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How to Have Better Arguments With Your Partner

Five communication strategies that help protect your relationship.

Key points

  • Regulating our emotions is key to effectively arguing with our partners. Doing so makes us less likely to do or say something regretful.
  • The better we keep a cool head, the easier it is to communicate our needs effectively in ways our partners can truly hear.
  • When we feel safe, not worried we'll be attacked or accused, we're more likely to own up to our mistakes. Same for our partners.
Source: Timu Weber/Pexels
Source: Timu Weber/Pexels

We may want to believe that true love prevents partners from arguing, but conflicts in close relationships are inevitable.

Ideally, those conflicts remain minor–and “bigger deal” ones help spark a relationship’s growth. Fights that turn ugly can damage the safety each partner needs to feel to remain physically and emotionally present in their relationship.

Here are five strategies to prevent disagreements from becoming harmful—and to help make arguments with your significant other as productive and healthy as possible.

Cool Hot Emotions

Ensuring your and your partner’s heads are as cool as possible during an argument is one of the best ways to minimize damaging outcomes. This means regulating your emotions to respond to your partner rather than just reacting.

Taking one or more deep breaths before you air your grievances or reply to a partner’s confrontation, placing your hand over your heart, or repeating a short mantra or prayer in your head before you speak can help bring you to a calmer place. If your emotions are very elevated, it may be best to pause the argument, tell your partner you love them, and go for a walk or engage in a brief bout of intense exercise.

Excusing yourself to the bathroom to splash cold water on your face or holding an ice cube in one or both hands can also help simmer roiling thoughts and feelings. Each strategy has been found to lower anxiety and promote emotion regulation by influencing our nervous system’s physiological response to stress.

Avoid Accusations

Think of the last time someone came at you with an accusation. Did you immediately relax and say, “you know what, you’re right?” Chances are, you did just the opposite.

When we’re accused or feel like someone’s attacking us, we’re more likely to shut down, become defensive, and leap into a state of mind that precludes empathetic listening and problem-solving. Hence why, accusing a partner of wrongdoing can backfire, making them less likely to understand where we’re coming from (let alone be willing to examine their own behavior).

To air grievances more effectively without sounding like you’re attacking your partner, use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Think: “I was hurt when my calls to your phone weren’t answered” instead of “You completely ignored my call!” Or: “I’m frustrated because I’ve asked many times for ____ and not having yet received it from you is creating a lot of stress for me” instead of “what’s wrong with you? Why haven’t you done what I’ve asked yet?”

Be Specific

Explain how your partner’s behavior affects you, not just that you dislike or disapprove. Example: “It makes me anxious when you don’t come home at the promised time because I worry something has happened to you. I can’t fall asleep when I’m worried about you, which impacts my energy levels the next day.”

Focus On One Issue at a Time

A big mistake couples make in fighting is “kitchen-sinking”–heaping multiple grievances atop others all at once. You may be angry with your partner for being late to meet you after work one day. In addition to confronting them about this (“I felt sad and also uncared for when you were 30 minutes late to pick me up from work this week”), you throw in how annoyed you are that they don’t, say, clean the dishes, do the laundry, take out the trash, call your mom enough, get back to text messages on time, or complete a task you’ve been asking them to complete for weeks or months.

Your annoyances may be completely warranted. But few people can handle an onslaught of numerous complaints. Focus on one issue at a time. If there are more than a few, consider setting aside a specific time to discuss them–and consider involving a trained third party (a therapist, mediator, or, for couples of faith, a clergy member) for support.

Consider Your Partner’s Perspective

This tip may well be the hardest. At the heart of our desire to be right is a desire to be heard and understood. But we lower our chances of achieving this outcome when we settle for nothing short of our partner agreeing that we’re completely and totally right.

Clinging to a belief that it’s our way or the highway or that we’re completely free of blame and justified in our accusations (even if our concerns are warranted) impedes constructive communication and problem-solving. (Not to mention empathy-building and forgiveness.) When you decide to confront your partner about something they’ve done that upsets you, consider viewing it as part of a discussion geared to share your perspective and hear theirs.

Though difficult (especially when you feel like your needs aren’t being met), allowing your partner to respond to your complaints and trying to hear where they’re coming from or what might explain their behavior can make them feel more comfortable owning their mistakes. Acknowledging one’s faults requires vulnerability.

If someone doesn’t feel safe being vulnerable (say, because they’re feeling defensive in response to being accused of messing up) they’re less able to step up and be accountable for their actions. Genuinely trying to see things from your partner’s perspective can also do wonders to build rapport and empathy and strengthen the bond you both share–all of which help ensure your relationship remains healthy over the long haul.

The Takeaway

Long-term relationships aren’t always easy. Often, they require us to let go of the particular ways we’d prefer to do things and make room for shared ways of proceeding. Learning and practicing healthier communication strategies helps this necessary growth unfold in a mutually beneficial manner—one that protects the trust and love that keep us connected to the most important people in our lives.

More from Katherine Cullen MFA, LCSW
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