5 Love-Saving Tips When Arguing With Your Partner
Conflict between couples is like a wild rose. Handled one way, it can cause pain and injury — handled another, something beautiful and tender may unfold.
When an important issue raises your different views on any matter — money, parenting, sex, work, life — it is natural to feel angry, upset, maybe even chilled to the bone. These intense feelings may not necessarily damage your love – it depends on what you do with them.
Partners who love each other can still feel negative and critical thoughts toward each other sometimes. Those who are able to work around the negativity can find their way back to happiness together. Others get stuck in a downward spiral, where nothing gets solved and animosity grows.
Is the Problem Your Partner, Or Your Pattern?
Gridlocked couples fight differently than happier couples do. Struggling couples often misunderstand the reason for their growing (and unwanted) hostility: They think the issue is the kind of person their partner is. More likely, the problem stems from the type of conflict they are having. They’ve fallen into a dead-end pattern of arguing, and don’t yet see how to work their way out.
There is no secret to finding your way back to feeling good together again. Shifting perspective from the person you are fighting to the way you are fighting is like letting go of a handful of thorns. Even partnerships that sting with distress and dissatisfaction can heal and grow closer again. The conflict style itself may be keeping you and your partner from finding solutions together. Discovering how to extract yourselves takes calm, careful work, but the rewards are great.
5 Conflict Types and Their Impact on Happiness
In studying thousands of interactions in his “love lab,” psychologist John Gottman looked for behavior patterns to understand how marriages succeed or fail. While every couple is different, the research team observed distinct groups they called “conflict types” (see Gottman’s 2015 book, Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love).
Of the five types of conflict, two clearly spell serious trouble for couples. These two conflict categories drain goodwill and leave people feeling more negative than positive about each other:
Hostile Couples argue with heat and harm to their relationship. They criticize (“You never…” and “You always…”). They whine, insult and withdraw emotionally. Neither offers support or understanding; they get gridlocked without solving anything, and more negative than positive feeling flows between them.
Hostile-Detached Couples endure a painful emotional standoff. Arguments rapidly escalate, marked by sniping, defensiveness, contempt, criticism and stony withdrawal. Resolution is not reached, and divorce is likely.
Gottman identified three additional types of conflict — all more productive toward problem solving. Couples with these patterns are able to maintain goodwill and address their differences:
Conflict Avoiders keep confrontation to a minimum. They rely on each other for certain aspects of well being, but have distinctly independent interests. They focus on shared values, sort out issues that are solvable, and avoid negative interactions.
Volatile Couples argue with passion, intensity, and lively debate. They express anger and laughter, but do not allow insults or injury – they reach solutions while keeping emotional connection and goodwill intact.
Validating Couples sense intense feelings, but keep things calm and neutral when they argue. They resolve issues through mutual support, understanding, and compromise. One may try to get the upper hand sometimes, but they restore empathy and calm.
We don’t need to memorize these categories to see a useful bigger picture: a couple’s general conflict style either builds up or breaks down their relationship. Couples who allow insults, criticism, and contempt, and who turn away in isolation get stuck in a very unhappy place. When they avoid making hurtful remarks, work to uncover common ground, and stay generally positive toward each other, couples experience long-term happiness and spend more time enjoying life together.
Warning Signs of Approaching Gridlock
Knowing that certain types of arguments hurt any couple’s chances for happiness together is powerful. Pausing to see how you fight is a first important step toward change. Warning signs that your discussion is moving toward gridlock include:
- Feeling yourself getting frustrated each time you argue
- Finding yourself criticizing your partner, silently or out loud
- Thinking your partner has no good ideas
- Seeing the more you push, the more you get stuck on opposite sides
- Feeling hurt, rejected, and thwarted by arguing
- Noticing your issues are driving you apart, whether you argue or avoid arguing
How Gridlocked Couples Can Get Unstuck
No matter how stuck you may feel, know that you and your partner can find your way out of the stalemate. You have the power to step back and look at the situation a new way.
The challenge is to find how to work together, to create and take opportunities to know each other’s thoughts, feelings, fears and dreams.
To work together, you need a two thousand foot view of what you want out of your lives. This helps you see and talk about the dreams you share — the dream of a happy family and good relationship.
Lay the Groundwork For a New Start
When you want to back out of gridlock so you can start working together, these are helpful first steps:
1) Take a break. When we’re frustrated, we stop thinking. We stop being empathic. Underneath your arguments are the personal values and beliefs that make each of you who you are. Take time to let the storm pass. Your more fragile thoughts and feelings need a safe place to emerge, so you can consider them and think about what to do next.
2) Make repairs. Harsh words inflict sadness and pain. These injuries cannot be ignored or denied. Take steps to repair hurts that your words, actions or refusals may have caused. Come up with a no-hurt rule when you argue, and keep yourself to it. Repairing hurts will likely lead to more positive feelings about yourselves and the way you treat each other. This step also helps you shift from self-defense toward trust.
3) Soften the approach. Take up issues gently, so your partner has a chance to think things through instead of springing into combat. Slow down enough to edit out barbs, critiques and insults before they are spoken. It may take some time for you and your partner to stop bracing for attack from each other. You can help build trust by showing with your tone and words that you do not see your partner as the enemy.
4) Look for the positive: See it and say it. One of the most important findings in over 14 years of study was the role of positive exchange during conflict. Gottman could predict which couples would remain happy and which would divorce, largely by checking the ratio of positive to negative interactions when they fought. Stable, happy couples had a ratio of at least 5 positive for every 1 negative exchange during conflict (a 5:1 positive to negative ratio). This balance helps de-escalate conflict, soothes distress, and keeps couples emotionally connected.
5) Approach conflict as the problem. Look for ways to work as partners, whether to resolve differences, agree to be different, or support your goals together.
Laying down new groundwork for conflict is important before you move into solving the problems that started the arguments in the first place. It takes time to shift out of patterns that hurt your relationship into patterns that help you solve problems together and allow your relationship to bloom.
When to Get Help from Couples Therapy
Making this shift on your own can be extremely difficult, especially at first. If mostly negative feelings persist, you may want to work with a couple’s therapist to support your efforts toward less painful, healthier arguments. A qualified licensed professional (a counselor or marriage and family therapist) will help you by drawing on the findings from Gottman and others, and help you set ground rules that work for you.
You can benefit from many additional approaches that are proven by research and practice. You may decide to work as a couple, or individually. Either way, therapy helps each person take up sensitive issues within an environment of emotional safety. With openness to trying new ways to address concerns, partners can see how changing their patterns of interaction makes a difference in the outcome.
Signs of Arguing Well
Signs that your conflict is helpful and going well:
- You take a gentle approach to raising issues
- You withhold negative comments — those that attack, criticize, or reflect contempt
- You can be curious about your situation and your partner
- You allow and accept your partner’s influence, for example:
- You look for the good points in the other person and their views
- You try to understand where each person is coming from, before trying to solve anything
- You work to hear and understand each other’s fears, wants and desires
- You look for the common good – things you both want for your relationship
- You explore ways to turn toward each other instead of away in isolation
Conflict is an opportunity to be present to appreciate each other’s emotions, thoughts, and dreams. This way, it can open into deeper that connection, help you solve what is solvable, and find peace when you agree to disagree.
How Conflict Can Nurture Connection
Gottman himself empathizes with partners stuck in gridlock. Outside of therapy, they may look immature or uncompromising. But Gottman believes they are protecting something vitally important their clenched fists, as he explains in “What We Really Fight Over In Marriage”:
“For most gridlocked marital problems, what we really tell people is: ‘No wonder you couldn’t yield on this problem.’ We think that in each of these fists, if you made the marriage safe enough and open up the fists, there would be something beautiful inside…. Ostensibly they may be talking, say, about money or finances, but underneath, they are talking about basic philosophical concepts, what we also call life dreams…. So yeah, they’re talking about money and finances, but they’re also talking about freedom, and power, and security, and what love means, and what a family means, and what it means to be ‘who I am.’”
Addressing conflict is not easy. But it is part of sharing your lives together. When couples find ways to trust each other with who they are, they can discover — and have a chance to pursue — their life dreams.
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