Working with couples in tough relationship situations, I spend a lot of time talking about conflict – how to do it less, how to do it better, how to do it in a way that actually solves a problem. During these conversations, I find myself circling back again and again on the difference between arguing and fighting. These are not the same, and I think the distinction between the two is important.
Arguing is an inherent part of any relationship, romantic or otherwise, and not something we should work to eliminate. It is often by arguing effectively that we learn about each other’s perspectives, understand the weight of our partner’s feelings, and move closer to healthy resolution. Conversations in which two partners have differing perspectives or preferred outcomes, but both are assertive (not aggressive), clear, and open are healthy arguments. A debate is an argument. Reason can play a part in an argument. There is often no other clear path to resolution when partners want different things in a given situation.
Fighting, on the other hand, is not productive or necessary. It happens, sure – and even in the healthiest relationships there will likely be a fight every now and then. But fighting typically leaves both parties feeling sad, lonely, and unsatisfied – even the person who “wins” the argument doesn’t often feel good once it’s over, largely because the process of winning was so unpleasant and they know they’ve hurt the other person. When we fight, we are aggressive, stubborn, unclear, and closed off to other perspectives. We often use unfair tactics, hitting below the belt – name-calling, personal attacks, dredging up old issues to use as weapons… It’s a recipe for disaster!
The good news is, you can choose to argue instead of fight. Here are some steps you can take to make sure that conversations about conflict remain healthy and productive:
- Schedule time to regularly check in with each other and discuss anything that’s been bothering you. That way, frustrations won’t have the opportunity to build up over time and explode into a messy fight. Once or twice a week is generally a good frequency. Make sure this time is free of distractions and give each other your full attention.
- Choose your words carefully. Work hard to express a genuine, vulnerable emotion that your partner can connect with, even if you’re unhappy with something that they did. Avoid using absolutes like always or never. For example, instead of saying “you never fold the laundry, I’m sick of wearing wrinkled shirts!” try saying, “I feel embarrassed when I wear wrinkled shirts to work because they have sat in the laundry basket instead of being folded after they come out of the dryer. I would like us to find a better way to manage that chore so that I don’t continue to feel that way.”
- Stay connected. You’ve probably heard the advice, “if you have to fight, fight naked.” I don’t think you have to go that far (though if you want to, have at it!), but staying physically connected in some way while you argue can help keep things soft and help you stay focused on finding a solution that works for both people. You might try rubbing each other’s feet, holding hands, or laying together on the couch while you talk.
- Limit your conversation to 30 minutes. Half an hour once or twice a week should be plenty of time for most couples to keep their conflicts under control. Knowing that you only have a limited amount of time will help you both stay focused and solution-oriented. This one is important! Set a timer, and when the timer goes off, stop the discussion.
- End with a solution. The goal of the conversation is to come up with at least one decent idea of how to change things for the better. The solution you agree to doesn’t have to be perfect or permanent, it just has to be good enough to try for a few days to a week until you check in about it again. Make an agreement to implement that solution for a short period of time, and then give your partner some acknowledgement when you see them making an effort.
With these tips, you can help keep your conversations about conflict solidly in the “healthy argument” category and avoid devolving into messy fights. Give them a try and see what a difference you can make!
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