Here’s how a typical argument goes in my home: My boyfriend or I do something that annoys the other, someone raises his or her voice or snaps at the other, I start to cry, he feels like “the bad guy” because I’m crying, and one of us storms out. We don’t fight often, but every time it seems to follow this pattern.
No matter what we’re arguing about, the result is the same — and it’s never satisfying, because nothing gets resolved. After the umpteenth such disagreement, I wanted to find out how we could “fight better.” I asked Sherry Amatenstein, a New York-based couples therapist, for some advice. She said that arguing can be healthy “as long as you can both actually hear each other.”
When you’re just in your own head, however, you assume you know what the other person is going to say, and “you’re usually not right,” she said. “It’s about getting empathy for the other person and understanding why they feel the way they do and where it comes from. You don’t need to agree; you just need to at least understand.”
The problem with fights like mine is that neither party “wins,” or feels satisfied, in the end. The specifics of the argument fall by the wayside when you’re so hurt that you can’t process the actual complaint being aired. If you aren’t getting to the root of the problem, why bother? Then you’re just duking it out for argument’s sake.
How can you stop yourself from slipping into the same old patterns? Nicole, a 44-year-old Seattle woman who spoke on condition that her last name not be used, found a useful strategy for arguments that cropped up while traveling: She had the equivalent of a safe word that she and her ex would use.
“We always kept a bottle of Fanta in the car or in one of our bags,” she told me. “If either one of us got frustrated enough with the situation to yell ‘Fanta break,’ we’d pull over. Or, if there was a cafe, we’d sit down with a bottle of Fanta and two blessed, glorious glasses of ice, drink our soda, and make a plan.”
“Fanta break” was their cue to pause and refresh.
In a similar vein, Amatenstein has given out clown noses to clients, to put on when they find themselves reenacting a fight they don’t want to be part of. The noses, like Fanta for Nicole, are objects that help the arguers snap out of their anger and signal they both need to step away from the heated discussion and calm down. She also recommends wearing a rubber band around your wrist and snapping it as a reminder to say only what you truly mean. She advises clients to take a breath and consider: “How am I going to feel after I say this?”
Some couples set ground rules for their fights. For Crista, 33, of Richmond, Va., her basic rules with her partner are: no name-calling, no door-slamming and no walking away in the middle of a fight. They’ve also imposed brief periods of unplugging, which is challenging for two self-professed “Internet fiends,” so that they can be sure the other person is listening. “When one of us is talking about something sensitive or important, even if it’s just for a minute or two, the other shuts their laptop or puts the tablet down or out of view.”
Fighting isn’t all bad, of course. Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson, a couple who together wrote “Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships,” emphasized that fighting is an inevitable part of a long-term partnership. “People who think their relationships are conflict-free are likely to be deceiving themselves and bottling things up. This usually happens at the expense of the relationship,” they told me.
In their relationship, Johnson will call a time-out when she finds herself thinking, “I’m right, and once I say this next phrase, Mark is going to admit how very right I am,” because she’s self-aware enough to know that that’s probably not how the conversation is going to play out. They also schedule difficult conversations in advance “so that we have ample time to discuss things and no one is blind-sided.” They also recommend non-verbal solutions, such as gazing into each other’s eyes in silence, to diffuse tension.
Often, figuring out what will work for a given couple takes trial and error. Crista says a major breakthrough moment for her was realizing that — once her partner validates her feelings, rational or not — her anger, and her desire to be angry, melts away. As Amatenstein put it: “We all want to feel gotten.” When everyone feels like they’re being understood, you can “go to a place of problem-solving,” she advised. For an argument to be useful, it has to move the discussion forward, rather than go in circles.
Michaels and Johnson encourage people to look inward and develop enough self-awareness to recognize their roles in any fight. Specifically, they suggest: “Knowing whether you really need to speak, striving to be kind even when you’re livid, being able to put fights on hold if the time or place is inappropriate all go a long way toward less intense confrontations and quicker, smoother outcomes.”
Will that be easy? Probably not. Is it worth trying? Absolutely.