6 Things You Can Do to Argue Constructively with Your Partner
Every couple fights, but fewer couples know how to fight well, that is, to argue in ways that prevent conflicts from causing collateral emotional damage or escalating into vehement brouhahas. Arguing with your partner in ways that actually cultivate intimacy, vulnerability, and emotional safety is difficult for reasons I have recently considered with you.
As we saw a couple of weeks ago, all of us bring “emotional baggage” into our relationships. Each of us has at the center of our loads of painful luggage some core beliefs we have about ourselves that strongly shape our emotional lives and how we experience ourselves and our relationships (in ways that are within and outside of our awareness). Last week, we looked at how these core beliefs and our emotional and behavioral reactions to them can create vicious cycles of conflict as partners trigger and perpetuate each other’s pain.
Even though our core beliefs influence considerably our emotional well-being and relationships, arguing constructively with your partner is within reach. Here are six steps you can take to help you feel more connected to and safe with your partner during your next quarrel:
1. Stop. In the throes of relational strife, slowing the freight train of our physiological, emotional, and behavioral responses is challenging but not impossible. You can often interrupt your verbal brawl by simply taking a deep breath or calling a brief time-out. The key here is recognizing what you would normally do during a conflict (e.g., blaming your partner, yelling, withdrawing) and doing something else—anything that isn’t harmful to you or your relationship.
2. Accept your perspective as a slice of a much bigger picture. “No, that’s not true!” How many times have you heard or said this or something like it during an argument with your partner? As you contend for what you feel is “objectively” right, you will completely miss your partner’s point of view, which, as we have seen, will probably result in more pain for both of you. Instead, for the betterment of your relationship, listen to and try to understand your partner’s point of view.
3. Ask yourself what you are feeling, and why you feel that way. Whatever you are feeling during your most intense arguments—alone, inadequate, or worthless, to name a few emotions—is almost certainly not new. Conflict in our closest relationships stirs up intense feelings and reactions that are invariably tied up with the painful core-beliefs we hold about ourselves, beliefs we learned about ourselves during hurtful interactions in childhood.
- You might try asking yourself, How am I feeling? Is the feeling familiar to me? When do I first remember feeling that way?
- Self-reflection isn’t easy, especially during an argument, but it’s a great way to (1) lessen the power of your feelings during an argument, so that you don’t automatically react in harmful ways, and (2) open up your emotional world to yourself so that you can share it with your partner.
4. Share your feelings with your partner. You may or may not understand what you’re feeling. Indeed, you may feel confused about what your emotions are, or maybe you feel numb, unsure if you feel anything at all. Wherever you are emotionally, tell your partner about what is going on inside of you. If you are fearful of sharing your feelings and being vulnerable (and you probably are if your partner is still “on the attack”), how could you share that feeling? Whatever your feelings are, in sharing them, you are inviting your partner to connect with you even in the midst of your pain. Of course, in doing so, you are risking a lot since your partner may not respond in kind, but your vulnerability may soften your partner and help you feel more connected to each other.
5. Validate, validate, validate. There are good reasons that you are feeling the way you are, even though you might not be aware of them. Equally valid is the way that you have normally responded to these feelings, harmful though they are; growing up and feeling the pain that you did, you found ways to survive. Maybe you hid your real feelings in order to keep close relationships intact. Maybe you physically or emotionally ran away to protect yourself. Whatever the case, you have your pain and ways of coping with it, and so does your partner.
- Validating your partner’s feelings will let him or her know that you’re “keyed in” to what they are feeling, and it will help ease your partner’s pain.
- Try something like, “I can see why you would feel that way because . . .” or, “I think I’m starting to get why this is so important to you, because . . .” Keep in mind that validation is not endorsement or agreement.
6. Be empathically curious about your partner’s perspective and feelings. “I don’t really understand why you’re feeling that way. Can you help me?” Such questions show your partner not only that you are interested in his or her point of view, but also that you are genuinely concerned about your partner. When you are curious about your partner’s feelings, you are validating and valuing your partner’s feelings, lessening his or her pain and telling your partner that they really matter to you.
The more intense your argument, the closer the matter that you’re arguing about is to your heart, the harder these steps will be. However, even attempting them will likely put a lid on an argument about to explode and help you stay connected and intimately close to your partner.