Fair Fighting Rules For Couples
Have you ever had an argument with your partner that feels like it is going in circles? Or have you ever had a big sense of deja-vu when you and your partner argue, like you have had the same argument ten times? It is very common for couples to fall into a slump when it comes to communication and they feel like they are not getting through to each other.
In my experience as a marriage counselor, premarital counselor, and couples therapist, couples tend to express how hard it is to communicate with each other because the conversations “always” turn into arguments. But, something that may come as a surprise is that arguments are a form of communication and can be very productive if done right. In fact, if you know how to handle yourself in potentially difficult moments, you can turn a nasty argument into a productive discussion.
“Right Fighting” in Relationships
Yes, I am saying there is a right way to argue, and a wrong way. And you may be saying to yourself, “arguments are never good” or “if we are arguing, it can’t be right.” Although I agree that excessive, hurtful, and intense arguments can be a sign of discord in your relationship, I also suggest that when done right, arguments (aka, “passionate conversations”) can be an effective and productive way to improve and even enhance your relationship. So what do I mean by done “right?” Here are three steps that will help bring structure and purpose to your next disagreement with your partner.
3 Steps to Productive Conflict in Your Relationship
Step 1: Timing
Does it feel like you arguments always seem to happen at the wrong time, in the wrong place? When we have something to say we want to say it now. And it is important to get your feelings out, but think about the timing. Be aware of when your partner seems to be more available to talk. And I even suggest trying to get a read of how emotionally available your partner is too.
As intimate partners, we have a great sense of when our partner is in a good mood. It can be helpful to “test the waters” and let them know that you have something important to talk about, just to see if the time is right. I’m not saying you should sit on things or bury your feelings if the time just never seems right. But, we can all agree that trying to have an important conversation with your partner while their favorite sports team is on, or when they walk in the door mentally exhausted from work is very difficult.
Step one of having a productive discussion instead of a hurtful argument is being aware of the timing, and try to be intentional about when you bring up the “hot topics.”
Step 2: Message Received
Remember the old cell phone commercial where people in different locations were shouting, “Can you hear me now??” When a discussion has turned into a fight that is going badly, it can feel like we want to yell that at our partner sometimes. It just feels like they don’t hear us, or they don’t get it.
When couples come to me feeling unheard by their partner it tends to be related to the way they communicate feelings and how their partner receives the message. You send it, they receive it. A great way for couples to ensure they are each heard in conversations and arguments, is to check in on what you hear. When your partner is done talking, you can ask, “Is this what you mean?” Or, say, “I hear you saying this… is that right?” Carefully checking in to make sure you're understanding your partner gives clarity, and the chance to correct each other if your wires ever get crossed.
Step 3: What now?
The last step to productive discussions is simply saying, “What now?” It is important to have a clear plan going forward after every argument. Think of it like a game plan for your relationship. When you have picked a good time, made sure the message was received correctly, and that you've both heard each other, say… ”what now?”
When you shift the conversation away from how you're feeling, towards what you can each do to solve the problem or improve the situation is what ultimately makes any conflict productive. Saying “what now” allows you to brainstorm ideas, get back on the same page, and actually fix things so that you don't have to have the same argument over and over again.
Having a clear conclusion to every argument is crucial. When we leave things open, or we don’t talk about what we are going to do moving forward, it creates a negative cycle: Sooner or later, you're going to disappoint each other again. Even if the “what now” comes a couple days later (after you're both feeling calmer), it is important to make sure you come back together and have a solution-focused conversation.
While arguments can feel challenging in the moment, they're a great opportunity for you both to get your feelings and needs out in the open. Then, you can use the new information that came from your “passionate conversation” as a roadmap to make positive changes to your relationship that deepen your connection.