How to Keep Fights from Destroying Your Relationship

First thing's first: Are you even fighting about the same thing?

Posted May 20, 2015

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Research has demonstrated time and again that it is not what couples argue about that matters but how they argue. In other words, the main problem is the communication about the issue rather than the issue itself. Further, couples whose arguments tend to escalate are significantly more likely to separate or get divorced than couples who can manage their disagreements and prevent them from becoming too toxic.

Therefore, it is vital for couples to learn how to prevent arguments from escalating once they become heated. In over 20 years of doing couples therapy, I’ve seen how the majority of couples’ arguments go south due to two simple yet unfortunate disconnects.

It sounds like you disagree with one another but, in fact, you don't: Couples are often convinced they know what their partner thinks, means and intends when a certain topic is broached. People are often so convinced of their mind-reading abilities that they stop listening and begin formulating their responses, rebuttals, or excuses almost as soon as the other person starts speaking.

They then respond with a tone and manner that sounds hostile, defensive or accusatory, which causes their partner to respond in kind, and off to the races they go. I cannot begin to describe how often I’ve stopped a couple mid-argument and challenged them to define where they disagree. When they cannot, they feel awkward and confused—they were certain the other person totally disagreed with them.

You're actually arguing about two different things. An even more common scenario is when couples believe they’re arguing about the same issue but in fact, they’re not. The issues might be related but substantially different nonetheless. For example, one partner might be arguing about whether their preschooler should go to school A or B, while the other is arguing about not having enough of a say in childcare decisions.

Since they’re each arguing about something slightly different, the argument can easily escalate as they each feel the other person isn’t addressing their concerns, which frustrates them even more and causes the argument to get even more heated.

How to Prevent an Argument From Getting Out of Hand

Because so many arguments involve miscommunications about where the disagreement actually lies, clarifying the issue is the key to getting the discussion back on track. Therefore, when you feel an argument is unproductive or escalating—pause! Take a five-minute break in which each person writes down the following:

1. Define what exactly you think it is you’re arguing about in that moment and what about it is making you angry. Don’t just define the broad issue (e.g., money); be as specific as possible. One partner might write: "I’m annoyed that we agreed to cut spending and you purchased X without discussing it with me first." The other might write, "I’m annoyed you’re monitoring what I spend as I find that controlling and I don’t do that to you."

2. Define what you think your partner is arguing about and what he or she is bothered by. This is a great way to put any mind-reading skills you believe you have to the test.

3. After you finish writing down your answers, show them to each other. If you are not arguing about exactly the same thing, agree on the one specific issue you both think is important to discuss or decide to have two separate discussions to address each of your concerns. Please do not argue about whose issue was ‘correct’ or 'first.'

4. Make sure your discussion stays focused on the agreed upon issue. If other issues come up, shelve them for a different day. (One big discussion per day is plenty for most couples).

5. If this kind of disconnect happens frequently, define the issue at hand as soon as you begin to argue. It is best to cut off an unproductive miscommunication-fest and avoid emotional hurt before it festers.

For science-based techniques to treat other common emotional hurts check out: Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

Watch my TED Talk where I share my own experiences with miscommunication.

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Copyright 2015 Guy Winch

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