One of the most useful skills in a marriage is learning how to argue well. No, not using the art of persuasion to always get your way, but understanding how to listen, how to engage, how to start a discussion, how to resolve a conflict. An important part of this process is knowing when to press pause. Pressing pause on an argument — that is, recognizing when a big discussion is about to reach that point of no return and agreeing to take a timeout to collect your thoughts — is especially important. This keeps things from going off the rails and allows you both space to think.
But when you’re having one of those big arguments that doesn’t reach an easy resolution and needs to be paused, how do you return to it without ramping things up to where they were when you took a break? Even if you have the best intentions, it’s easy to bring one another’s blood back to a boiling point again. Unresolved arguments can hang in the air, free to do their damoclesian dangle, before they suddenly fall and pop whatever bubble of calm lays beneath them. So it’s important to clear the air. But doing so requires some technique. Here’s what to know the next time you have big fight.
1. Set a schedule
Sticking to a specific time frame can be helpful for arguments. Shannon Gunnip, a licensed mental health counselor, says that, particular for those who dread conflict, it may be helpful to specifically designate a time to resume the conversation. “This way, both parties know when to expect to talk about the problem again and will have time to cool off and prepare for the conversation,” she says. That distance away from a problem is helpful to collect your thoughts, but without reconvening, it’s moot. Plan time to talk again the next night so there’s a deadline to work towards.
2. Maintain your daily routine
It may sound impossible with the 800-lb gorilla of an argument in the room, but Gunnip suggests that acting normal can help reduce the potential of a repeat incident, and lead to a resolution. “In the time between the initial conversation and the scheduled time to resume, it is important to continue business as usual in the relationship if appropriate,” she says. “This means keeping your existing routines and setting aside the conflict until you choose to discuss it again.” In other words, the conversation is on pause, not the entire relationship.
3. Be vulnerable
Showing vulnerability is always crucial. But, according to Gunnip, it’s especially so when there’s an argument hanging in the air. “It shows trust,” she says. “Letting ourselves be vulnerable tells our partners that we trust them, and are invested in strengthening the relationship through these difficult conversations.” Setting the example early can also lead to a healthier compromise. “Sharing your vulnerable emotional experiences with your partner promotes feelings of closeness and may inspire them to be vulnerable with you too. Additionally, when we recognize the underlying feelings at play in a conflict, it becomes easier to have empathy and reach a resolution.”
4. Don’t assume you know why your partner is upset
Assuming you understand the underlying problem is a mistake to be avoided. “Sometimes we think we know why a person is upset about something, but really it’s something else,” says Dr. Matthew Welsh, a licensed clinical psychologist. “You have to ask your partner exactly what is going on.” Asking for this clarification allows your partner to explain their side of the story more effectively, he adds. “It validates their feelings in the process. You don’t have to agree with them, but you can use active listening and empathy to make them feel valued and understood.”
5. Focus on “I” statements when you reconvene
Ah yes, “I” statements. We’ve all heard this advice before. But it really works. Arguments have a tendency to cause accusations. Once you’re ready to regroup, consider how much finger-pointing you did in your partner’s direction, and reverse your approach. “You can let the other person know that their behavior affects you without making them feel attacked,” says Dr. Welsh. It’s hard to argue with someone’s feelings because they’re feelings. Expressing them in ways that lead with ‘I’ (‘I felt X when you did Y’) can be helpful in de-escalating the situation because they’re specific and honest.” Gunnip agrees, saying that one of the best ways to frame your vulnerability (see above) is with an ‘I felt’ statement that describes your emotional reaction to a particular event.
6. Focus on one thing at a time
“When the discussion does resume, stick to your goal of resolving the initial conflict,” advises Gunnip. “Any other conflicts that have arisen in the meantime should be discussed at a later point.” The reason is simple: Trying to tackle too many conflicts in one conversation can feel overwhelming and lead one or both partners to lash out, or shut down, neither of which bring you closer to resolution. Keeping the focus on one thing at a time lets your partner know that you care about resolving this conflict. “If your partner tries to introduce another fight into the conversation, try saying, ‘I think it’s important to discuss that, and before we do, I want to try to get to the bottom of our initial conflict first,’” he says.
7. Take your time
“Some of us may feel pressure to resolve conflict quickly to restore a sense of peace,” says Gunnip. “But this isn’t always possible. When we become too frustrated to have a productive conversation, we need to let those intense emotions pass.” Gunnip suggests articulating your frustration in a diplomatic way, and then trying to vent outside the confines of the argument. “Physical exercise, listening to music, or talking it through with someone you trust are effective ways to let intense feelings run their course so that they aren’t clouding your mind when you resume the conversation with your partner.”
8. Focus on recovering together
Not all arguments reach desired resolutions. Even the end of one can be frustrating in hindsight. But a healthy argument will make you stronger as a couple, so it’s important to remember that the battle isn’t you vs. your partner; it’s you and your partner vs. the problem. “Tell your partner what you need from them, and ask them what they need from you,” says Dr. Welsh. “Be as specific as possible so that you can draw on the successful solution moving forward.” Gunnup adds to take note of what you’ve both learned. “It is completely normal for couples to have disagreements from time to time,” he says. “What’s critical is that, when you do regroup to resolve them, you do so thoughtfully, intentionally, and together.”