5 Ways to Ruin a Perfectly Good Argument

Don't let immature behavior get in the way of a productive disagreement.

Posted Jan 18, 2017

No matter how much you love and care for someone, there are going to be disagreements and occasional conflicts. A healthy relationship doesn’t mean a couple doesn’t fight or never has any problems—it just means that the couple knows how to have productive disagreements or develop creative solutions to their problems.

The following are five common mistakes people might make when engaged in a verbal disagreement that derail a discussion that might have led to a better relationship or, at the very least, a clearer understanding of your partner’s feelings:

  1. Name Calling and Put Downs

Unfortunately, just because you—or your partner—are now adults does not guarantee that one of you won’t resort to childish communication behaviors. If your partner resorts to name calling or tries to put you down, even in a “just kidding” way, there are a couple of options for responding in a healthy adult manner. One possibility is to simply ignore the words and attend to their meaning. The second is to calmly remind your partner that it’s not okay with you for her to belittle you or resort to bullying you to get her way. The temptation to respond with an equally objectionable epithet is often difficult to ignore, but unless you want the conflict to escalate, do not retaliate.

2. Interrupting or Talking over Another

This happens when someone feels like they have all the answers and don’t value anyone else’s input. Interrupters can drive people crazy as their “conversational space” is encroached upon or fully seized by the impatient partner. Asking your partner to let you finish is the most frequently used response, but that can sometimes fuel the situation even more. Another tactic is to refuse to engage in the specific discussion until you are given an equal opportunity to share your perspective. Exiting the discussion with an offer to return when your voice will be heard is another way to take away the power of the interrupter to bulldoze conversations. If you and your partner are trying to discuss important decisions with other family members, one of whom is an interrupter, team up and either hold a preliminary discussion prior to meeting with the difficult individual or plan to work together to keep the dialogue maximally open to all.

3. Instant Defensiveness

Some children grow up in families in which the “I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me!” response is deeply engrained due to the need to defend against punishment regardless of their guilt or innocence regarding the accusation being made. In adulthood, “instant defenders” are those people who don’t just want to absolve themselves of inaccurate accusations, but those who also vigorously defend themselves even when they know that they are guilty. In most families, everyone is “in” on the game and know to ignore the pleas of innocence. If you have a partner who has this response mechanism entrenched in his communication repertoire, it can be easier to let them make their claim and move on with the conversation to discuss whatever the consequences were of the incident and work to seek a resolution rather than spending time trying to force admission of guilt. When everyone knows the truth of the matter, and consequences need to be mitigated, it is better to stay calm, acknowledge your partner’s perspective, and then address the matter at hand.

4. Sarcastic Commentary

Sarcasm might have been a big part of your childhood banter with your siblings—trading barbs with a sibling can be a pattern that is rooted deeply in the connection between brothers and sisters. Whether sarcasm is considered the lowest form of humor, a partner’s go-to defense mechanism, a marker of low self-esteem, or simply an easy way to rile up others, while it is not often appreciated, there are times when it must be tolerated or ignored. Depending on how the message is communicated, the intention of the remark man be misconstrued; sarcasm is generally open to the audience’s interpretations.

Sarcasm is only “successful” when an audience responds to the speaker. If you take away the response mechanism, it is hoped that the behavior will eventually lose its appeal. Letting your partner know that you don’t appreciate the sarcasm may only encourage more of the same. Snapping back an equally sarcastic comment might show him that can stand whatever is being thrown at you and that might diminish the pleasure derived from the behavior or, alternately, serve to devolve the discussion even further. Remember, you cannot force someone to change their behavior, but your response to annoying comments is something over which you have complete control.

5. Kitchen-Sink Fighter

Having a shared history and rich memories with a partner can be a heartwarming thing, but when past grievances become part of today’s conflict, nothing positive ever comes out of it. The kitchen-sink fighter may bring up all sorts of things you’re your shared past, citing these are “proof” of your history of poor behavior, whatever the focus today might be. When someone fights from this position, it is best to simply stay on topic. Sometimes, a cursory acknowledgement of the past may be all that is needed to assuage your partner and let the conversation time travel to the present day. Just saying something like, “Yeah, you’re right. I did make some mistakes when we first got together, but let’s focus on what is going on right now rather than waste time on the past,” might be enough to let your partner feel heard and you get the discussion where it needs to be.

Disagreements are a normal part of any healthy relationship. Don’t let immaturity or defensiveness derail a discussion that might bring you even closer.