How to argue healthily with your partner

Nora Popova 29 April 2022

The problem isn’t that we argue. The problem is how we argue. Here's how to do it constructively

We’ve all been there. A relaxed, idyllic evening with our partner. Perhaps a candle or two, the living room sofa, a forehead kiss.

And then, as if someone had sat on the TV remote and changed the channel from a love story to a wrestling match, the mood shifts. No more warmth, tenderness, dulcet tones. Suddenly there’s shouting, a ping-pong of accusations, dead stares, hostility streaming from eyes like red laser pointers. 

It all started with an innocuous remark about him being on his phone again, but somehow turned into a court ruling on multiple cases: our apparently defining character trait of selfishness, what really happened last Sunday, and of course, somebody’s mother.

We’d like to explain ourselves, but we don’t have time. We’re being cut off and attacked anew. We’re like a soldier fighting flying arrows. Each accusation strikes deeper and deeper into our sense of justice.

The more we talk, the less our partner seems to understand. The farther away we get from an agreement. Something is wrong. But what?!

We often judge our relationships for the fights we have with our partners, the bitter aftertaste they leave in our mouths. But we can spare ourselves at least that part of the suffering.

Contrary to popular belief, not all conflict is bad. Conflict can even be healthy for a relationship. It offers a chance to grow, to understand each other, to get better at the game of “us.” The problem isn’t that we argue. The problem is how we argue.

Here are the do’s and don’ts of healthy conflicts:

Do remember that as much as it might feel this way, we’re not, actually, in a court of law with our partner. The point of an argument isn’t to prove the other guilty or to win. It is to restore kindness and connection. This is impossible to achieve if we’re attacking, accusing or too attached to proving our point. Think of it this way—if somebody wins, both parties lose.

Don’t kitchen sink. I cannot stress this enough. “Kitchen sinking” is a pop psychology term for the favourite activity of the assaulted. Our partner makes one mistake, and we suddenly feel the urge to generously bring up all of their mistakes (even if they happened two years ago, even if we didn’t say anything at the time, even if they have already profusely apologised and we’ve allegedly accepted the apology).

An argument that started about one thing that’s wrong becomes about everything that’s wrong. But we all hate dirty dishes and if we do this, there’s no getting out of the mess.

Don’t talk about what happened as though you’re simply stating the facts. This might intimidate your partner, making them feel accused and in turn, act defensive. Example: “I was on the phone with my sister and then suddenly you started acting like crazy out of the blue.” Talk about the way you felt instead. Example: “I was on the phone with my sister and then I suddenly felt scared when I saw you looking at me like I was in trouble.”

"Don’t talk about what happened as though you’re simply stating the facts"

Do try to be an advocate of the other’s feelings. Rather than going in circles about what you think and how you felt, try to stand in the shoes of your partner. Talk about how you suppose they must have felt to behave in this seemingly irrational, ludicrous, and immature way.

Going back to the previous example: “You must have felt really hurt and like I was not valuing my time with you by spending an hour on the phone with my sister.” Maybe not that absurd after all? Ask them to do the same in turn.

Don’t try to get back. A common exchange: One partner says, “Stop shouting.” The other blurts back: “Oh, so it was OK for you to shout, but it’s not OK for me to do it now?!”

Yes, you’re right: it would have been better if your partner didn’t shout in the first place but shouting back is only going to make things worse. It’s not about who started it; it’s about where you are now and the next best move.

Do try to touch. When semantics fail you, body language won’t.

Do imagine having your children (imaginary or real) in the room. How would you handle the argument then? Would there be flying vases and eye rolls? Or apologies and flowers? 

Do have a safe phrase. It could be the name of your dog, your anniversary date, or simply “pause.” But whatever it is, when uttered, try to really halt all arguing and be quiet for a while. Let the silence say all that you cannot.

Do not go over what happened more than once. This keeps you stuck in the emotions that triggered the conflict in the first place.

Do try to think about the kindest and most romantic thing your partner has done for you. Sink into the memory and let the warmth of it melt your anger.

Don’t communicate to connect but connect to communicate.

And if all of this seems like too much to remember, go away with this: behind every angry person is somebody who’s hurt. It takes a lot of maturity to create space between stimuli and response. But most times, when we feel like shouting at our partner, what we really ought to do is give them compassion instead.

Nora Popova is a journalist and a writer with background in Psychology. She writes to inspire others to become better versions of themselves. You can find her on Instagram

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