Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
First, when you read the word “argument” in the title of my article, what images came to mind?
A civilized back-and-forth between you and your partner, each of you stating your position, coming to an understanding of how your partner sees things, and finding common ground?
In a perfect world, right? If this describes how you and your partner argue, then you are doing well.
What my clients tell me is that often, if not always, their arguments don’t stay so civilized. That’s because arguments can lead to fights. The anger button gets pushed and things heat up. The anger generated when two people disagree can get out of hand, even become physical. Words spoken in the heat of the moment may have unintended consequences. Recovery may take time. Recovery may not happen.
An argument doesn’t have to lead to a fight
I am definitely not encouraging you to pick an argument with your partner. But I am encouraging you not to run from an argument, but to see it as a way to build your relationship.
Having said that, here’s a perspective on arguing that might help you improve communication with your partner.
Let’s start by defining the word “argument.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an argument is “a failure to agree” or “a difference of opinion.” Notice that nowhere does it mention yelling and hurt feelings.
Having an argument with your partner is normal. It is pretty much impossible for two individuals to always agree on everything. Only in the movies is there a daily meeting of the minds leading to blissful harmony. Again, that perfect world.
If you don’t have any arguments with your partner, is it possible you are kicking the can down the road? I have learned from my clients that couples may avoid conflict because they are afraid they might end up having a fight. So instead, they pretend to agree when each one knows, or at least suspects, that the other person doesn’t think the same way. As a result, discussing an important issue may be postponed to avoid this possibility. But as you know, you can only kick the can down the road for so long.
You can learn a lot by having an argument. Especially when you ask the “why” question. You and your partner can explore conflicting opinions or desires in a way that deepens your relationship, rather than damaging it. So, when your partner expresses their perspective, don’t leave it there. Ask them why they feel that way. Asking this question shows you want to understand their position. This can help them to feel less defensive, and help you not to feel so attacked—and therefore not so combative. And you might be surprised at what you learn about them.
For better or worse, important stuff can finally be expressed through anger. And that’s the sad side of a fight. In a heated argument, you might finally express something that has long been on your mind, or your partner might. Finally, you or your partner stop holding back. It’s out there. But look at the damage you sustained emotionally, and the damage to your relationship, to get to this point.
Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. One reason arguments happen in the first place is that it’s all too easy to make assumptions about what your partner is thinking or feeling. And reacting based on those assumptions. When you do that, chances are your mind will go to the most extreme place, leading to emotions that can quickly take your difference of opinion into fight territory. Instead, start by recognizing and challenging the assumption that your partner is out to give you a rough time, or is playing a power game. Remind yourself that this is the person you are sharing your life with, not an adversary or a competitor. Open your mind and heart.
An argument is not all about being right. One of the main reasons arguments turn into fights is that both of you are all about making the other person realize—and agree—that you are right. Which means they are wrong. To accomplish this, you have to be more verbally adept, or just a plain old bully, and back your partner into a corner. When your argument moves in this direction, chances are your partner is going to respond in kind. And it’s downhill from there.
Have two goals: understanding and common ground. As I said, hashing out a difference of opinion with your partner can be a great way to learn more about them. As well as potentially understanding what’s working well in your relationship and not working so well. When you both focus your energy on finding common ground, you are more likely to be open to hearing each other out. And then strategizing together to come to a solution that, as much as possible, works for both of you. Who knows, this might even be kind of fun.
You and your partner. You are two individuals, and you’re both human. It’s only natural that you won’t always think the same way. Isn’t that what keeps life interesting? Be upfront with each other. Talk things out. Find a path you can travel together.
What helps you and your partner deal with disagreements? Share a tip by commenting below.