Everyone’s been there. Something is eating you up inside and you’re dying for your partner to address it, but instead you bite your tongue and say nothing. Why? Because starting a spat feels risky AF and you don’t want to be "difficult."
But verbal tussles are inevitable in all relationships. The trick to getting through them unscathed involves practice and understanding that isn’t necessarily supes intuitive during that heated exchange. We tapped a team of therapists and relationship experts to break down their best tips for winning any fight.
8 Rules to live (and argue) by
1. Understand the Urge to Want to “Win” a Fight
“Our natural instinct to 'win' a fight goes back to that idea of defending our individuality and to control,” explains Sarah P. Hewitt, LMFT. After all, being in a relationship is a vulnerable thing! It’s rare to see people who want to “win” a fight purely out of egotistical reasons—more often, it stems from a place of insecurity and fear.
Knowing that your or your partner’s urge to want to “win” the fight is only a natural defense mechanism, you can move on and try to implement some tactics that will make you argue smarter.
2. Redefine “Winning”
If your goal is less getting your partner to acquiesce to your side, more effectively communicating what's inside your head, you’re gucci. Arguing can be constructive when you view it as “the process of defining the boundaries of your relationship” says Hewitt. “It is a negotiation of what is allowed, acceptable and the norm.”
Katie Leikam, LCSW, LISW-CP, agrees. If you think of an argument as more of a discussion where you and your partner are airing your feelings with one another, Leikam says, this helps de-escalate any name-calling or hurtful jabs that may give you an emotional hangover when the air does clear.
3.Get Comfortable with Conflict
Fighting can be good and necessary, says Tara Vossenkemper, MA, LPC. “It’s an integral part of a relationship...if you’re not having some sort of conflict, then one or both if you is checked out or one of you isn’t being honest about what you’re thinking and feeling.”
Avoiding a fight or gritting your teeth to maintain the status quo isn’t healthy either. While you might think that sweeping any issues under the rug will help your relationship, it could actually do the opposite. “That discomfort and lack of resolve doesn't just dissipate," Vossenkemper explains. "It stays quiet and waits for an opportunity to either erupt (i.e. breaking up, horrific fight) or implode (i.e. resentment and internalized fury).” Forget about walking on eggshells. Argue productively and you can reach a healthier level of understanding with your partner.
It also helps to remind yourself that this fight probably won’t be the end of your relationship. “Keep in mind when you are arguing that chances are very high that you and your partner will get through it,” says Patricia O’Laughlin, MFT. “Many folks in the heat of the moment think the argument could lead to abandonment or destruction. Very rarely do arguments go this far.”
4. Talk Less, Listen More
You should walk out of a fight with your S.O. with a better understanding about them. “Use a fight as an opportunity to get to know your partner, not to put them down.” says Hewitt. When you fight fairly—AKA taking no cheap shots like, say, bringing up past mistakes that are irrelevant or projecting past relationship issues onto this one—it becomes productive. And when your partner is no longer afraid that the other person is just there to bash them and hurt feelings, they can start being productive too. That’s where progress starts.
5. Fight Above the Belt
In the heat of the moment it can be hard to keep cool, but don’t engage in name-calling or sarcasm. “This is a form of contempt, and contempt is the number one predictor of divorce,” says Vossenkemper. Plus, it’s just a mean thing to do to someone you love.
6. Know When to Take a Break
If your voices start to escalate, take a step back, says Vossenkemper. As Hewitt adds, often in arguments there’s one person who pursues and wants to solve the problem, and a "distancer," who shuts down. There’s a point of diminishing returns when “the more the pursuer pursues, the more the distancer distances, creating a counter-productive cycle.” So just breathe and step away for a sec, mmkay?
7. Have Some Pre-Approved Phrases at the Ready
Familiarizing yourself with some therapist-approved phrases and sentence starters can make a world of difference in your confidence when broaching an uncomfy situation. Use ‘I’ statements when possible and avoid ‘you’ statements. Saying, “I feel hurt that you didn’t come to the party with me,” is much more productive than “You never come places with me.”
You should also keep an ear out for tossing “always” or “never” in any of your critiques. “Very few things (if any) are always/never.” adds Vossenkemper. Universal statements like these can cause your partner to raise their guard and get even more defensive because they feel like they’re being attacked, says Dr. Fran Walfish, MD, a family and psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, California.
8. Restate Their Points Before You Get To Yours
Even if you totally disagree with whatever your partner just threw out there, recapping what they said helps diffuse any tension and gives you the best possible slate to present your argument, says Vossenkemper.
And don’t worry about looking weak or bending to their will—“Understanding where someone is coming from is not the same as agreeing with what they say,” Vossenkemper adds.
Celeste Headlee, communication expert, also agrees with this strategy when it comes to critiquing something someone has said. Headlee recommends looking into mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport’s four rules of communication:
First, restate their position (even if you don’t agree); then list the points they’ve brought up where you both do agree; third, talk about something you’ve learned from your partner; and finally, only after those three steps are you allowed to add your critique.
It might seem counterintuitive to do so much work to consider your partner’s feelings while you’re in the heat of a fight, but chances are you won’t regret being kind during a disagreement, while you likely will regret getting nasty.
“Everyone is entitled to their own feelings,” adds Dr. Walfish. “Do your best not to criticize, judge, belittle your partner, or minimize the importance of their feelings. When a person’s negative feelings are not validated, they will likely get more powerful, grow, and create a barrier in the relationship.”
How to Tell If They’re Still Invested In Your Relationship From Their Wording
Even if you’re fighting, your partner’s choice of words can matter a lot. On the surface these phrases might seem frustrating and dig you deeper into a fight, but the experts say they can actually be encouraging:
1.“Try to see where I’m coming from.”
Dr. Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in relationships and mental health, says that by asking you to empathize with him, it means he cares whether or not you really understand him. When you truly get someone, this is when you can work out disagreements.
2. “Let’s agree to disagree.”
Even if it seems like you’ll never eventually land on the same page about something, Saltz explains that this means your partner thinks your relationship matters more than getting his way.
3. “I don’t think that’s true.”
While these are very much fighting words, this can be an opening for your partner to state their views without gaslighting you or saying something for sure happened differently than you remember. Hewitt adds that ‘I-statements’ can show an effort to communicate what they are trying to say.
Discover Your Partner’s Arguing Style
Dr. Fran Walfish identifies some of the most common archetypes below:
The Stonewaller: If shutting down and refusing to communicate or cooperate is your partner's M.O., the best way to argue with this person is to ask them to offer you a gentle bridge by positioning yourself in an empathetic place. Also, acknowledge that they may be feeling overwhelmed and need a break from the conversation.
Say: “I’m feeling flooded and need a beat to catch my breath. Let’s put a bookmark here and pick it up after dinner.”
The Verbal Attacker: This person blames, judges, and criticizes you when you raise an issue that feels uncomfortable. This is their way of protecting themselves and deflecting responsibility.
Say: “I want to hear your thoughts, but it’s easier for me to process when you say things beginning with ‘I need.’ Otherwise, I hear it as a put-down and feel bad about myself and that gets us nowhere.”
The Avoider: Does your partner hate confrontation and do everything possible to stay far away from a fight? You’ve got an Avoider on your hands.
Say: “This is hard for me to talk about, too. We can take ‘breaks’ however often as you need to take a few minutes to ourselves and cool down, but I need you to stay in this discussion with me.”
The Passive Submissive: Finding a partner who’s willing to apologize and move on is great, right? Not so much if they’re so afraid of not being liked that giving in is all they do.
Say: “I know you’re worried I’ll be mad at you, but I’m going to do my best to not freak out and be angry. At the same time, I need you to join me in talking about things directly so we can keep our communication healthy and productive.”
The Fixer: Another sneaky personality type is the person who is quick to offer solutions to problems instead of truly listening to their partner’s concerns.
Say: “I know how uncomfortable it is to sit in ‘uncertainty’ when things are so up in the air. Let’s not race to a solution just because it’s the fastest. It’s important for me to move through the resolving process thoughtfully. Have faith and trust in our relationship and know that we will get through this together.”
Good luck on the battlefield!
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