Big No-Nos

9 Big Mistakes That Make Marital Arguments So Much Worse

If you’re not careful, these errors can cause minor arguments turn into major fights.

Originally Published: 

The rules of engagement for handling arguments within a relationship are well known. Don’t say mean or childish things. Keep a cool head. Listen actively. Ask questions. Avoid the word “you”. Take turns speaking. And so on and so forth. The goal is civility, kindness, understanding, and conflict resolution.

But, of course, tactics change in the heat of battle. Decorum may disappear altogether. Depending on the topic dirty tactics may be utilized. A common occurrence: One person seeks to end the skirmish quickly, but — maybe accidentally, maybe not — ends up saying something that compels the other to beat the drum of war harder.

Arguments are difficult. They may make you uncomfortable and act to end them quickly. Or you may try to be as binary as possible and focus only on facts instead of feelings and mistakenly hurt someone in the process. There are hundreds of outcomes. What we’re saying is that in trying to sidestep conflict, you may end up making a bigger mistake. You might, say, bring up past arguments in an attempt to end the current one quickly. Or dismissing the big feelings associated with an argument to try to minimize it. Avoiding an interaction altogether instead of facing it head on.

None of these tactics useful. But it’s important to know that they’re not useful, you know what we mean? So, here are nine common conflict resolution mistakes that tend to make arguments a lot worse. Try to steer clear of them.

1. Avoiding The Confrontation Altogether

Some may feel that the best way to resolve conflict is for there to be no conflict. However, arguments and disagreements are necessary for couples to address all sorts of issues, avoid resentment, and improve communication. By pretending the conflict doesn’t exist or just apologizing without ever engaging, you’re only paving the way for larger arguments and, likely, longterm resentments.

“Over time unresolved arguments can create tension that builds over time and erupts into larger fights,” says Dr. Carolina Estevez, a clinical psychologist at Infinite Recovery. “By addressing issues as they come up, couples can learn how to effectively communicate with each other and move forward together.”

2. Bringing Up Past Issues

When a person brings up the past, it’s a way for them to try and fortify their position as being “right,” and hopefully sway the other person around to their way of thinking. They believe that if the other person can see that they were wrong before, they’ll realize they are also wrong now. But when does it ever work that way? All this tactic does is make the other person more angry and feel like they’re being further persecuted. No one cares about the Parmesan Cheese Incident of 2019. Even if the outcome is similar, it shouldn’t be brought up. That was then. This is now.

“Trying to ‘fix’ the current problem by bringing up past issues or grievances can be a major mistake when attempting to resolve conflict,” says Estevez. “Bringing up things from the past can easily derail an argument and lead to more hurt feelings, resentment, and frustration.”

3. Cracking Jokes

Perhaps it was deployed to diffuse the tension during an argument. Maybe you were feeling nervous and couldn’t help but make an inappropriate comment to get your partner to crack a smile. Either way, the joke bombed. Easy to understand why: Making light of a situation — especially when the other person is trying to be heard — will almost always dial up the volume of an argument. It’s rude and invalidating. “This can inadvertently minimize the importance of the issue and make it difficult for both partners to take each other seriously,” says Estevez.

4. Making Assumptions

A first impulse when in the midst of an argument may be to say, “I know how you feel.” However, if you don’t actually know how your partner is feeling, or you haven’t actually been listening, this statement can come across as empty and uncaring. “This can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, as well as furthering any underlying issues that need to be addressed in order for a resolution to be reached,” Estevez says. Listen quietly but actively. Articulate your thoughts. Let them tell you what’s on their mind.

5. Bringing In A (Non-Professional) Third Party

During a disagreement, a person may look to someone else for help resolving it. A friend or colleague. Maybe a family member. The thinking here is that a neutral party may break the tension and help communicate the other person’s point of view. However, this rarely works as intended. “While these people may be able to offer some insight, they do not necessarily understand the full context of the situation,” says Steve Carleton, a licensed clinical social worker and the executive clinical director at Gallus Detox. “It's important for couples to realize that they should focus on solving the problem between them and not involve others who will only complicate things” The only time it's appropriate to have someone else involved is if they are a professional therapist or mediator and if both partners agree to it.

6. Trying to “Win” the Argument

Thinking that you can end the conflict by proving that they’re right and making the other person understand that will do nothing to ease tension between the two of you. As much as you may have a point, the other person does as well and it’s important for the both of you to find common ground. “This isn't a game,” Carleton says, “and it won't do either partner any good if one is trying to come out on top. Instead of this approach, try to focus on understanding each other and finding a compromise that works for both of you.”

7. Playing The Blame Game

During a heated disagreement, you might feel justified in pointing out your partner’s shortcomings, thinking that you can both come to an understanding or even make them see that, in your eyes, they’re treating you unfairly. This can take the form of saying things like, “Well, you do the same thing too,” or, “You always come down on me.”

Not a good move. Casting this kind of blame throws more fuel on the fire and does nothing to bring any kind of mutual understanding.

“Blaming and criticizing often make your partner feel defensive and attacked, making it harder for them to listen to your point of view,” says licensed psychologist Dr. Sarah Nicolas. But you didn’t need us to remind you that do you? You probably don’t need us to offer you a helpful tactic, but we will anyway: Use “I” statements as much as possible during arguments. They’re ideal for blame-free discussions.

8. Dialing Down Feelings

Attempting to deescalate a situation by saying things like, “I don’t know why you’re so upset,” or “This isn’t a big deal” is a tactic that will almost always leave you with a face full of soot (because it will backfire) To you, the situation may not be a big deal. You may not have even known that something was wrong. But your partner has feelings that, to them, are very real. Saying that those feelings are not a big deal will make them feel dismissed and keep the argument going. “A healthy way to combat this can be to acknowledge and validate your partner's feelings, even if you don't agree with their perspective,” says Nicolas. “This can help your partner feel heard, cared for, and respected.”

9. Interrupting

Saying something like, “Let me stop you right there,” or “I know what you’re about to say,” may be, in your mind, a way to head the conflict off at the pass. However, all you’re doing is interrupting your partner’s attempts to be heard and making it clear to them that you’re not interested in listening to what they have to say. Even if you do know what they’re about to say, it will make a world of difference if you actually let them say it.

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