What’s more fun than arguing with your partner about what you said versus what you meant for hours on end? Almost anything. But every couple has disagreements, so learning how to resolve conflicts without driving each other insane is crucial in keeping a marriage together.
“Research shows that getting angry with one another is not a problem and that couples who fight can have long, happy relationships,” says Dianne Chambless, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied pronoun use in marital communications. “But it’s a matter of how you do it.”
Most couples realize that screaming and hurling insults (and objects) at each other when they’re angry probably isn’t good for their relationships. But they might not understand that even in much less volatile arguments, seemingly insignificant words or phrases can have a major impact on their ability to keep fights from escalating as well as on the overall health of their relationships.
In the first 10 years of marriage, people typically argue about interpretations, misunderstandings, and differing expectations of marriage, says Gina Simmons Schneider, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist and co-director of Schneider Counseling and Corporate Solutions in San Diego, California. These early marriage conflicts can be gateways to deeper intimacy, however, because hopefully over time, people learn what their partner’s emotional needs are, she adds.
“Most couples have one fight for the entire marriage,” Simmons Schneider says. “The content of that fight can change, but the underlying need remains the same.”
Happily married couples learn ways to speed up the fight, she says, in large part by being mindful of their partners’ communication styles (as well as their pet peeves, non-negotiables, and emotional boundaries). Experts differ about how many different communication styles there are and how they’re each defined, but generally, people tend to be aggressive or more passive when communicating or tend to be direct or indirect most of the time. In any case, here are seven tips to help you along the way.
1. Establish ground rules
Some couples can scream, curse, stomp around and slam doors during arguments and then be totally fine after they apologize to each other, Simmons Schneider says. But others might find that a stressful and unbearable way to live. A healthy first step, then, is establishing some rules of engagement in how you and your partner resolve conflicts.
Psychologists often advise couples to talk out problems immediately and not let them fester, but some couples with less direct communication styles might be more successful agreeing to wait a bit until tempers cool before settling an issue, says Deborah Tannen Ph.D., a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of You Just Don’t Understand!: Women and Men in Conversation and You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.
In fact, she says, couples’ enthusiasm for “talking it out” in general often splits along gender lines: “Many women tend to think that a relationship is working if they talk things out frequently, whereas men feel it’s not working if they have to keep talking things out.”
How quickly couples should address an issue relates to another common piece of relationship advice that many couples should ignore: “Never go to bed angry.” One person might think it’s healthier to hash things out right away rather than stew about them all night. But that approach might make his or her partner shut down emotionally because they’re not ready to talk about it. The rule does work for some couples, but won’t for others. “It’s hard to give blanket, across-the-board advice for every couple,” says Tannen. “It really varies.”
What will help most couples argue more fairly is making an effort to adjust to each other’s communication styles, Simmons Schneider says. For example, if cursing during an argument is normal to one partner but really bothers the other, making an effort to keep language PG when they fight — particularly if he or she asks you to do so — can have a positive impact, Simmons Schneider says.
“When you adapt to the boundaries of your partner, you show caring and love,” she Simmons Schneider says. “Those rules of engagement, if honored, make each person feel cared about and respected.”
Four rules of communication that have been shown to be effective in marriages are signaling understanding, being rational, being concise and showing consideration. One study found that adherence to these rules — particularly showing understanding about what your partner is trying to say — has a positive effect on relationship quality. Here are some tips for putting them into practice.
2. Understand When to Use “I” and When to Use “We”
Using “I” statements during arguments, as in, “I feel hurt when you look at your cell phone when I’m trying to talk to you,” rather than “you” statements, such as “You’re not listening” allows the other person to see your vulnerability without triggering defensiveness, Simmons Schneider says. Just make sure you’re listening to your partner’s concerns as well, otherwise a string of “I” statements can come off as selfish and demanding, she adds.
Another plus of “I” statements is that it’s more difficult for your partner to argue when you use them because you’re talking about how you feel and what you need, Tannen says. Saying “I need more help with this” won’t elicit a litany of defensive protests like “You don’t do a good enough job cleaning the baby’s bottles” might, for example.
Although communicating with “I” statements can be helpful when resolving conflicts, getting into a “we” mindset on a big-picture level tends to lead to greater harmony. Couples that use “we” rather than “I” when talking about their marriages are less likely to divorce, marriage research expert John Gottman https://www.gottman.com, Ph.D., has found.
“We” statements can be helpful at certain points in an argument, too. It signals collaboration, so saying “We have a problem we need to discuss,” for example, will likely be met with less resistance than “I need you to talk to you about something that’s bothering me,” Simmons Schneider says.
Coming from a “we” perspective where you honor your relationship, you’re less likely to have a “Who’s winning?” mindset and will be more likely to focus on getting your relationship to a better place, Chambless says.
3. Don’t criticize
This one sounds simple, but it can get complicated when someone insists, for example, that he or she isn’t criticizing but merely “stating my feelings” or worse, “stating a fact.” Sure, “You’re always so cranky after work, and it makes me mad” is kind of an expression of feelings, but it’s cocooned in criticism.
“People in happy marriages tend to edit,” Chambless says. “When they’re about to blurt out something nasty or critical, they stop for a minute and rephrase what they’re going to say or wait and talk when they’re calmer.”
4. Avoid absolutes
Another problem with the “You’re always so cranky” example above is that statements such as “You ‘never’ or ‘always’ do this,” are usually a sign you’re not communicating fairly, Chambless says, “because it’s rarely actually the case, so they often become fighting words.”
It verges on character assassination, she says. “You’re saying ‘This is how you are’ instead of asking the person to change a behavior.”
Rather than opening a discussion with “You always let the kids stay up too late,” something like, “I think we have a problem getting the kids to bed at a consistent time, so we should figure out a solution” signals that you want to work together to fix a problem rather than point out that you’re unhappy with your partner’s parenting skills.
5. Be specific
Couples often argue without realizing they’re not even talking about the same thing, Chambless says. So they first need to identify the problem before tackling solutions. Although it can sound kind of hokey (as in, “I hear that you’re frustrated that I didn’t clean up the Play-Doh our son smeared into the carpet before you got home”), a good way to clearly identify the issue is to repeat what your partner just said to you so he or she knows you get it.
“Often there’s a back and forth with each person trying to convince the other that they’re right,” Tannen says. “If you rephrase what the other person is saying, and they realize that you know what they’re saying and understand their point of view, they won’t keep repeating it.”
Repeating what was said lets people know that their partners were really listening and not just formulating a defense, which is a crucial piece, Chambless says.
If you’re the one with the issue, try to be as specific as possible rather than making big general statements such as “I feel like you don’t love me,” which can feel overwhelming and hard to understand, Simmons Schneider says. More specific statements, such as, “Lately you haven’t been affectionate with me. That makes me feel unloved. I would love it if we could be more affectionate with each other like we used to” allow for clearer understanding.
“The magic formula of, ‘I feel (emotion word), when you (specific behavior), and I would like, (specific behavior),’ helps to contain arguments to something manageable,” Simmons Schneider says. “It also tells your partner how to please you.”
6. Embrace the apology
It’s a gender stereotype that appears to have lingered: Many men hate apologizing, Tannen says. In fact, a classic argument among married couples is when a wife wants an apology and the husband refuses to give one, she notes.
“The [underlying] message for women seems to be ‘If you won’t apologize, you don’t care that you hurt my feelings,’ while the [underlying] message for men is ‘You’re trying to get me to apologize to humiliate me or get me in a one-down position,’” she explains.
Men often resent the need for an apology, Tannen says, because they think, “Of course I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, so why do I have to say it?” Or “I already said I wouldn’t do the thing you said bothers you anymore, so why are you rubbing my nose in it?”
If an argument appears to be stagnating, it could be because she wants an apology that didn’t occur to you to deliver. If you’re not sure, there’s an easy fix: Ask, “Would it help if I apologized?”
7. Remember: What you don’t say can be as helpful as what you do say
If you’re so angry that you’re on the verge of saying destructive things, it’s important to wait to discuss whatever the problem is until you’re more under control, Chambless says. Venomous statements can have incredibly damaging effects and linger long after an apology, no matter how heartfelt.
“After you say something really nasty, you can apologize but you can’t make it go away,” she says, adding that happily married couples will stop that early on by learning to switch from negative to neutral during arguments.
“When you find yourself in interactions saying one negative thing after another, there needs to be a part of your brain that says, ‘Wait a minute, let’s put the brakes on this’” Chambless says.
Partners prone to nasty outbursts should train themselves to breathe and count before blurting out nasty statements, or they might want to just say they’re upset and need some time to collect their thoughts but promise to discuss it later.
“I can’t emphasize enough how that kind of treatment needs to be avoided,” Chambless says. “It’s so destructive that if people can’t learn to stop doing it, little else will matter.”