Disagreements are natural in any human relationship, and generally unavoidable between two people who spend as much time together as a romantic couple (don’t even get us started on quarantining with your S.O.).
You can’t not fight occasionally. But fighting with your partner is an art and a science. There are right ways and wrong ways to navigate disagreements. Done wrong, they turn into fights where everybody says hurtful things they don’t mean and add grievances to the relationship.
Done right, though, a disagreement is an opportunity to get to know your partner better, build trust between you both, and develop a deeper and more intimate relationship. Here’s how to do it right.
The first rule of relationship fight club is to only talk about the important things. It might annoy you that your partner never rinses the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, but is that really where you want to focus your disagreement energy? Save it for the big stuff. Arguing over the little things can lead to… arguing a lot.
There’s something called the “Gottman Ratio,” created by relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman. It looks at the comparative number of positive vs. negative interactions a couple has over the course of a day, week, month, or lifetime. It was developed as an accurate predictor of whether a relationship would be a lasting one.
If you’re having at least five positive interactions for every one negative, you’re in good shape. Less than that, and there’s likely to be trouble. It’s hard to keep that ratio solid if you’re bringing up every little thing.
We’ve all met that person at a party — the one who doesn’t seem to care what you have to say, but just seems to pause in their own monologue long enough to give you a turn to speak. That same behavior quickly turns relationship disagreements into a full-blown fight.
Another warning sign is listening to what your partner says with a focus on how to defeat their arguments, rather than listening to find a mutual solution. It’s kinda like that one relative you have on Facebook who wants to “debate” but really just wants to tear down your ideas. It’s unhelpful.
One way to both keep yourself on the right track, and to help indicate to your partner that you’re truly listening, is using a technique called “reflective listening.” Once they’ve finished speaking, start your sentence with “Let me see if I understand you correctly…” Then briefly paraphrase the core concept they just tried to communicate.
Not “please” and “thank you” — although those are also surprisingly helpful when you’re talking about anything with your partner. In this context, we’re talking about a handful of powerful phrases that can keep the conversation on topic and keep the dangerously powerful emotions on the sidelines.
One of the most important is the “You/I” statement. For example, “When you call me by my pet name in public, I feel embarrassed and humiliated.” These statements clearly identify the problem, and cast it in the light of how the two of you interact.
Similarly, starting a sentence with “I’m feeling…” or “I feel” tells your partner about what you need without using language to hurt and blame them. It takes responsibility for your emotions and lays them on the table so you can focus together against the problem.
Other important magic words include:
- “Let’s talk about a solution.”
- “I’m feeling defensive right now.”
- “We were both wrong.”
- And of course the ultimate set of magic words: “I’m sorry.”
You’ve likely done this, and had it done to you. It’s very common, and sometimes easy to do by accident. For example, your partner mentions how much they don’t like that you’re texting with your ex, and you bring up that time they had coffee with their ex when they were in town for a conference.
Your feelings about your partner and their ex are valid, and worth exploring, but not during the conversation about you and your ex. Bringing it up muddies the waters, and makes it harder to come to a solution on the initial situation.
If you’re tempted to mention those things, you might be working from your Monkey Brain. (More on that in a minute.)
Despite our best intentions, sometimes a disagreement will get out of hand. You’ll be discussing emotionally loaded topics with somebody who’s important to you, potentially about things that might impact the rest of your life. Disagreements will spiral into a fight sometimes, and fighting almost never helps a relationship.
When you reach an impasse where productive conversation isn’t likely, or you find yourself too angry to engage rationally, it’s time to take a break. You won’t get anything good out of continuing the argument, and you might say things that cause new issues of their own.
Establish a conversational safe word by which either member of the discussion can “tap out” until things get less heated.
This isn’t storming out of the conversation in a huff, or stomping downstairs to sleep on the couch. It also isn’t putting off a difficult discussion because you don’t want to have it. This is “tapping out” temporarily so you can breathe, celebrate the better parts of your relationship, and maybe even get some advice from another person before you return to the topic.
“Monkey brain” is the primitive, animal part of your psyche. The one that must be right, that must win, that must attack and destroy its opponents. It was useful to our ancestors, and can help you in real fight/flight situations… but it’s terrible for relationships.
Your monkey brain is the one that pushes you to say “Well, what about that time when you…” It’s the part of you that’s tempted to call your partner mean names, or to belittle them. It’s the impulse to win an argument because to admit you’re wrong would make you feel weak.
Getting into a monkey brain headspace is natural when you feel attacked or frightened, both of which can be common when your partner is asking you for changes. But you’re the boss of it. If you feel its influence, first try to push the impulses back down and continue with a listening, loving conversation.
If you feel like throwing verbal and emotional poop at your partner is unavoidable, use that “pause button” to get things back under control.
Not all of these habits come naturally to most people, but then again there was a time when standing upright and tying your shoes didn’t come naturally. Practice is key — as is patience, awareness, and the desire for a positive outcome. Fighting may be part of your relationship, but love can always win.
Jason Brick is a freelance writer and journalist who came to that career after over a decade in the health and wellness industry. When not writing, he cooks, practices martial arts, and spoils his wife and two fine sons. He lives in Oregon.