Arguments in a Relationship – It Happens!
By: Other | April 13, 2018
Written by Francine Martinez, Ph.D.
“If you want a relationship that looks and feels like the most amazing thing on earth, you need to treat it like it is the most amazing thing on earth.” -Author Unknown
All couples argue. It is inevitable when two distinct individuals come together with their own personalities, temperaments, life experiences, and communication styles. Arguments, however, can build intimacy and not necessarily signal impending doom in a relationship.
I often share with the couples I work with that my relationship models were my parents. I NEVER saw them argue in front of the kids. So, when I went to college and experienced my first love relationship, the first major argument was devastating. I was convinced it was over, we were done. To this day, I thank that first love for being someone who had parents who modeled healthy arguments and who opened the door for me to ask my parents how they handled those “hidden” disagreements.
From that experience flow some tips about how to “successfully” argue as a couple and how to strengthen the relationship by increasing their understanding of one another.
Don’t avoid the difficult topics
Couples who strive for healthy long-term relationships don’t shy away from topics they know could lead to arguments. These couples ask those scary questions early in the relationship or as soon as the issue presents itself. Some of those questions can include “Where will you be applying for jobs?”, “How do we protect time for us with all the outside activities you are involved with?”, “Can we talk about how to merge/manage finances?” Not asking these questions can turn a neutral event into an emotionally burdened event. Couples who talk about these things can manage future decisions and events more effectively.
Encourage a slow and reciprocal engagement
Couples who’ve mastered the art of arguing fairly take things slowly. They do not rush to find the solution, or even worse, to declare a winner. These couples practice the art of listening while their partner is speaking, and then expresses their point of view while the other listens. This isn’t easy! The approach to the argument is key.
Let’s take the question of “Where will you be applying for jobs?” at face-value, rather benign, but for one of the couple it is important enough to bring up. Let’s take turns:
JH: Can we sit down and talk for a few minutes about your job search?
HH: I have some time now, what’s on your mind? [Recognizes this may be important]
JH: It’s been awhile since either of us have had to look for a new job, and we’re pretty well settled here in this community. If possible, I’d like to not move, but I’ve heard you on the phone talking about Phoenix, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, I really don’t want to move.
HH: I’d like to not move also [finding mutuality, recognizing the main concern], yet the jobs are limited here, so I’m exploring where my net might need to be expanded. We have a few of ways of approaching the job search; one is how long can I be unemployed after the severance runs out and possibly extend my search timeline, where would we want to live if I can’t find a position here, and how do we include your career in this decision-making?
It’s a challenging topic for both individuals and in this example there is no rush to solution. Their feelings and concerns are heard in what could be a difficult conversation. Their style of engaging one another allows time for both individuals to express themselves as they move forward. They’ve also preliminarily recognized that the final solution, when they get there, may not be what either of them wants, but that they’re working together.
Don’t name call
Couples committed to long-term relationships rarely get into arguments where questions about their maturity and empathy prevail. Nevertheless, we’ve all heard or witnessed situations when this occurred. Name-calling, eye-rolling, biting sarcasm or passive aggressive behaviors shut down communication and raise defensiveness wherein nothing gets through. So, what do you do when the argument is reaching levels of frustration, hurt, anger, and impatience? Read on!
Know when and how to cool down
Most of us know when we are reaching the boiling point: Some of the signals include feeling agitated, a pit in our stomach, fists clenched, punctuated statements, getting “hot” under the collar. As we practice listening to our internal signals we can now practice giving ourselves a “time out.” Different couples have different ways of asking for a time out. Using the “T” symbol with your hands [like a time out in sporting events] can be effective. The time out should be predefined in the couple’s ground rules and is typically 15-20 minutes with a commitment to return to the discussion once productive thoughts are recaptured and emotions are back to baseline. Couples who know how to acknowledge and respect their emotions are also capable of self-soothing, which allows returning to the argument better able to reach a resolution.
Set ground rules for arguments
The adage “We learn from our mistakes” is true in all aspects of our lives. Mistakes in past arguments can be a wealth of information in establishing ground rules for future arguments. Some good ground rules for couples include maintaining respectful communication [no name calling], taking turns to listen and to speak [no bulldozing], using time outs [no circular, frustrating diatribes], looking at the big picture [“I” ignores the “we”], giving each other the benefit of the doubt [no assuming of malice intent]. Ground rules for arguments in a relationship are put in place not only for effectiveness but also as a level of care and protection offered to the relationship itself.
Never forget that, ultimately, you’re a team
Even during their most tense arguments, healthy couples never forget that they’re a team. The final outcome will be one that both can agree is the best one at this time for them as a team. Moving to Sacramento may not be the outcome that either one wanted, but, in weighing all aspects of the decision-making process [arguments and all], they reach a conclusion that this will serve them the best “as a team.”