"It's important we communicate and tune the fate of this union to the right pitch."
-- Rapper Common in the song "The Light"
You know the routine: You've got a bone to pick with your significant other. You utter the ominous "We need to talk." So you talk. And it's all good -- until someone says the wrong thing in the wrong tone of voice. It doesn't matter that it was an unintentional foul. Pandora's Box flings open anyway, and it's on. Tempers ignite. Insults fly. And feelings get hurt. Your little discussion has just mushroomed into an all-out feud.
It's scary, but this is the type of scenario that comes to mind for many of us when we think of arguing in an intimate relationship. So many times, seemingly petty disagreements boil into deal-breakers, ending in bruised egos, break-ups and divorce -- all because of a failure to communicate.
Let's face it: No two people will agree on everything all of the time. Even soul mates fight. Not all disagreements have to end badly, though. Believe it or not, there are ways to argue without getting angry and permanently damaging your relationship, and they're not as tacky as you might suspect.
"Ideally, an argument does not have to be hurtful; instead it can simply be an engaging conversation that expresses our differences and disagreements," says therapist John Gray, Ph.D., whose relationship rescue book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus has sold more than 7 million copies in the United States.
What's All the Fuss About? It's a given that all couples argue (even if they don't like to admit it). Status -- whether you're married or not, casually living together or not, or just dating -- isn't a factor. And, according to the experts, most of us clash over the same things, which are the Big Three: money, sex, and the division of responsibilities. Of course, you're in a whole different ballgame if you have children together. If this is the case, you can add battling over parenting styles to the mix.
Power -- the age-old struggle to get and keep the upper hand -- is almost always the culprit behind the Big Three, says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Long Beach, Calif., and author of How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free.
"The hunger for power can bleed into all areas of intimate relationships," Tessina says. "We see it in the level of commitment people are willing to make to each other, how they spend time together and in who makes the decisions in a relationship." Keeping the Peace So if power trips and the squabbles that follow them are inevitable in affairs of the heart, how can couples keep the peace while saying their piece during a fight? No newsflash here -- the answer is good communication.
Both Gray and Tessina agree that whether a relationship is a success or a failure depends on how well each partner understands the needs and desires of the other. This doesn't come easy though.
"Having to relearn the basics of communication doesn't mean your relationship is healthy or unhealthy," says Tessina. "What makes your relationship healthy is whether or not its functional, meaning the two of you can express disagreements without hurting each other, solve problems together and then move on. If working on understanding each other is what you have to do to get there, then by all means do it."
Disagreement Downers First, lets look at what the experts say you shouldn't do during an argument:
Don't run off at the mouth. People tend to get lost when too much information is spewed at them too fast. Keep your comments short and simple. A common rule of thumb in couple's therapy is to talk in only three to four sentences at a time, then pause for feedback. Here's a helpful script: This is the problem I want to talk to you about. What can we do together to work this out? How do you feel about what I've just said?
Don't let it all hang out. Blame tell-all shows like Jerry Springer for the explosion of the idea that no detail should be spared when confronting a lover, but don't expect this losing tactic to work in real life. "There's nothing more wrong than the idea that you can just let it all hang out in a relationship," says Tessina. "You can't dump on your partner and expect it all to work out."
No, your girlfriend doesn't need to know how disgusted you are with her at this moment. However, this doesn't mean you should front or sugar-coat your feelings. Do think before you talk, and tread lightly. Keep it real, and consider the feelings of your other half before you even go there.
Don't play the blame game. The only bigger energy sucker during an argument than screaming at the top of your lungs is laying blame. Assigning fault elevates tempers and puts your partner on the defensive. When it comes to pointing the finger, Tessina says, "Arguing isn't about whose right or wrong. It's supposed to be about what's going to fix the problem."
Don't be a verbal bully. Forget the old saying, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." That's playground stuff, and the playground is about the only place the saying still has any meaning. Everyone knows that hurling verbal daggers at your partner during a fight will get you nowhere (except maybe out in the street with your bags packed). Not only is cussing and name-calling during a fight childish, it's also unproductive. And remember, words can't be taken back.
Don't be a lawyer. Tessina calls people who talk down to their partners in the heat of confrontation "lawyers" because "they try to prove their case as though there's an invisible jury watching." Looking down your nose at your lover and acting as if you are infallible is little more than a power trip. Avoid speaking like an authority figure; you'll have better luck being heard.
Fight Like a Champ Now that you know what not to do, here are a few strategies for arguing without losing your cool (and possibly losing your partner):
Listen up. Hearing what your partner has to say is half the battle. Think outside of the box -- listening isn't just about hearing. Use all of your senses, and watch your partner's body language. If he's crossing his arms across his chest like protective armor, that should tell you something. Also, reassure your partner that you are listening by saying things like, "If I heard you correctly, you said ... " and "What you are saying is this, right?" The benefits are twofold: Your partner feels heard and also gets the opportunity to set the record straight if you didn't hear him or her correctly.**
Stay on topic. It's easy to lose track of the goals of an argument when your emotions are in overdrive. Rather than rambling on, keep the focus on what you're trying to accomplish when confronting your lover. Think of what you want to resolve. "Most couples start out arguing about one thing," says Gray, "and within five minutes, they're arguing about the way they are arguing. It becomes counterproductive."
FYI -- Most marriage and family counselors consider starting a fight just to take stress out on your partner borderline abusive behavior.
Use "I"-statements. Overusing the word "you" while arguing comes off as critical and accusatory. Sentences like "You used me," and "You make me feel worthless" usually alienate the person on the receiving end. Try "I"-statements instead. They keep the tone of the conversation respectful, and they aren't as hard for the recipient to swallow. There are four pieces to constructing an I-statement:
Begin with "I."
Then, say what you feel or what you want.
Explain the action or event that evoked your feelings.
Detail the effect the event has on you.
A clear "I"-statement might sound like this: "I feel scared when you stay at the club all night because I'm afraid you'll find someone else."
Make a date. Agree on a convenient time to talk. It's not the time to bring up your issues when your partner's running late for work or when he's just walked in the door from a long day in the lecture hall. "Making a date forces you to center yourself beforehand so that you can come together without all the anger and with greater understanding and acceptance," Tessina says.
Know when to stop. Don't beat your point to death. If what you're saying isn't getting across, or if you're getting too riled up, it's time to walk away. According to Tessina, people who don't know when to stop typically are looking for reassurance that things will work out. If reassurance is what you want, simply ask your partner for it and move on.
Still think hooking up for the long haul is a cakewalk? Like life, relationships don't come with instructions. But with patience, hard work and an open mind on the part of both partners, learning to argue constructively without hurting feelings (and without ending up in a dismal chat room for the recently dumped) isn't out of reach.
And who knows? You could learn something new about each other and even fall deeper in love in the process. Besides, the faster you learn to argue with purpose, the quicker you can get to the fun part -- the making up.