Arguments are a natural part of marriage. They are necessary to push one another, to settle disagreements, to make feelings known, and arrive at the best solutions. But, of course, not all argument tactics are created equal. When spats are recurring, explosive, frequent, or never move on to solving a real problem that exists couples need to recalibrate the way they talk and discuss their issues and, well, figure out how to fight “well.”
Dr. Anthony Chambers, the Chief Academic Officer of The Family Institute and the Director of the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies at Northwestern University has witnessed a lot of arguments. The three topics that couples fight the most often about are — surprise, surprise — money, sex, and parenting. Differences about priorities in saving or spending money are often a hot topic, as are the frequency and quality of sex, and differing parenting strategies. However, underlying all of these fights are generally an idea that Chambers considers to be flawed: “fairness.” Couples, he says, should not worry about fairness as much as they should happiness, because worrying about fairness often leads to resentment, which is relationship napalm. Fatherly spoke to Chambers to identify the common mistakes that couples make while fighting — and how to sidestep them completely in order to fight, well, “well.”
Big Mistake: They Criticize Their Partner as a Person
Arguments are likely to go from bad to worse when couples start the conversations by critiquing their partner’s value as a human being. There’s a difference between a person saying, “My feelings are hurt because you did x, y, and z” and, “You do x, y, and z all the time.” When criticisms toward a partner’s behavior become a conversation about that person’s overall value, arguments are sure to blow up and become a much bigger and worse conversation than they need to be. And it leads to defensiveness — another cardinal sin in an argument.
The Solution: Be as Specific in Your Criticism As Possible
In order to stop a conversation from being about legitimate critique of a partner’s behavior to a comment on their personhood, make sure that all conversations are as specific as possible, and use “I” statements as much as possible, as in, “I felt hurt when I saw you do this, because x, y, and z.” The other thing that couples need to keep in mind, per Chambers, is that fairness is not what matters in a relationship. Happiness does.
“We all have the right to be right, but there’s just a very low correlation between being right and being happy. One thing I’m always trying to work with couples on is being able to focus on what is going to be helpful in this moment and what will help them increase their happiness.” So, calling your partner a thoughtless person because they forgot to do the dishes before you came home again even though they promised? That could be correct. But it won’t make anyone happier.
The Big Mistake: Getting Defensive
A conversation about relationship problems can go off the rails quickly when one person immediately gets defensive, says Chambers. “Sometimes I’ll work with couples where, the minute their partner brings up something, they say, ‘Oh, that’s not true.’ And all of the sudden they’re going back and forth debating that. They don’t ever get to understanding what the real problem is, and what’s behind it all, let alone even getting to a solution, because they disagree with the definition to begin with. That’s one of the things that can escalate a conversation to a confrontation,” says Chambers. If one person’s immediate reaction to a partner bringing up a problem is to disagree that it’s even a problem at all, that will almost assuredly lead to a bad and unproductive argument.
The Solution: Display Trust in Your Partner
If someone in the relationship is coming to the other with a problem, it’s a natural reaction to try to fight against that problem by thinking it doesn’t exist. But that’s the wrong way to handle concerns, says Chambers. “Start with the assumption that there is some validity to your partner’s concerns. Once you can feel that validity, start to embrace curiosity — even if you don’t understand the problem. You at least want to be able to approach it through the lens of being curious, rather than being judgmental or critical. That is something that can really help to open up the conversation, and to be able to help and understand each other, in a much better, more nuanced way,” he says.
The Big Mistake: They Stonewall and Invalidate One Another
Sometimes, especially when the same argument about money or sex or the kids has happened more than once, couples start what Chambers refers to as ‘stonewalling’ each other. “Stonewalling is incredibly toxic. When your partner is trying to communicate with you, and you just shut down and are not voicing anything, that can be one of the things that escalate a fight as well,” says Chambers.
The Solution: Prioritize Making One Another Feel Heard
Stonewalling is often a tool that couples employ when they have started to feel resentful of one another. The only way to avoid stonewalling is by preventing resentment to build up in relationships, says Chambers. There is no opposite or cure: just work through the built up resentment, be honest, and listen.
“Resentment doesn’t happen in any one interaction. Resentment comes from feeling wronged, repeatedly, over time. If you feel like the conversation won’t go anywhere or you’re not going to be able to voice your opinion, when you get to a place where you become resentful, stonewalling is one of the ways that we cope. The best thing to do is to avoid that. And you avoid that by maintaining that there is validity in your partner’s concerns, and by being curious about what your partner is coming to you with. That will help you maintain a certain level of closeness and connection.”
The Big Mistake: They Bring Up Issues At The Wrong Moment
There is almost no value in starting a serious conversation about issues in a relationship after a few drinks, warns Chambers. “If you have a few glasses of wine, your defenses are down, unfortunately, in a bad way. You are going to say whatever is on the top of your mind. It’s important to be thoughtful when you’re having a conversation about a hard topic.” Otherwise, things might be said that each partner doesn’t mean, feelings will be hurt, and a regular conversation will turn into a blow out.
The Solution Plan Time to Have Big Talks
While being able to talk freely about feelings and concerns is deeply important in a relationship, anything that a partner does that ticks the other person off when drunk or out with friends our at a family dinner can wait. A marriage will not end tomorrow if the issue isn’t brought up. In order for couples to have healthy, calm, and productive conversations, they need to have scheduled times where they can air out their grievances, says Chambers. “It’s helpful for a couple to be able to have some predictability. Couples need to be aligned on what timing will work for both of them, so that you can approach the conversation with the right mindset.”
The Big Mistake: They Don’t Pause. Or, If They Do, Don’t Return to the Fight.
It’s critically important for couples to take breaks during tough conversations, especially when they start to feel upset, anxious, or angry, says Chambers. Not taking a break when getting increasingly angry will not help de-escalate a fight. But there’s also a difference between taking a break in an argument and straight up walking away and making a partner feel unheard with no announced plan to return to the tough conversation at hand.
The Solution: Take Breaks and Make Set Times to Re-Engage
“I’ve worked with couples who say, “I took a time out,” and then the other person says ‘You walked out and left the conversation.’ That’s not a time out. You really want to be able to communicate to your partner that this is a hard topic, and important topic, and that you’re starting to get too frustrated, and that you will revisit the conversation.” In other words, walking away pissed off isn’t a break, it’s stonewalling. Communicate that you need a break — say you can finish the conversation in five minutes or tomorrow.
The Big Mistake: They Only Focus On Diagnosing The Problem
Being able to figure out what the real problem is that’s driving conflict between a couple is deeply important. But the conversation can’t stay “stuck” on what the problem is, warns Chambers. Sticking on diagnosing the problem alone will drive feelings of hopelessness, anger, and upset.
The Solution: Keep Your Eye on the End Game
Focusing forever on the problem itself won’t help, says Chambers. “Couples need to move away from diagnosing the problem, and getting more focused on how to solve the problem. Having a solution-oriented conversation can be incredibly helpful, and it’s much more hopeful and reassuring when you feel like you have a partner you are working with who can try and solve this problem, rather than assigning blame.”