Whether we call it a heated discussion, disagreement, or fight, arguing with someone we love is never easy. It can leave us feeling upset, frustrated, and even guilty about things we wish we had never said. Try as we might to avoid it, conflict is inevitable in any close relationship. However, there are things we can do to communicate more effectively while making sure we respect our partner’s feelings and, ultimately, make an argument feel a little more constructive.
1. Own your piece
We all know it’s best to describe our partner’s behavior when sharing something we’re upset about. As much as possible, it also helps to focus on our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Sharing the way we feel and proposing how we’d like things to be different (e.g., “I feel hurt when you… I think it could help if you…”) can help our partner hear our message without feeling personally attacked or blamed.
Focusing on our own reactions can be equally important when we’re disagreeing with our partner
Owning our piece of an argument goes beyond using “I statements”. It’s about knowing what sets us off and recognizing how our particular vulnerabilities make us feel like benign comments are personal attacks. It’s also important to take responsibility for our piece of the conflict. Focusing on our own reactions can be equally important when we’re disagreeing with our partner. Instead of being defensive (e.g., “Actually, this is your fault” or “You’re overreacting”) saying something like “I don’t necessarily see it that way” can help diffuse the tension going forward.
2. Never overgeneralize
Statements like “You always …” or “You never…” often come from a place of frustration or our desire to emphasize just how upset we really are. These kinds of overgeneralizations actually take away from the message we’re trying to send. They also devalue the moments when our partner really does make an effort, which can increase resentment on both ends. Avoiding exaggerations makes it more likely that our partner will be receptive to what we have to say.
3. Don’t assume you know what each other is thinking or feeling
When we’ve been together for a while, it’s easy to assume that we know what our partner is thinking. We might also feel like they should know what we’re thinking or feeling. While having insight into each other’s reactions can be helpful, it can also lead to further conflict when one person guesses incorrectly. Noticing and questioning our assumptions (e.g., by asking our partner what they’re actually experiencing) can help to limit misunderstandings.
Perceived criticisms aren’t always personal attacks and we need to let some things slide.
It’s also important to take the time to clearly explain what we’re really thinking or feeling, and to not make our partner feel badly when they aren’t quite sure on their own. In fact, it’s actually kind of nice knowing we can still surprise each other from time to time.
4. Pick your battles
There will be times when our partner unintentionally says or does something that hurts us. Perceived criticisms aren’t always personal attacks and we need to let some things slide. Of course, arguments happen in less than ideal circumstances from now and then. Finding a time to express your perspective when there aren’t others around and you both have the time to really hear each other out in an environment that feels safe and comfortable helps to foster a constructive and respectful discussion.
5. Be specific without going overboard
Being specific and having examples to back up our points can help us focus on our partner’s behavior and avoid overgeneralizations. It’s a fine line between having a few key examples and making it seem like we’ve been keeping a running tally. Focusing on a few recent or significant examples and being prepared to explain how we felt and what we’d like our partner to do differently next time is usually the best way to go.
6. Avoid bringing others into the mix
When we’re feeling frustrated or misunderstood, it’s only natural to want to call for backup. It might be tempting to say things like “I’m not the only one who feels this way” or “My friends also think you are …”. When we use others to reinforce our point, our partner can feel like we are ganging up on him or her and it can create additional conflict with those involved. It also gives the impression that our perspective isn’t enough, which can actually make us feel even more powerless.
7. Monitor and manage your anger
Even the best of us have trouble communicating effectively when emotions are running high. That’s why it’s a good idea to do everything we can to avoid reaching a state where we’ll say something we’ll regret or distract from the point we’re trying to get across. It’s perfectly okay (and sometimes even preferable) to remove ourselves from a situation when we notice ourselves becoming increasingly angry or upset.
Sometimes, we might hold back from expressing our thoughts because we’re afraid to stir up conflict, but over time these pent-up feelings can cause us to lash out in unexpected ways.
There’s a big difference between walking away to be avoidant or passive aggressive, and removing oursleves with the intention of returning when we can interact in a more productive way. Letting our partner know that we need a time out, and taking the time to self-soothe with whatever we need to calm down (e.g., going for a walk, listening to music, taking a bath), allows us to continue the conversation when we’re in a better place to really engage and connect.
8. Recognize your partner’s efforts
When we’re in the middle of an argument, it sometimes helps to remind ourselves of the things our partner does that makes us feel supported. Acknowledging these things out loud and expressing our appreciation for our partner can be an important step in creating a more constructive and respectful conversation. Reinforcing the behaviors we find helpful is typically much more effective than criticizing the things that upset us.
9. Know your right to have your feelings heard
Sometimes, we might hold back from expressing our thoughts or feelings because we’re afraid to stir up conflict. Over time, these pent-up feelings can actually cause us to lash out in unexpected ways or at surprising times. Recognizing how helpful it can be to actually express our thoughts and feelings can help us avoid unnecessary arguments in the long run.
10. Try to not go to bed angry
The age-old advice really is true. While it isn’t always possible to resolve the issue right then and there, making amends before falling asleep can help us make sure we’re not left with negative thoughts and feelings that build over time. Getting a good night sleep can also reduce future conflicts by helping us to better manage our emotions and continue the conversation in a constructive way going forward. Before falling asleep, take a moment to remind each other you likely both have similar goals and that you’re on the same team.