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How to Have Healthier Arguments, According to Psychologists: Tips and Techniques
Tips for Having Healthier Arguments, According to Psychologists
Having a conflict-free relationship may seem like the ideal, but according to psychologists, arguing in a relationship is actually a sign of investment in the other person. Robert Allan, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, notes that people don’t fight with those they don’t care about. In healthy relationships, both romantic and platonic, conflicts should be viewed as an opportunity for positive change, says Maria Thestrup, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC. “Conflict is an opportunity for two people to actually grow and understand themselves better.”
In a study published in August 2019 in Family Process, researchers found that happily married couples do not argue less than couples in distress, but they do argue differently. Happy couples are better at problem-solving during disputes while avoiding negative and coercive exchanges. Therefore, arguing is not the problem, but rather the lack of knowledge on how to argue effectively, explains Dr. Thestrup.
Dr. Allan and Dr. Thestrup provide several tips to improve arguing in relationships, based on their experience treating married couples. However, these tips do not apply to abusive relationships where the conflict is toxic or traumatic.
It’s also worth noting that these tips can be used to improve arguing in any type of relationship, such as those with colleagues, family members, or friendships. Although family relationships may have different dynamics and history, these tips are still useful for seeing conflict as an opportunity for growth.
Begin with Respect
Dr. Thestrup suggests starting any argument with respect. Everyone has different experiences that influence what they find upsetting or what types of arguments make them uncomfortable. Establishing boundaries such as agreeing to avoid using toxic language like name-calling can be helpful in keeping the exchange productive and positive, even when disagreeing with the other person. By setting boundaries, you show respect to the other person while disagreeing with them. However, Dr. Allan reminds us to be flexible, especially during emotional moments when it’s challenging to be a perfect communicator.
Come With an Open Mind
Don’t judge the argument before it has even started. “That means setting aside your ego and what you think is right and true. Really listen to your partner when they come to you with a problem or a complaint,” advises Maria Thestrup, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC.
Recognize Underlying Pain Points
If you keep getting into the same fight over and over again, take time to think about why. Ask yourself: “What is happening for me? What is happening for the other person?” Even long-married couples often repeat the same argument because of past pain, such as something that occurred in childhood. Recognizing when the fight isn’t really about what your partner is doing can make those conflicts less emotionally fraught, making it more likely that you will reach a resolution.
Share Your Feelings
Effective communication in relationships often involves sharing your feelings. Instead of blaming the other person, try sharing how their actions make you feel. For example, instead of saying, “You didn’t clean up the dishes,” try saying “Seeing dirty dishes in the sink makes me feel like you don’t care.” Be objective in your facts and follow that up with what you need or how you would like the other person to resolve the problem. Try: “It would make me feel a lot better if you put the dishes in the dishwasher before bed.”
Practice Active Listening
Active listening is a psychotherapeutic technique where the therapist listens to a client closely, asking questions as needed, in order to fully understand the content of the message and the depth of the client’s emotion. The same technique can help during arguments with a partner, friend, or family member because it forces you to focus on what the other person is saying and where they’re coming from. Listen closely to the other person, restate what they’re saying to show you understand, and ask questions to clarify. Avoid offering your rebuttals right away. Practicing mindfulness can help train your brain to do this better by teaching yourself to focus on the moment or task at hand.
Keep in Mind That You’re a Team
It’s important to remember that you’re in a relationship with your partner and that you’re having this argument in order to work together to solve a problem, rather than against each other, says Allan. Don’t assume bad intentions.
Take a Break if Necessary
If things get too heated, don’t hesitate to take a break and come back to the conflict at a later time, advises Allan. Perhaps you always seem to argue in the morning as you’re getting ready to start the day, or maybe you’re too tired to handle a disagreement at night before bed. Instead, agree to a time that works for both of you, and use that time to discuss the issue calmly and rationally.
Aim for a Resolution
Even if a disagreement becomes heated or difficult, it’s important to work towards a resolution, says Thestrup. Taking a break is okay if you need a timeout or if you don’t have time to deal with the problem immediately. However, if you abandon the issue entirely, it will eventually resurface.
Stay Curious and Reflective
Ask yourself what your part is in the conflict, and try to understand what triggered you in the first place, suggests Thestrup. By recognizing what upsets you, you’re more likely to find opportunities for personal growth and understanding.