Perfecting the art of the argument is easier said than done, right? I’ll admit when it comes to fighting fair with my partner of five years, I’m not the best at keeping my cool. After all, intimacy means we’re experts at pushing each other’s buttons as we strive to reach a resolution. And by “resolution” I mean that one of us (me) emerges victorious as we go head-to-head dissecting even the most minor grievance or communication fail.
But that’s the problem, according to William Schroeder, co-owner and counselor at Just Mind, LLC. In a fight with your spouse, anointing a winner should never be the goal. “The downfall that traps a lot of couples is focusing on winning an argument as opposed to progressing,” he explains. “The goal in an argument isn’t to out-logic one another. You have to drop your armor and sword and approach each other with vulnerability, which can be very uncomfortable.”
So, is there a blueprint for a fight that’s fair with your spouse? Yes. And per Erin Wiley, a marriage counselor and executive director of The Willow Center, just like with any skill, practice makes perfect.
The 5 Rules of Fighting Fair with Your Spouse
1. Identify your emotions. Ask yourself: Are you angry? Are you hurt? Frustrated? Disappointed? Your emotions have a tendency to carry you away, which means logic goes out the window, Wiley explains. “It’s as simple as saying, ‘OK, what is happening inside of me right now?’ Identify that emotion first.”
2. Process those emotions. Your spouse just asked you to load the dishwasher, a task you both know you aren’t very good at. You start loading it and can feel them watching and judging you the whole time—and it pisses you off. Now you need to identify why their actions are eliciting that response from you. “In other words, why are you mad? Is it because you know your partner is seconds away from lecturing you on how to do this? Because this makes you feel inferior and like a child with a parent yelling at you? Whatever the reason, this step is about being mindful and present enough to identify your feelings, but also why this experience is problematic for you,” Wiley says.
3. Share how you feel. Now you have to make a choice: Will you share your feelings in a kind way or a mean way? Per Wiley, this is where a “soft startup” should come into play. Coined by the Gottman Institute, it’s the idea that an argument ends the same way it begins, so if you enter into it full of accusations and negativity, it won’t end well. “Basically, you want to complain without any blame,” she says. “Focus on the facts.” For the dishwasher example, you could say: ‘I feel overwhelmed when you look at me while I’m doing this because it makes me feel like I’m being judged.’ This is much more productive than saying, ‘If you look over at me one more time, I will never load this dishwasher again.’ Your goal should be to lodge a complaint, but remove any overt criticism or negative tone.
4. Confirm that you’ve been understood. As you near the end of an argument, the goal isn’t that you both agree, it’s that you understand each other’s point of view. Say: ‘You can think I’m wrong, but do you understand what I’m saying?’ What you’re seeking here is validation, says Wiley. It helps to hear each other’s interpretation of the events that just transpired as you work to get on the same page. It might just be saying, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ but at least you know where the other person stands.
5. End with a compromise and a solution. This is what Wiley refers to as the ‘what are we going to do about it’ phase. Back to the dishwasher: The solution might be that your partner needs to leave the room while you load the dishes, or that no comments are allowed while the dishwasher is being loaded. “You can propose a lot of solutions and they’re not all going to stick,” Wiley says. “Still, you want to throw out ideas for a fix versus accusations.”
More Do’s and Don’ts of a Healthy Argument
In addition to a step-by-step approach to a better argument with your partner, it’s helpful to also lay out some ground rules, explains Schroeder. For example, name-calling is a no-no, no matter what you’re fighting about. But it’s also critical that you keep tabs on your emotional temperature throughout. “Nothing productive is ever said or accomplished when we are in a state of fight or flight,” Schroeder explains. “The logical part of our brain is hijacked in moments like this and it’s why people tend to say things they regret.” If you need a cool-down period, simply ask for one. “You can approach things again when your system is more regulated.”
Additionally, instead of listening for statements you disagree with in the heat of a fight, listen for the truth in what your partner says. “Scanning for what we agree with is a very different mental system that can help you actually make progress during a discussion,” Schroeder says.
It’s also a good idea to lean on humor and brief moments of agreement while in the heat of an argument. “Ultimately, you want to show that you know how to work with one another and—even when upset—you turn towards each other versus against,” he adds.
And in the same way that you shouldn’t let arguments fester for days, Wiley is clear that you should do your best to be thoughtful when deciding whether or not the thing that’s ticking you off needs to be brought up. “Do you need to engage in every instance that leaves you frustrated, hurt or annoyed? Probably not.”
Bottom line: Fights happen. But if you prioritize making them productive, your relationship will be better for it.