By Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D.
As anyone who has been in a romantic relationship knows, disagreements and fights are inevitable. When two people spend a lot of time together, with their lives intertwined, they are bound to disagree from time to time. These disagreements can be big or small, ranging from what to eat for dinner or failing to complete a chore to arguments about whether the couple should move for one partner’s career or deciding on children’s religious upbringing.
The mere fact that you fight with your partner isn’t a sign there is real trouble in your relationship. In fact, when handled properly, fighting can improve your relationship. If you never fight and never talk about your problems, you will never solve them. By dealing with conflicts constructively, you can gain a better understanding of your partner and arrive at a solution that works for both of you. On the other hand, it is also possible for conflicts to escalate and create ill will without resolving anything. How can you improve the odds of a successful resolution to the conflicts in your relationship? Here are 10 research-backed tips:
1. Be direct.
Sometimes people don’t just come out and plainly state what is bothering them, and instead choose more indirect ways of expressing their displeasure.1 One partner may speak to the other in a way that is condescending and implies underlying hostility. Other times, partners may mope and pout without really addressing an issue. Partners may also simply avoid discussing a problem by quickly switching topics when the issue comes up or by being evasive. Such indirect ways of expressing anger are not constructive, because they don’t give the person who is the target of the behaviors a clear idea of how to respond.2 They know their partner is irritated, but the lack of directness leaves them without guidance about what they can do to solve the problem.
2. Talk about how you feel without blaming your partner.
Statements that directly assault your partner’s character can be especially damaging to a relationship.3 If a man frustrated by his girlfriend’s jealousysays “You’re totally irrational!” he is inviting her to become defensive, and this can shut down further conversation. A more constructive strategy is to use “I statements” and pair them with “behavior descriptions.”4I statementsfocus on how you feel, without blaming your partner, and behavior descriptions focus on a specific behavior your partner is engaging in, rather than a character flaw. For example, this man might say, “I get irritated when you claim I’m flirting with someone during an innocent conversation.” These tactics are direct, but don’t impugn your partner’s character.
However, it should be noted that these direct negative tactics can be constructive — in some situations. Research has shown that for couples with relatively minor problems, blaming and rejecting one’s partner during a conflict discussion was associated with lower relationship satisfaction over time and tended to make problems worse. For couples with major problems, a different picture emerged: Blaming and rejecting behaviors resulted in less satisfaction immediately following the conflict discussion, but over the long term, the problems improved, and this led to increases in relationship satisfaction.5
3. Never say never (or “always”).
When you’re addressing a problem, you should avoid making generalizations about your partner. Statements like “You never help out around the house,” or, “You’re always staring at your cell phone” are likely to make your partner defensive. Rather than prompting a discussion about how your partner could be more helpful or attentive, this strategy is likely to lead your partner to start generating counterexamples of all the times they were, in fact, helpful or attentive. Again, you don’t want to put your partner on the defensive.3
4. Pick your battles.
If you want to have a constructive discussion, you need to stick to one issue at a time. Unhappy couples are likely to drag multiple topics into one discussion, a habit renowned conflict researcher John Gottman calls “kitchen-sinking.”3 This refers to the old expression “everything but the kitchen sink,” which implies that every possible thing has been included. When you want to solve personal problems, this is probably not the strategy you take with yourself. Imagine that you wanted to think about how to incorporate more physical exercise into your daily routine. You would probably not decide that this would also be a great time to think about how to save more money for retirement, organize your closet, and figure out how to deal with an awkward situation at work. You would try to solve these problems one at a time. This seems obvious, but in the heat of the moment, a fight about one topic can turn into a complaining session, with both partners trading gripes. The more complaints you raise, the less likely it is that any will actually get fully discussed and resolved.
5. Really listen to your partner.
It can be very frustrating to feel like your partner is not paying attention to you. When you interrupt your partner or assume that you know what they’re thinking, you’re not giving them a chance to express themselves. Even if you are confident that you know where your partner is coming from or know what they’re going to say, you could still be wrong, and your partner will still feel like you’re not listening.6
You can show your partner that you’re paying attention by using active listening techniques.7 When your partner speaks, paraphrase what they say — that is, rephrase it in your own words. This can prevent misunderstandings before they start. You can also perception-check, by making sure that you’re interpreting your partner’s reactions correctly. For example, “You seem irritated by that comment — Am I right?” These strategies both prevent misunderstandings and show your partner that you’re paying attention to them and care about what they’re saying.
6. Don’t automatically object to your partner’s complaints.
When you’re criticized, it’s hard not to get defensive. But defensiveness doesn’t solve problems. Imagine a couple arguing because the wife wants her husband to do more chores around the house. When she suggests that he do a quick clean-up after he gets ready to leave in the morning, he says, “Yes, that would help, but I really don’t have time in the morning.” When she suggests that he set aside some time on the weekend, he says “Yes, that could be a way to schedule it in, but we usually have plans on weekends, and I have work to catch up on, so that won’t work.” This “yes-butting” behavior suggests that her ideas and views are not worthwhile. Another destructive, defensive behavior is “cross-complaining,” when you respond to your partner’s complaint with one of your own. For example, responding to “You don’t clean up enough around the house” with “You’re a neat freak.” It’s important to hear your partner out and really consider what they’re saying.3
7. Take a different perspective.
In addition to listening to your partner, you need to take their perspective and try to understand where they’re coming from. Those who can take their partner’s perspective are less likely to become angry during a conflict discussion.8
Other research has shown that taking a more objective perspective can also be helpful. In one study, researchers staged a simple marital quality intervention, asking participants to write about a specific disagreement they had with their partners from the perspective of a neutral third party who wanted the best for both members of the couple. Couples that engaged in this 20-minute writing exercise three times a year maintained stable levels of marital satisfaction over the course of the year, while couples who didn’t showed declines in satisfaction.9
8. Do not show contempt for your partner.
Of all of the negative things you can do and say during a conflict, the worst may be contempt. Gottman has found that it is the Number One predictor of divorce.3 Contemptuous remarks are those that belittle your partner. This can involve sarcasm and name-calling. It can also include nonverbal behavior like rolling your eyes or smirking. Such behavior is extremely disrespectful, and implies that you’re disgusted with your partner.
Imagine that one partner says, “I wish you took me out more,” and the other responds, “Oh yes, the most important thing is to see and be seen and overpay for tiny portions of food at some rip-off restaurant. Could you be more superficial?” Or one partner says they’re too tired to clean up, and the other responds, “I’m sure you’re sooo exhausted after a long day of chatting at the water cooler. I’ve been busting my butt all day, and you just get home and sprawl out on the couch, staring at your smartphone like a teenager.” This kind of contempt makes it impossible to engage in a real discussion and is likely to elicit anger from your partner, rather than an attempt to solve the problem.
9. Don’t get overwhelmed with negativity.
It can be hard not to respond to a partner’s bad behavior with even more bad behavior. But indulging that urge will only make the conflict worse. When couples engage in what Gottman and his colleagues calls “negative affect reciprocity,” they trade more and more heated insults and contemptuous remarks.10 And as the conflict goes on, the negativity escalates. So how much is too much negativity? In his research, Gottman found that the magic number is a 5 to 1 ratio: Couples that maintained a ratio of five positive behaviors (e.g., attempts at good-natured humor, warmth, collaboration) to each negative behavior were significantly less likely to be divorced or separated four years later.11
10. Know when it’s time for a time-out.
If you see yourself falling into negative patterns and find that either you or your partner are not following the tips above, consider taking a time out from your argument. Even a short break for a few deep breaths can be enough to calm hot tempers.12
What the research on conflict shows is that both perspective taking and controlling your anger are key to managing conflicts well. Airing your grievances can be productive for your relationship, but conflicts must be skillfully managed or you run the risk of making them worse.