As many of you may be well aware, couples will argue and disagree from time to time. One of the amazing things about humans is that we are all unique with our own personal set of beliefs, values, morals and opinions about life. When a couple initially comes in for therapy and states to me that they "don’t want to argue anymore," I tend to rebuttal with the fact that disagreements are something that all relationships have. In fact, they are quite normal and help to strengthen the bond between the couple.
It is a fact of life that nothing lasts forever; there are times when we are happy and content with our loved ones and other times when we are more sad, angry or resentful towards our partner. According to Dr. Suzanne Fremont (Building a Healthy Relationship From the Start, The University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center), there are a plethora of reasons of why couples argue; some of those issues may be realistic while others may be unrealistic. However, what is most important is the actual resolution itself as it involves healthy communication and the exchange of feelings which revolve around honesty and trust. Thankfully, Dr. Suzanne Fremont has done some groundwork and has provided some healthy starter tips for those who wish to learn how to argue—and more importantly, reconcile—in a positive manner.
1) Do more than simply hear one another, try to actively listen to your partner with an open mind. There are some simple tools to help become a better listener; try not to interrupt your partner when they are attempting to get a point across to you, really focus on what your partner is trying to communicate—as opposed to only half listening and instead give more energy to what your response is going to be and lastly try to recap what you’re partner has said before you start with your defense (i. e. ‘what I hear you saying is…’ or ‘what you’re trying to tell me is…’).
2) Agree to disagree. There are some values and opinions which we hold on so very tightly to that there may be little room for compromise or to change your mind altogether. When this occurs, it is best to agree to disagree and move forward in the relationship as opposed to having the same argument time and time again. However, if the difference in opinions is so tremendous and involves a change of pace—for the worse of course—within the relationship then it might be best to seek the assistance of a marriage and family therapist.
3) Restrain yourself. It is not always helpful to say all the angry, and sometimes hurtful, things which runs through our minds during an argument.
4) Discuss one thing at a time. It may be easy and tempting at times to release all your upset feelings at one time or in one argument. However, this will only prolong the disagreement and potentially make the couple lose focus of why the argument originally started.
5) Establish an atmosphere of emotional support. Acceptance is the main key to building atmosphere which is emotionally supportive. Being tolerant of your partner’s differences in opinion is often healthier than demanding that your partner meet you where you are at. Additionally, a couple is going to have a much more productive and healthy disagreement if they are able to establish emotional support with one another.
6) Clarify your message. When arguing it is important to be direct with your partner in a respectful manner. Too often, couples will beat around the bush with one another as opposed to really getting their message across. For example, it would be more helpful to say exactly what you are wishing the other to do (i. e. ‘I wish you would help out with the house chores more’) as opposed to a more ambiguous statement (‘I wish you were a tidier person like I am’.)
7) Understand each other’s family patterns. As I have stated before, I like to view ourselves as being defined by the systems in which we operate (i.e. our family, friends, work and hobbies are all considered to be core systems of our daily functioning). It would be wise for a couple to sit down and have an open discussion on how conflict was initiated, addressed and resolved in their family of origin. If a partner’s family was good at communication and resolving conflict, it might be helpful to draw upon their structure to help incorporate their positive points into the relationship. On the other hand, if the family of origin was not good at practicing open communication and conflict resolution, then by all means try new and helpful ideas to help build upon the communication areas which are lacking.
8) Adopt a win-win position. Remember that when arguing it is unhelpful for a goal to be to win the actual disagreement; at the end of the day it is not about who 'won' and who 'lost.' What is important is the relationship as a whole and staying together to work through an issue in a helpful and meaningful manner.
9) Distinguish between wants vs. needs. There is a tremendous difference between the two. You know yourself better than anyone else; therefore take some time to ask yourself if this is something you need or want from your partner. Always remember that your significant other may not always be able to provide you with your ‘wants’ but in a healthy relationship should be there for the ‘needs’.
10) Timing counts. Resolving an argument may not need to happen immediately. In fact, it might be helpful for each partner to take some time to process the incident as opposed to continue fighting and say or do things which may be difficult or impossible to undo. A time out period if also a good time to collect ones thoughts and come back once they have clarified to themselves what they are actually trying to communicate.
Until next time--take care of yourself, take care of your mind.
Amanda Burk, MA, LPC-Intern, LMFT-A
Supervised By: Tammy Fischer, MA, LPC-S, LMFT-S
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” – Buddha