yet we never fully know another person and people change in new and surprising ways. Rather than jumping in and telling your partner why they acted in a certain way try to engage your curiousity, ask them questions and listen to their answers with an open mind. Instead of assuming try asking ‘am I right in thinking that…’

Focus on one issue at a time. Discussions can snowball and get out of control when one issue leads to others. Before you know it things are too overwhelming to resolve.  This frequently happens when one person raises an issue and it is met by a counter-issue or criticism.

Avoid using ‘you always’ and ‘you never’. This diverts the discussion away from the present issue. Blanket complaints can suggest intractable personality flaws that are impossible to change, they can cause defensiveness and shut down the conversation. Specific feedback on a present issue offers an opportunity to act, do something different and change patterns of behaviour. After all, habits are changed one step at a time.

Turn complaints into requests. Rather than saying ‘you never wash the dishes’ ask ‘please can you wash the dishes?’

Acknowledge feelings. This helps people to feel understood. Don’t rush in to fix things or offer advice right away. Show empathy with simple statements like ‘I’m sorry to hear you are upset’ or ‘that sounds really difficult for you’.

Take responsibility for yourself. Be willing to admit when you are wrong or when you could have done things better. It can be tempting to try to ‘win’ an argument, especially when angry, but things can repair more quickly if we are willing to acknowledge these things. Be prepared to learn from mistakes.

Do not apologise if you can’t see what you’ve done wrong. Sometimes people apologise or admit blame simply to end the argument but this does not resolve things and can damage self-respect.

Accept apologies. Even if it is awkward or not well made try to accept it. Often when apologies are made we still feel angry or upset and respond by attacking, and this gives a message to our partners that it isn’t ok to be vulnerable, to let our guard down, or to be sorry. Instead we can try to encourage the behaviours we want to see in our partner.

Learn to forgive. If you are able to forgive sincerely this relieves you of hanging on to resentments and hurt emotions. This is not the same as condoning their actions, and it isn’t about rushing to forgive before you're ready. It is about recognising mistakes are made and cultivating a relationship that can learn from mistakes.

Acceptance. We are all flawed beings. It can take a lot of energy trying to mould our partners into idealized versions of themselves but we can gain so much when we are willing to be alongside them in their struggles, vulnerability and find acceptance for the people they are. And to know they are alongside us in our struggles too.

Sometimes, even with the best intentions, arguments may flounder, get stuck or seem unmanageable. If so you might consider speaking with a couples’ therapist or professional who can provide a safe space to explore your issues and help you find better ways of communicating.

Melissa Cliffe

I am an experienced Gestalt psychotherapist and work with a range of issues including midlife, highly sensitive people, Third Culture Kids, depression, anxiety, relationships, identity, low self esteem, existential questions and more.

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