By: Rebecca Hirsch, AMFT
Symmetry Counseling Chicago
Every couple argues. It is a part of being in a partnership, and contrary to popular belief, arguing is actually healthy for your relationship. Arguing and disagreeing on important issues in your relationship can perpetuate growth, both individually and as a couple, and can facilitate a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other. However, arguing and fighting often gets a bad reputation because many couples do not know how to argue in a healthy and effective manner. Many couples seek couples therapy due to their fighting becoming “out of control” or “below the belt”. Whether it is through tone, mentioning an issue you know is sensitive to them, or name-calling, couples will often say things they later regret during a conflict. Here are 5 ways to make your arguments healthier and more productive:
- Be aware of your body and when you reach a threshold of intense anger or the “point of no return”. Think about the last time you were really angry. You probably felt your heart racing, maybe you could feel your body warming up and sweating, and perhaps your mind got a little cloudy. When we get to this point of intense anger or even being overwhelmed, we stop processing information rationally, and we immediately go on the defensive or shut down. It is usually when we get to this point when we say things we will regret, and we may not mean. To prevent this from happening, bring more awareness to your body as you feel yourself become angrier, more frustrated, or flooded. When you feel your heart start to pound or your mind racing, slow down. Take 5-10 deep breaths, and ask yourself if you think you need a break from the discussion.
- Take a time out. When we reach that point of becoming so over-whelmed where we cannot talk to each other rationally and with compassion, take a time out. This is a great way to prevent the fight from escalating and will continue to teach you slow down when having difficult conversations. When you feel the argument escalating and becoming out of control, call a time out. Whoever calls the time out should also say how much time they need (try not to make it over 24 hours), and is also in charge of re-initiating the dialogue. An example of this would be, “I’m really angry and this conversation is going nowhere. I’m calling a time out. I need about two hours to gather my thoughts, and I will reach out when I am ready to talk again.” This will also require the other person to respect the time out and pause the argument.
- Reflect on the argument during your time away from each other. Once you’ve called a time out, use the time to reflect on the argument. A great way to release your energy and organize your thoughts is to write them down. When we write things down, it allows us to process our thoughts and feelings with more clarity, not to mention, it also feels great. If writing isn’t your thing, take a walk or listen to some relaxing music. Make sure you use this time to reflect on the argument, and it is always helpful to ask yourself, “What am I upset about?” or “Why does this feel especially hurtful?” During this time, also think what feelings it has brought up for you and how you have been impacted by the argument so you can communicate them to your partner, instead of simply pointing the blame at them.
- Use “I statements” to express hurt feelings and frustrations. After the time out has finished and the person who called the time out as reinitiated dialogue, it will be important to take turns talking, be present with each other, and listen to what they are saying. When you are talking, it will be helpful to use “I statements” when communicating feelings to your partner. An example of this is, “I felt really hurt and frustrated when you arrived late to our dinner date” as opposed to “You are always late, you clearly don’t care about our date nights”. When you use “I statements”, you are taking ownership of your feelings, which are always valid, and you are not pointing fingers at the other person. When we point fingers and blame our partners, they are more likely to become defensive.
- AVE (Acknowledge, Validate, and Empathize). As the listening partner, a useful tool to use is “AVE”, which is to acknowledge the other person’s point of view and feelings, validate them, and then provide empathy. An example of this would be, “I understand that your feelings were hurt when I was late to dinner. That makes sense to me, and I am sorry that you are hurt.” When you are using AVE, you do not need to agree with your partner, in fact, they could be wrong (maybe you arrived on time for dinner). However, that is not the point. This technique is useful because it slows down the dialogue and allows each person to express their feelings and feel heard and understood.
It is not the arguing itself that can be detrimental to your relationship; it is how you argue that can have long-term negative impacts on the relationship. Keep in mind that there is no winner or loser when it comes to arguing with your partner. The best way to tackle arguments is to be honest about your feelings and experience, and express them in a calm and compassionate way. While it may seem unnatural to implement some of these tools, they are enormously helpful in communicating more effectively, especially about difficult and sensitive topics. If you are interested in improving your communication and learning tools to argue more effectively in your relationship, contact Symmetry Counseling Chicago to set up an appointment with a couples therapist.