As anyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship can tell you, fights and disagreements are a given. When two people spend so much time together, and so many aspects of their lives become intertwined, they will fight from time to time. It could be something small like picking a movie to watch together or who does which chores around the house or it can be something major such as career changes or parenting styles.
Having disagreements isn’t a sign that you’re incompatible or that the relationship is breaking down. In fact, when they’re well handled, fights can make your relationship stronger. By talking about your problems, you both gain a better understanding of each other’s needs and can work out mutually beneficial solutions.
However, managing conflicts in a relationship is by no means easy and can become a significant source of stress. Relationship counsellors agree that poor communication is the most damaging problem they encounter in couples. Effective communication in conflict situations requires a high degree of self-awareness and a deep understanding of your partner’s personality and vulnerabilities. This way, you can tailor your approach to fit the context and increase your chances that your partner really “hears” what you’re trying to say.
Genuinely Listen to Your Partner
The best way to get your partner to listen to you is to listen to them. Now, people often think they’re listening, but they’re actually thinking about what they’re going to say when the other person stops talking. This is why arguments are usually so fast-paced, with lots of interruptions and each partner “guessing” what the other was going to say before they had a chance to finish their sentence.
If you catch yourself doing this when you’re arguing, stop, take a breath and really focus on what the other person is saying. When people don’t feel heard they tend to get defensive and stop listening themselves. Break this counterproductive cycle by using active listening techniques:
- Let your partner finish what they have to say and then repeat what you understood: “I think you are saying that…”, “I get that you feel… when…”
- If you feel like you don’t “get it” simply ask more questions: “I’m not sure I understand what part of… upset you. Is it that…?
- Make sure you interpret their reactions correctly: “You seem irritated right now. Am I right?” “Is it because…”
- Don’t declare your assumptions as facts: “You think that… and that’s why you say… because you feel that…” This usually makes people defensive and escalates the argument.
Respond with Empathy and Look for Compromise
When your partner starts criticizing you during an argument, it’s easy to get defensive and want to point out where they’re wrong, especially since the criticism will probably be exaggerated in the heat of the moment. Try to resist this reflex and focus on what emotions are pushing them to say that. Look for what’s true in their statements and see if there’s something you can own up to.
Even if it’s a small thing, taking responsibility for a personal flaw or failing to do something you promised diffuses the situation and usually inspires the other person to mirror your behaviour and take responsibility for their part. This will help bring you closer to finding mutual understanding and reaching a compromise.
Now, about compromise. When couples fight, there’s a tendency to want to “win” and have the last word. You want to make the other person admit that they’re wrong and you look for flaws in their arguments so you can think of the best comebacks. This is not a very productive approach because, with each attempt to “one-up” each other, you’ll both get angrier.
Look for a compromise. What could you change on your side to accommodate your partner’s needs? This, just like taking responsibility for your flaws or mistakes, encourages you partner to try to find a middle ground. Together you can agree on a solution that you’re both happy with.
Take a Time-Out
Although the tips we mentioned above are very effective, there’s not always easy to follow when emotions run high. If you feel that the two of you are getting too angry to be able to have a constructive conversation, take a break.
Sometimes 15-30 minutes are enough to cool off, and sometimes you need to “sleep on it”. As long as you return to the conversation and don’t just brush it off, you’ll see that taking a time-out can be a very effective strategy. You’ll both have time to think about what you said, what you feel and what the other person might have felt and what pushed them to say the things they said.
When you’ve had a chance to calm down, it’s much easier to see both sides, what parts you can take responsibility for and find win-win solutions.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
If the two of you have been having a lot of fights lately and you haven’t managed to find solutions on your own, you might benefit from a few sessions with a therapist. We know that deciding to go to couple’s counselling can feel like a huge step, especially since most people view it as the “last resort” and a sign that your relationship is at breaking point.
This is a very common misconception. Your therapist will teach you how to control your emotions during arguments, techniques to communicate more effectively and will help you identify the factors that prevented you from resolving disputes on your own. Their goal is to listen to both sides, uncover each partner’s motivation and guide the couple towards developing healthy communication patterns.
As we’ve mentioned in the introduction, managing conflicts productively requires self-awareness and mutual understanding. When problems go unresolved for too long, it can lead to resentment building up, and it can be quite difficult to put these techniques in practice on your own. Particularly when fights stem from major life changes like having a baby or one partner losing their job, it can be difficult for a couple to get emotionally adjusted to the current situation, so fights will tend to be more intense and more challenging to resolve.