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How to Argue with Your Partner

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How to Argue with Your Partner

John R. Ballew, M.S., L.P.C.

Arguments with a partner can really make us anxious.  Particularly if the relationship is fairly new, an argument can feel like a sign that something is fatally wrong and that we are in danger of being abandoned.  That can scare the hell out of us.

Your head may understand something your heart doesn’t:  conflict is inevitable in relationships if the participants are really invested in one another.  Only in fantasyland are lovers always considerate and able to read one another’s thoughts so well that they never misunderstand each other.  For most of us, finding this sort of perfect-clone partner would quickly bore us to death; iindividual differences add zing to a relationship.

Still, conflict makes most of us uncomfortable.  (Not everyone; some people thrive on conflict and seem to require it to feel truly alive.  If you need examples, check in with your local drama queen.) We fall somewhere between being uncomfortable and really dreading conflict.  Ben and Rick have been together two years, and they’ve learned that creative arguing gets results.  “I always let Rick know what’s pissing me off as soon as possible,” Ben says.  “I’ve learned that I like it better when he does the same than when he just pouts or stews about it.”

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Trouble is, avoiding conflict is one of the best ways to kill the intimate bond between two people.  When partners don’t let problems out into the light of day, they begin to withdraw from one another energetically and emotionally.  They get used to disappointments and they lower their expectations of one another and the relationship.

We may feel temporary relief if problems are ignored, but eventually it feels like the other guy just doesn’t give a damn.  We don’t matter enough for the other to even notice.  Relief at getting let off the hook is tinged with disappointment at a deeper level.  We don’t feel taken seriously.  The relationship is weakened.

This is especially a problem in sexually open relationships.  Having sex outside of the relationship can sometimes be a cover for avoiding intimacy or conflict within the relationship.  Intimacy isn’t always painless.  It’s sometimes easier to look elsewhere to get our needs met.  When that happens, the result is a steep drop in the level of passion within the relationship.  Addressing that problem doesn’t seem so important to us because we are getting some of our erotic needs met elsewhere.  The fire goes out.

Creating a relationship that provides a strong-enough container for healthy conflict management requires commitment, openness and developing the skills to battle it out honestly and creatively.  The reward for doing that is that our love for our partner deepens and we grow as individuals.

So how do you fight fairly and productively?

First, get disagreements out on the table as soon as privacy will allow.  (Don’t make a scene in a public place, which is likely to leave one or the other of you embarrassed.) Try to avoid making hasty or drastic decisions or threats.  If something has happened which brings up a great deal of emotion – hurt, fear, anger – express what you are feeling without making threats.  Take a few deep breaths.  Stay grounded.

Arguing about blame can be tempting – particularly if one of you feels deeply wronged by the other.  It is easy to get self-righteous when the other person has done something pretty awful.  You are certainly entitled to your feelings, but understand that you may have to face a choice:  you can try prove that you are right, or you can try to get your relationship past this snag.  Making the latter choice may mean broadening your idea of what “winning an argument” looks like, but choosing to prove your point and punish your partner may mean letting go of a relationship that still has value to both of you.  Choose carefully!

Listen to your partner.  This can be tough if you feel attacked or betrayed, but try.  What do you imagine he is feeling?  See if you can listen to his feelings and see his point of view as well as expressing your own.

What do you need right now?  If you need something from your partner, see if you can make a specific request that can be translated into action.  If he needs something from you, ask him to be specific, too.  Avoid general complaining, replacing it with a specific request.  If you have faced a similar crisis before, what do you remember about what was helpful then – or what mistakes you would like to avoid?

Be cautious about venting your frustration and anger with friends.  Friends who get the impression you are breaking up with your partner are likely to say things they will regret later.  (“I never liked the jerk.”)  This is ultimately not fair to your soon-to-be-former friends, nor is it helpful to you or your relationship.

If you value your relationship, consider making an agreement ahead of time (ideally, at the time that you are first making a commitment to each other) never to talk about breaking up in a moment of anger.  If you have to face that possibility, you want to make the decision in a clear-headed way and not the heat of the moment.

Remember that couples often wait so long to get into counseling that relationship counselors sometimes joke among themselves that they are “love’s undertakers.”  Don’t wait that long to start caring for your relationship.

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