It’s perfectly normal for couples to argue. But sometimes those arguments aren’t particularly productive and spiral into vent sessions instead of useful discussion, and sometimes they can even be destructive. This is avoidable.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to talk about romantic relationships. Obviously, any argument with another person can benefit from some of these principles, but different relationship dynamics require different approaches. What’s appropriate for your boyfriend may not be the best solution for dealing with your boss or your crappy roommate. Romantic relationships have their own unique challenges, and its best to deal with problems when they start.
#1 Recognise There Are Two Problems: Your Emotions and The Situation
When you first get upset or angry with your significant other, there are almost always two problems: your emotions and the actual problem. For example, say you’re frustrated with your partner for not doing the dishes. You now have two problems to solve: the dishes need to be done and you need to no longer be upset with your partner for not doing them.
In most other areas in life, we recognise that you need to prioritise your problems and deal with them separately. It only makes sense to do the same with your fights. Before you tell your loved one something along the lines of “Could you please do the dishes for once?!” you may want to make sure you’re not one of those irrational people that make productive discussions difficult.
When you’re angry and aimed at your loved one, that’s the worst time to start airing your grievances (save that for Festivus):
For instance, Dr. Lerner mentions that in order to address grievances or differing ideas of what to do about an up-coming dilemma, couples need to take a calming break from talking together if either or both are getting emotionally heated. As she says, “Anger is an important emotion” but “when tempers flare our capacity for clear thinking, empathy, and creative problem-solving go down the drain…” Discussions are far more likely to prove productive when both parties are calm enough to be open to hearing the other person’s perspective, and to be able to express their own concerns without finger-pointing.
Of course, being frustrated and venting anger is all normal (though continually ruminating on your problems without doing anything can just make you angrier). Accepting that your emotions are a real thing that need to be dealt with and distinct from the subject of your actual argument sets the stage for resolution.
#2 Deal With Your Emotions First
When it comes to anger management, everyone has their own way to chill out. If you find yourself on the verge of a fight with your loved one, take a moment to deal with your stress, and allow them to do the same. In most cases, it’s probably best for you to do so alone (although in some sensitive situations, simply taking a moment to breathe where you are can help too). Do whatever brings your energy down. Go for a walk. Listen to loud music. Write an angry note and then destroy it.
This will work best if you let your partner know ahead of time how you best handle stress. Stomping off, muttering under your breath without a word is a quick way to hurt someone. Before you find yourself in a fight, know how your loved one deals with anger and make sure they know what you need. Even saying “I need to go for a walk. Let’s talk in a few minutes” is more beneficial than “Whatever”.
Most importantly, once you’re done calming down, come back. As we mentioned earlier, when a fight erupts, you’re dealing with two problems. Calming down solves one problem, and it’s easy to feel like everything is better. Sometimes it is (and we’ll talk about that in the next section), but if you’re having a persistent problem with your partner, it won’t disappear just because you rocked out to “Bohemian Rhapsody” for a bit.
#3 Deal With the Situation When You Come Back
Once you’ve calmed down, you can start approaching your problem rationally. For starters, you’re now in a better position to choose your battles. Fighting with your partner over not doing the dishes for the first time when he’s had a long day may not be worth it. On the other hand, if you’ve gone thirteen straight weeks without spending an evening together, a discussion is probably worth having.
When you come back to have a discussion with your loved one, take a collaborative approach. If you engage a problem as you vs. your partner, you create barriers that only make a happy relationship harder. As Psychology Today puts it:
Fighting of any sort indicates that partners have taken a stance against each other. Fighting pits me against you, with expectations that one of us will emerge as a winner and the other as the loser. Participants are antagonists, competitors for who will win.
Collaborative partnering, by contrast, involves side-by-side problem-solving. In collaborative discussions of even the most sensitive and difficult issues, both parties pursue mutual understanding. Both seek to understand the other’s point of view as well as to express their own concerns. Both presume that a broader and deeper understanding of both their own and their partner’s concerns will open a pathway for moving forward that will be responsive to all of these concerns.
Sometimes the problems will simply be how you feel. “When you won’t put your smartphone down at dinner, it makes me feel neglected” is just as legitimate of a problem as arguments over household chores. The important thing is to express the issue as something that the two of you can work together to resolve.
Once the talk is done, be sure to take action. Your ability to communicate is important and helps with feeling more of a bond with your partner, but if nothing changes, you’ll be having the same conversations again in a week. Once the two of you have established what needs to change, follow the same tactics you would to form good habits. Remind yourself later about the things your partner wants to change. Don’t rely on memory alone.
#4 Make Up
You’ve gotten angry. You’ve calmed down. You’ve talked it out. You’ve come up with a plan for what needs to change. Everything’s good, right? Well, probably. If you stop there and do nothing else, you’ll still be doing better than the average yelling match. However, if you want to be sure that this becomes a habit, reward yourselves.
Cuddling, watching a movie, or having good old-fashioned makeup sex are all positive ways to end an argument on a happy note (though if you skip the conflict resolution steps, makeup sex can actually be a destructive habit on the level of cocaine). Ideally, you’ll enjoy your significant other’s company and make each other happy. If the two of you have had a healthy discussion about your issues, take a moment to reward yourself with each other’s company.
It may sound cheesy, but rewarding constructive behaviour is a basic tenet of manipulating ourselves and others into self-improvement. If that’s not enough, science shows that the old adage “Don’t go to bed angry” rings true. Instead of settling for just not being angry, do what you can to go to bed happy, content and looking forward to a better relationship than you had yesterday.