Relate offers advice, relationship counselling, sex therapy, workshops, mediation, consultations and support face-to-face, by phone and through their website. The following Relate article deals with the sticky issue of ‘arguments’ in a straight-talking and helpful way…
Although they can be painful and unpleasant arguments are common in all kinds of relationships. But disagreements don’t have to end in hostile silence or a screaming match. Learning ways of handling discussions on emotive topics and looking out for the patterns and triggers in your arguments can really help you improve the situation.
What are you ‘really’ arguing about?
Think about what you’re really arguing about. On the surface it could be about money, sex, housework, disciplining children or other family matters. But question what you are really arguing about? In the book Stop Arguing Start Talking author Susan Quilliam compares an argument to an onion; the outer layer is the issue you are actually talking about, deeper layers represent other areas, and understanding these can help you work out why rows sometimes escalate out of all proportion to the original problem.
It might help you to think about your physical feelings, stress or tiredness can intensify a fight. Or think about how other people’s input might fuel your anger.
If your conflict is rooted in intractable problems, it may be hard, or even impossible, to alter the pattern. If you recognise any of these factors, you need to find support and help, whether from friends, family or getting in touch with Relate.
- Your lives are moving in totally different directions.
- Alcoholism, drug addiction or other problems feature in your relationship.
- One of you is having an affair.
- One of you no longer loves the other, or has actually decided to leave.
If it turns physical…
One of the most serious outcomes of arguing is when a couple comes to blows or one partner physically attacks another. If physical violence is a feature of your relationship, you need to seek help urgently. Contact Women’s Aid or your nearest Relate for help. Your local social services may have a domestic violence unit which will be able to offer you assistance and protection.
Destructive approaches to avoid
There are as many ways of having an argument as there are couples who argue. Some common and highly destructive patterns are:
- Stonewalling: total withdrawal and refusal to discuss the issue. Partner feels unvalued and unheard.
- Criticism: Commenting negatively on the other’s behaviour, over and above the current problem. ‘You’re always so forgetful.’ Partner feels attacked and threatened.
- Contempt: Sneering, belligerence or sarcasm. ‘You think you’re so clever.’ Partner feels humiliated and belittled.
- Defensiveness: Aggressively defending and justifying self to partner. ‘You haven’t got a clue just how much I have to remember every day.’ Partner feels attacked. Row escalates.
Think about the ways you and your partner argue, then think about how you would like to change these. Notice how easily you slip into familiar routines of arguing, almost without thinking. Talk this over with your partner if you can, but if that feels too difficult, go ahead and start changing away. Your partner’s reactions will alter in response to yours.
You can both win
Aim for a ‘win-win’ style of disagreeing, where no one feels they’ve lost. This will let both partners:
- outline their own needs
- listen to each other’s needs
- talk flexibly about solutions that give each of them enough of what they want.
Here are a few other things to consider…
If you want to raise a tricky topic with your partner, start the discussion amicably. Don’t go in with all guns firing, or with a sarcastic or critical comment. For instance, in the example of overspending, say, ‘Can we talk about the credit card bill – we need to work out a spending limit that suits us both’, not, ‘I’m furious about that bill – why do you go over the top every time?’
Two. Discern her reaction
Try to understand your partner’s reactions, and remember that you are not just arguing about the ‘surface’ problem. If your partner says, ‘Just let me take care of the money, will you’, remember that perhaps in their childhood their role model controlled all household affairs. It will need careful and sensitive negotiation, over a period of time, to alter this pattern of expectations.
Three. Take her thoughts on board
Respect your partner’s views, even if you are annoyed. Instead of saying, ‘I’m not a child!’ try, ‘I know it’s important to you to feel able to spend as and when you like, but I need to have a say in how our money is used, too’.
Take responsibility for your own emotions. Why you are so upset? Has something from the past been stirred up by this latest row? Do you fear loss of control in other aspects of your life? Saying, ‘You make me so angry…’ places the blame for your feelings squarely on to your partner. Yes, his or her behaviour may have triggered your feelings, but their depth may have little to do with the current problem.
Five. Keep your cool
Keep tabs on physical feelings, which warn you if you are close to losing control. A knot in the stomach, breathlessness, tears, all spell trouble. Leave the room, and take time to calm down.
Be prepared to compromise. Often the only way to reach a win-win solution is for both partners to give some ground. Don’t stick rigidly to your desired outcome. Check out what your partner wants to achieve – don’t take it for granted that you already know. Then tell him or her what it is you are hoping for, and explore different possibilities together until you reach a solution that both are happy with.
These techniques really do work, and can produce major changes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that you will never have another bad row. If it happens, look at what went wrong, think about how you could have handled it better, and aim to do better next time. Then forgive yourself, and your partner, and move on.