All couples argue, but learning to fight fairly can help diminish the length of disagreements, help couples arrive more swiftly to a resolution and help return to an “at ease” feeling in the relationship. You can’t change the way your partner acts, but if you deliver your message in a calm, clear and loving manner and are persistent, your partner will know that you are willing to work hard to address your concerns and you’re not going to give up on finding a solution to what matters. Below are some tips on how to argue.
1. Use sentences with “I” instead of “You.”
As soon as the word “You” comes out of your mouth, it will set up a dynamic where your mate will be compelled to defend themselves. If you focus on yourself and use “I” messages, then your partner will be less defensive.
“I feel that you are not helping out.” — This is a “You” statement that is disguised as an “I” statement. Nice try!
“I need help around the house. I’m feeling overwhelmed. Any ideas about what we can do about this?”
2. Stick to the current behaviors.
Although it’s tempting to generalize current concerns to previous arguments/behaviors, it’s better to describe only the current specific behaviors that you want to address. Even better, describe the behavior you want to see in the future instead of dwelling on past behaviors. Try to communicate without judgement and say how it affects you.
“You don’t help with the dishes. It’s just plain lazy!” –Your partner will likely point out the one time they did help with the dishes or the time they weren’t lazy.
“I need help with the dishes. It’s getting to be too much for me.”
3. Avoid absolutes.
Words like “never,” “always,” and “all the time” creates more arguing and doesn’t leave open the possibility for future change.
“You never do household chores.” –Again, your partner will likely point out the one time they did do a household chore.
“I need help with household chores. It’s getting to be too much for me. What do you think we could do?”
4. Say something positive first.
It’s hard to get feedback from someone you love. –Especially if you have your own feedback to give! If you can’t say something soothing beforehand, you may not be ready to give feedback. Drs. John and Julie Gottman, refer to this as a “soft start.” You can also tell your mate something soothing both before and after (Feedback sandwich.). “I do this too…” “I can see how much you do for our family…”
“You didn’t do what you said you’d do!” -Vague, accusing and puts partner on the defense.
“I know you had a busy week and I know how much you want to help out around here, but I was disappointed that you didn’t take out the garbage like you said you would. I love you and I want to figure this out.” –This is an example of a partner who is also calmly communicating that they are determined to bring this issue up until it’s addressed.
5. Take deep breaths.
If you notice you’re raising your voice, becoming defensive or “huffing” out air quickly, that’s a good time to take a deep breath in and let it out as slowly as you can. If that doesn’t work, it’s likely time to take a brief break from the discussion and come back to it when you’re calmer.
Shouting, name calling, defensiveness, accusing the other of the same behavior, silent treatment, criticizing your mate’s character (“You’re a neat freak!”), making broad judgments about behavior (“That’s crazy!”)…
Deep breath in and slow release of breath out. If that doesn’t work, “I need to calm down for a few minutes so I can listen to what you have to say.” Be sure to set a time to come back to the argument!
6. Positive framing.
Framing feedback in a tone that assumes good intentions helps disarm your partner and allows them to be less defensive and more solution focused. “You probably meant to…” “You’re really making improvements on…”
“You didn’t take out the trash again this week!”
“I know you want to help out with the trash, but for some reason it didn’t happen this week. How can I get support with this?”
If the above strategies were attempted and didn’t work, try again. Marsha Linehan, founder of DBT skills, refers to this as the “Broken Record Technique.” It is common that a partner fails to follow through after the first time a concern is brought up. If the issue is important enough and it was addressed calmly, it absolutely needs to be brought up again and again to show that the concern isn’t going away. Eventually, the partner will get the sense that if they don’t want to have this ‘serious’ conversation anymore, they better take action.
Other helpful tips:
Don’t police each other’s communication/fighting errors. If you see your partner struggling say, “Let’s take a break until we can talk calmly.”
Shift the conversation back to solutions. “Let’s brainstorm what we can do about this.” Ask ideas about solutions from your partner first.
If you’re still angry, tell your partner you care about them but still feel angry and need some time to calm down.
If you’re partner is sharing strong feelings, validating what they’re saying will help them calm down more quickly than ignoring or arguing. “I get it that you’re upset about…” “”Thank you for telling me…” “You must have felt so frustrated.” Validating doesn’t mean that you agree. Gottman refers to this as “Soothing yourself and each other.”
An example dialogue:
Partner: “I know you love me, but when you said that joke about me being a slob in front of our friends, I was embarrassed. I wish you would make supportive comments about me.” –Mostly an “I” statement, solution focused, said what they needed.
Mate: “I was only joking.” –Defensive, minimizing.
Partner: “I’m just letting you know it hurt.” –Sticking to the message instead of arguing that he wasn’t joking which would have shifted the argument to about what is joking and what isn’t joking.
Mate: “You’re being too sensitive about this.” –Defensive, judging, minimizing.
Partner: “Yeah. I’m sensitive. And that’s why I need you to support me when we’re around our friends.” –Reframed judgement as a good thing and restated needs.
Mate: “You did the same thing to me in front of my mom last week!” –Defensive, accusing.
Partner: “I didn’t realize that I did that and thank you for bringing it up. I’ll work on it. Will you?” –Modeled taking responsibility but didn’t get into a lengthy discussion about the details regarding the mate’s mother. Instead, they shifted discussion back to their needs and original issue.
Mate: “If it’s such a big deal then fine.” –Defensive, but agrees because partner isn’t giving up.
Partner: “It is a big deal. I love you and I love it when you support me.” –Stood up for self and gave positive feedback to partner. Ignored defensiveness which prevented an escalation and a “distraction fight.”.
Mate: “I talked about how great you were at playing with the kids too!.” Defensive again but is giving into the feedback and shows they hear the feedback.
Partner: “You did. I liked that. I guess I forgot about that part.” –Positively reinforces the desired behavior. This would be a great moment to give a hug and shift away from the difficult conversation to something pleasurable.
People are often defensive when given feedback and act their worst. Some might think that being so ‘nice’ about your concerns, is letting the person mistreat them. But you are modeling how you wish to be treated and will be in a better position to ask for what you need because you’ve done so in a loving way.
About the author: Stacie Degeneffe LCSW is in private practice in Emeryville, CA providing psychotherapy to adults, couples, co-parents and families no matter how one defines, ‘family.’