7 Ways Not to Win an Argument With Your Partner
What’s the biggest problem in most relationships? (Hint: It's not sex.)
Posted Aug 16, 2020
“She’s always telling me what I’ve done wrong,” Avery* said in a Zoom couples' counseling session.
“I’m not telling him what he’s done wrong. He hears everything I say negatively. I can’t get anything right. I just want to make things better,” Laura*, his partner of 10 years, replied.
“How can you make things better when you’re always criticizing me?” he replied.
“How can you complain that I criticize you when you’re always criticizing me?” she said.
In a different session, another couple was talking about their sex life—or lack of one.
“He doesn’t find me attractive anymore,” said Melinda*.
“I never said that,” said her husband, Paul*.
“You don’t have to say it. I know I’ve gained weight. I don’t look like I did when we were younger. But you try having two kids two years apart. My body hasn’t ever recovered from those pregnancies.”
“It’s not about your weight. You don’t seem to care at all anymore. You used to take such good care of yourself. Now it’s like I’m not important enough for you to fix yourself up for me. It’s like you’re telling me that I don’t matter.”
“See,” Melinda said. “I told you. He doesn’t find me attractive anymore.”
“That’s not what I said,” Paul replied heatedly. “I think you’re pushing me away. You don’t want me to touch you. You make that very clear.”
Attack, counter-attack, and counter-counter-attack.
Even if you love your partner—and like them as well—it’s normal to disagree with them and even to argue sometimes. But now, during the coronavirus panic, after months of extended and often uninterrupted time with each other, it’s normal to be irritable with one another.
However, some couples who were having troubles before COVID-19 are having a lot more difficulty now, after months of being sequestered together, sometimes alone and sometimes with children, parents, siblings, and other family members. And even couples who have not had major problems in the past are suffering now.
What can you do if you and your intimate partner are struggling right now?
Recently, a new client asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks and made me realize that I had been working with couples in a very specific way during the pandemic—a way that I hadn’t put into words even to myself. She asked what I had learned from working virtually, as I have been doing now for the past five months.
My answer was that on Zoom it became very clear that when couples argue, they often diminish one another’s self-esteem. They may do so on purpose or it might be an accidental side effect of a disagreement. It is often an attempt by one member of a couple to force the other person to recognize or validate their position. But diminishing another person’s self-esteem seldom leads them to agree with you.
Small, daily squabbles in which you and your partner attack one another doesn’t just damage both of your self-esteem and self-confidence. These little microaggressions can also damage any romantic feelings between the two of you, which means you can also lose your mutual sexual attraction.
Interestingly, while the disagreements can make you dislike each other, the real problem is that they make you dislike yourself. And disliking yourself can make it a lot harder for you to engage in a romantic or a sexual interaction with your partner.
Although we all know the maxim that you have to love yourself to be loved by someone else, all of the research done in the fields of attachment and affect management by scientists like Alan Schore and Miriam and David Steele has shown us that loving yourself, loving someone else, and being loved in return by that other person are interdependent feelings. In other words, your self-confidence can increase the chances that someone else will find you lovable, but having someone else find you lovable, attractive, and worth being with will also boost your self-confidence.
Richard Eichler, Executive Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Columbia University, writes that we actually feel like a different person when our romantic overtures are “lovingly reciprocated.” The same is true of other loving actions. When someone shows you that they care about you, and you show them that you also care about them, you both activate different aspects of yourself, what intersubjective psychoanalysts call “self-organizations” or “self-representations,” from the ones you activate when you are criticizing one another.
Arguments and criticism are often ways of trying to make the other person acknowledge our point of view. But when you put someone else down, you are lowering your chances of getting the positive feedback you crave. In fact, you’re doing the exact opposite—by criticizing your partner, you increase the chance of making them feel bad about themselves, and thus that they will criticize you back, in hopes of making you validate their point of view. Of course, that doesn’t work either, so the two of you become locked into a negative feedback loop with no way out.
In an article in Bustle about how to break this negative feedback loop, Teresa Newsome, a former Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator, writes, “When people have more self-confidence and self-esteem, they blossom. They like life more, they command more respect for themselves, they make better choices, and they demand better for themselves. When you and your partner are both going through this together, you'll unlock the true potential of your relationship and the endless possibilities of your lives together.”
So how can you build self-esteem into your relationship?
1. Compliment as often as you criticize. Newsome says that you should “never underestimate the boost a simple compliment can give someone” and that you “randomly tell your partner how amazing, smart, sexy, funny, talented, good at math, and nice to animals they are.” Of course, the compliments need to be true—if you make up things, or say things you don’t really believe, it’s going to sound false.
Also, don’t expect your partner to suddenly start complimenting you in return. Cognitive behavioral therapists tell us that our family is likely to view any sudden change in behavior with suspicion, and they might even start acting worse for a little while to test out whether or not this change is genuine. But if you consistently offer compliments that you really mean, without demanding anything in exchange, your partner is very likely going to eventually start returning the favor. Just remember when that happens to accept the nice words and take in the self-esteem boost!
2. Show that you care about the other person by taking care of yourself. I know this might sound a bit confusing, but you probably clean yourself up and maybe even dress a little (at least your top half, right?) for your virtual work meetings or chats with friends. If you don’t take care of your personal grooming when it’s just you and your partner, you are sending them the message that they’re not important enough for you to clean up for.
3. Do something fun together. Play cards or a game, develop a scavenger hunt, or just go for a walk. Keep it light so that you can both enjoy yourselves. Remember what that was like?
4. Cuddle, without sex. Touching in ways that feel good to you both, without turning it sexual, can go a long way toward reminding you both that you are safe with one another, and that you can make each other feel good in simple, undemanding ways.
5. Organize a romantic evening. A friend gives her children “movie night” once a week. They go into their bedroom and watch a show on their own. The rule is that they have to stay in the room, though. If they come out, they know that movie night is over. But if they stay in the room, they can watch more than one show, and stay up past their regular bedtime. And she and her husband sit cuddled up together to watch their own show. Not romantic in the old-fashioned sense of the word, but as she says, “It’s time alone together. We don’t even talk. We just snuggle in a watch the show.” Even if you’ve been alone together for five months, take a night a week to set the table with candles and make a special meal together. Hold hands. Talk about good things—things you like about each other, things you’ve done together in the past that you’d like to remember or maybe hope to do again.
6. Remember that disagreements are part of any healthy relationship. The goal is not to stop them altogether. The goal is to fight fair. The authors of the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most tell us that we often leave some of the most important thoughts and feelings out when we are trying to resolve conflict. Some of those things have to do with what we actually like about one another.
7. Compliment as much as you criticize. This is actually a repeat of the first tip, but it’s so important I’m saying it again.
Conflict is part of every relationship. But if you remember that conflict can damage self-esteem, and that self-esteem is a crucial part of a healthy relationship, you should be able to give your partner the positive reinforcement they need—so that they can give you what you need as well—even through the pandemic.
* Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy
Facebook image: mavo/Shutterstock
Eichler, R.J. (2011). The University as a (Potentially) Facilitating Environment. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 47(3):289-316
Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen. 2010 Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most