Try these expert tips to prevent a relationship meltdown and keep your partnership in healthy, fighting shape. Every couple—even the blissful ones who seem madly and annoyingly in love—argue now and then. But how you fight—and recover from an argument—can make all of the difference when it comes to having a happy, healthy relationship. By identifying fighting styles that can wreck your relationship over time (stonewalling, anyone?) and learning better ways to communicate even in the heat of the moment, you can maintain a stronger, better partnership.
Fostering Healthy Communication
You and your partner are going to fight now and then. That’s a given. But while you may not always have control over what sets you off, you have control over how you handle the situation. By taking a deep breath and employing these smart strategies, you can keep your relationship in (healthy) fighting shape.
a) Stay on point. What exactly are you fighting for? And no, “being right” doesn’t count as an objective. “Healthy, positive communication in any relationship should start with the following: respect, consideration, empathy, an open mind and a calm tone,” notes Cheryl Burke, a licensed mental health therapist in Winter Park, Florida. “The next step requires each person to consider their objectives before communicating thoughts and feelings with the other.”
b) Be clear on your purpose: whether it’s asking for more help with chores around the house or convincing your mate that opening a bank account, not a shylock deal, is a necessity in the long term—keeps a quarrel from going into pointless (and sometimes) dangerous territory.
c) Positive Healthy Communication: Adds Burke, “positive healthy communication is not confrontational or argumentative, rather it’s an attempt to get what one needs from his or her partner with the clear understanding that we must be willing to give to get. Finally, the key to successful resolution is not to focus on the problem—old or new—but instead to focus on the resolution.”
d) Watch your language. Research shows that choosing the right fighting words can keep an argument from turning nasty and sending stress levels skyrocketing. According to a study published the journal Health Psychology, couples who used cognitive processing words, such as “think,” “consider,” “understand,” “because,” or “reason,” during heated arguments showed smaller increases of stress-related, inflammatory chemicals than pairs who didn’t—and the effects lasted for more than 24 hours.
e) Drop the “all or nothing” attitude. When you’re frustrated with your partner because he forgot to take out the trash—again—or left his dirty dishes in the sink (like they’re magically going to wash themselves), it’s easy to lash back by saying “you never take out the trash” or “you always leave the dishes in the sink.” Really? Always? Going to the extreme doesn’t help your argument. “Leave out ‘you always’ and ‘never,’” suggests Elyse Goldstein, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in private practice in New York City. “We get carried away with our feelings in the moment, like children. You have to treat another person with more respect.” Instead, focus on your specific point—that you would appreciate it if he could step up more when it comes to tossing out the garbage and putting dirty dishes away.
f) Empathize with your partner. When you’re ticked off, it’s tough to feel empathy for your partner. But channelling your sympathetic side not only cools anger, it helps you better understand each other’s position and fosters healthier communication. “Empathy is the key to being able to argue better and to put yourself in the other’s shoes,” says Dr. Goldstein. “Really listen—not just pay lip service while you’re thinking about your rebuttal. And realize that you’re talking to someone you love.”
g) Nix the unnecessary insults. Above all, don’t stoop to demeaning or belittling your mate—the equivalent of tossing a relationship hand grenade into the mix—just because you’re hurt and angry. “Don’t show contempt—nobody is perfect,” says Goldstein. “Instead, think about the intent of the other person. They’re not trying to do you wrong. Mostly, they’re unaware of the transgression, such as the stupid thing they said to you at a party. Sometimes you have to teach your mate what the guide to you is.”
h) Go to bed angry—sometimes. You’ve heard it a hundred times: “Don’t go to bed angry!” “Women are a little guiltier of that than men,” says Goldstein. “They want the resolution and hate sitting with bad feelings. And we’re socialized to make nice.” And as it turns out, there’s a grain of truth that going to bed ticked off can be bad: Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that hitting the sack enhances memories, particularly emotional ones. The study found that sleep preserves the negative emotional response, keeping those powerful emotions fresh, while staying awake blunts the emotional response. That said, if your quarrel kicks off late at night, sometimes tabling the talk until the next day is necessary. “You’re not going to get anywhere when the person is half asleep, really irritated and isn’t really available to have the discussion at that point,” says Burke. “If a couple is unable to resolve issues before bed, they should consider agreeing upon a plan to discuss the resolution at a later date and time—and then retire.” Just be sure to make it a priority to deal with the issue head on the morning after.
By Rachel Grumman Bender