how do couples argue successfully?
July 2, 2016 2:32 PM   Subscribe

I've read that successful couples argue. How can I do this in productive way with my partner?

I've been in relationship with my partner for over twenty years. We have a successful relationship in that we love each other and intend to stay together. We don't communicate around some very important issues. I think this needs to change and at least is in part due to our lack of arguing.

Like most, I've thought successful couples do not argue, or at least that's something to avoid. At the same time, I repress a lot of the objections/comments/outlook/opinions I have about some aspects of our life together.

I recently read this article on Barking Up The Wrong Tree blog. To paraphrase, successful couples argue, it comes with the territory.

In my day to day life, I'm dealing with a variety of things to do, stressors, and challenges and so is my partner. In our love field, our time together, that's the whole point of being together where you feel seen, loved and appreciated. You want to encourage the love field to be whole and healthy and when you are in that space, it feels easy to overlook something you really don't think is a good idea.

Out of the love field, I have WTF moments and those are the source of potential arguments. In my one and only life (in MY head) my partner's behavior in some way seems to me to be counter-productive, wasteful, unconscious, outright wrong, or irrational in some arenas of our life. The person is not bad, it's the behavior I find objectionable in some way. These are sources of potential arguments/discussions/ and I have my own set of unconscious behaviors that can be problematic for them in turn.

I am repressing my innate common sense to avoid conflict, yet this only internalizes it in a way that is unhealthy for me, and doesn't lead to improvement, only to a simmering kind of frustration that undercuts our relationship on a more subtle, perhaps more unhealthy way.

I'm not really asking for this post to resolve this for me. I'm curious how people incorporate healthy arguing into their relationship in a way that leads to a more successful relationship.

In my one and only life, I see some aspects of my partner's behavior as being a kind of unfair tax on my time and resources due to their unconscious or poor habits in some areas. This is not meant to be a global condemnation of my partner who I love, appreciate and respect. It's a recognition we all have areas we need be more consciously attuned to changing and working on.

How do you get down and talk in a way that leads to some form of acceptance, acknowledgement and appreciation rather than having it be a hostile interaction? Is there a way out of my own tendency to create hostile or frustrated conversations that lead nowhere. Trying to own this here, not making it all my partner's fault. We're tight, but need some new outcomes.
posted by diode to Human Relations (19 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
It's a recognition we all have areas we need be more consciously attuned to changing and working on.

Maybe? They're your problems with your partner, not necessarily problems with your partner as a human.

Which I guess is sort of what interests you here: a 'successful' argument--I'd say conflict, maybe--is that each person states their needs & together you figure out what you each are willing and able to do to meet those needs. Sometimes you might not be willing to do what you're asked for. Or vice versa. Then you decide how or how not to accommodate that. Instead of telling your partner what the problem is, figure out what is making it a problem exactly--how and whether a need is met or unmet, rather than how they're doing A Wrong Thing and if they change it Fixes Your Problem.

Of course there are situations where this doesn't apply, but there are very many where it does.
posted by listen, lady at 2:46 PM on July 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

How do you get down and talk in a way that leads to some form of acceptance, acknowledgement and appreciation rather than having it be a hostile interaction? You don't. If you aren't already getting it from your partner, then you find friends to fill the gap. No one can be everything to one person. You are a grown up. You don't need to be heard on everything that you say.

Is there a way out of my own tendency to create hostile or frustrated conversations that lead nowhere? Yes. Stop doing it. Stop setting your love up for failure by setting impossible goals. Part of loving someone is accepting who they are instead of who your romantic notions want them to be.

How do couples argue successfully? They don't. They disagree about something. They talk about it. They agree to either disagree respectfully or one of them gives in one time and the other gives in the next time.

You can be right and miserable or you can be happy with what you have.
posted by myselfasme at 2:58 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm no expert, but it seems like this is the sort of thing people go to couple's counseling for. Not necessarily because their relationship is broken, but to figure out how to work together better.

Harriet Lerner's books such as "Dance of Intimacy" and "Dance of Anger" touch on effective communication and might be useful.

(Actually it might be helpful to reframe your question: how can we communicate more successfully? I know what you mean but the word "argue" means different things to different people.)
posted by bunderful at 3:08 PM on July 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

Deborah Tannen has written several excellent books on the subject. You might start with You Just Don't Understand.
posted by she's not there at 4:32 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do what John Gottman says.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:37 PM on July 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

To me, arguing implies raised voices, name-calling, and anger -- not simply having a disagreement or discussing things that are bothering you. I don't equate arguing with healthiness at all. A goal I have been working towards for years has been to have adult conversations about relationship issues. It's been going well, and I feel far more heard and capable of expressing myself than I did when I was in a relationship where we argued.

Telling your partner, politely, without accusations or generalizing, that something they do is upsetting you should (ideally) not lead to an argument. Hopefully, this will lead to an apology or at least an acknowledgment of your needs, and a goal for both of you to work to resolve it.

The best resource for this that I've found, hands down, is Nonviolent Communication. It's pretty amazing, and it works even with only one person doing it.
posted by ananci at 6:31 PM on July 2, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: In my one and only life, I see some aspects of my partner's behavior as being a kind of unfair tax on my time and resources due to their unconscious or poor habits in some areas. This is not meant to be a global condemnation of my partner who I love, appreciate and respect. It's a recognition we all have areas we need be more consciously attuned to changing and working on.

There are bound to be some better answers about this in general, but two things that I've discovered in relation to this particular point you mention:

1. Pointing out inadequacies doesn't always go over well if it is not balanced over time with awareness of strengths, or if the "love, appreciation, and respect" is fueled with less energy than whatever fuels the irritation. One good way of viewing relationships is one of "deposits vs. withdrawals." A critique of character or actions can sometimes like a withdrawal on the relationship, depending on how it's done, and if it isn't balanced with other deposits over time (such as words of appreciation), it may chafe rather than get the result that is desired. It's hard to say how this is perfectly balanced, or when it holds true in all cases, but those who are frustrated with the inadequacies of others as part of the "big picture" of the relationship may find it helpful to keep this in mind. It's been said that relationships should be balanced 80/20 between affirmation and criticism, and in my experience, I find that to be true (if not 90/10 or higher), if you want your SO to believe that they are loved despite those criticisms. Otherwise, it just simply doesn't feel true for some people, and the criticisms feel more self-serving than serving of the couple as a whole.

2. At some point, there are some things that bug you about the other person that might not change, or change quickly. This is true of all relationships, as some of our issues run deep and surface in certain types of behavior that are not simply matters of exerting acts of will to stop. One of my key discoveries in my relationship was that not only should I work on expressing honestly what is bothering me in a relationship (this has always been hard for me, as it may be for you, in light of perceived relational consequences of being honest), but I must also work on trying to love my SO despite those things that are bothering me, and learn to pace my discussion of those things with wisdom and grace. If the relationship becomes about fixing the other so that I'm happy, it will likely never feel mutual or be in actuality helpful to keep bringing things up, especially if they are tinged with what feels like veiled contempt over the sometimes slow pace of change that sometimes happens.

That being said, this doesn't mean that some things aren't deal-breakers (there are some behaviors that simply have to stop, for example), or that you can't continue to talk honestly when you are feeling irritated, or that you can't have an intense discussion over irritations and perceived relational withdrawals. Nothing kills a relationship like stifling feelings. However, some relationships have to balance these kinds of discussion with wisdom and discretion, and like others said, can be well served by individual and couples counseling. I say some, because I've seen some relationships strive on just getting it all out, and both partners can come back without feeling wounded by the process. I think the difference might be between the starting assumptions of what an argument means for certain couples. For some, it is a place to resolve issues. For some, it hits some issues that feel more like trauma than a way forward, and a process of "fair arguing" should thus be established that works around some of those sore spots.

It could be this is well on your radar, and if so, feel free to disregard. However, it has been a pretty big thing for us as we work on exactly the issue you mention, so I thought you bring it up. Good luck to you.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:55 PM on July 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: In most of my relationships, from romantic ones to family ones to work, I've tended to see a problem and then suggest a solution. The problem with that is it doesn't give the other party or parties to share their perspectives and/or solutions. And that's a huge problem because it means I feel like it's always up to me to both identify any problem and also to fix it. Only I'm not alone in any of these relationships. My sponsor in Al-Anon introduced me to a novel concept in which I bring up any issue I have with the person or folks involved and then ask for help to resolve it. And I have to say that has been a much more effective approach for me. It has turned my approach to a "me vs them" attitude to a "how can we solve this together" attitude. And as long as the other person can work with that, life is good. The other thing that's been a help for me is to establish a regular time to sit down with any partner (usually weekly) to discuss anything that's come up in the past week. If nothing has, that's fine. We can talk about scheduling fun or our past week or whatever. Including anything that is upsetting to either of us. It's really helpful to have created a vehicle for airing grievances or problems as well as praise and celebration. Because it's really hard to do if you don't have a vehicle for that, in my experience. Great question!
posted by Bella Donna at 10:07 PM on July 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Some people yell. Some people name call. Some people don't. Most people have to be upset to actually start communicating meaningfully about really difficult subjects. There is one rule that will turn ANY behavior (short of physical violence) into potentially better communication and closer relationships. It is not as easy as it sounds.

When one of you is upset, agree to a pre-set period of time, probably 5 minutes at first, and USE ONLY THE PRONOUN "I". ABSOLUTELY NO USE OF THE WORD "YOU." Say whatever you think or feel, no matter how unfair or ugly or childish. But only "I" -- "I feel" or "I think" -- absolutely no using "You." If you have to, use your partner's given name, as in "When Dave nods but I think he isn't really listening, I think Dave is being a Big Jerk and want to make him feel really bad."

This is very very hard to do. It can change your life.
posted by kestralwing at 10:13 PM on July 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you've been together for 20 years, it might be helpful to go to a counselor or to a Gottman Institute workshop, because I think it's harder to change entrenched patterns than it is to start new habits with a new person. So you may need some outside help to change your communication habits. In the mean-time, here are some things that help an argument/discussion be productive rather than nasty:

No name-calling, no nasty language, no yelling. If you're feeling hurt, say, "I'm feeling really hurt right now" instead of "Goddamnit you're such an asshole, etc." If you're really worked up about something, go for a walk or do something else to let off some steam before approaching your partner to talk about it.

Stick to one topic. If you're upset because your partner is not helping around the house, talk about that and don't drag other hurts into the discussion. One issue at a time.

Talk about your partner's behavior and not their personality. So say, "I feel pretty exhausted and frustrated when you don't help with the housework, because it creates so much more work for me," and not, "You're a lazy bastard who won't even pick up his own socks!"

Be willing to admit it when you've done something wrong or made a mistake and be ready to apologize sincerely.

If your partner has apologized and you've worked out a plan together for the next step (i.e. he's said, "Okay, I'll take over the grocery shopping during the week, since you do all of the cooking then."), and he makes some sort of joke or attempt to lighten the mood, recognize that for what it is: often its 's attempt to reconnect with you after going through an intense stressful discussion; it's not necessarily a sign that your partner isn't taking your discussion seriously.
posted by colfax at 3:14 AM on July 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

How do couples argue successfully? They don't. They disagree about something. They talk about it. They agree to either disagree respectfully or one of them gives in one time and the other gives in the next time.

Exactly. My ex-wife and I argued a lot; you'll notice she's my ex. I've been with the woman who is now my wife since the last millennium, and we never argue. When we disagree about something, we either talk it over until we come to some agreement about it or we agree to disagree (and aren't bothered by the disagreement). Obviously this wouldn't work if we continued to disagree about something of vital importance, but we don't disagree about matters of vital importance, which is one reason we're married. Note that it is important to limit the areas you consider of vital importance, which may require some maturity; most young people (including, years ago, young languagehat) think all sorts of things are of vital importance ("Well he can't be a man cause he doesn't smoke/ The same cigarettes as me"), and have to get hit over the head repeatedly by life before boiling the list down to essentials. Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on July 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

A few suggestions come to mind:

1) Pessimism can help - see Alain Botton on Love
2) Couples therapy if you can afford it
3) Maybe scheduling a monthly meeting! I.e. do a google doc where you write down complaints and go over the 'URGENT' ones every month/fortnight/week? Most people acknowledge that a relationship is a lot of 'work' so it could help to start having a reliable outlet for the frictions/emotional build up. It would also help to resolve problems if you guys were following an agenda, I think.
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 8:58 AM on July 3, 2016

Best answer: In addition to the other book suggestions, When Anger Scares You: How to Overcome Your Fear of Conflict and Express Your Anger in Healthy Ways by John Lynch might be helpful.
posted by lazuli at 9:47 AM on July 3, 2016

Response by poster: As I thought about this post later in the day after posting it, I was reminded of role models in my early life where that person was creating boundaries and perfectionism that were non-negotiable that I then internalized, and those demands I re-create in some arenas with my partner.
Some of the answers above have been very insightful, thank you all for your responses. I agree that arguing and fighting is not a good thing on any level and it would be rate for my partner and I to go there. On my part, I need to find artful ways of expression that do not put my physiology into fight or flight mode, or right or wrong mode and there have been some very helpful suggestions above on how to do so.
posted by diode at 3:07 PM on July 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just wanted the perspective a woman married to a man who is very conflict adverse. In particular, he is very sensitive to disapproval and I think his brain must go into panic mode at the words "We need to talk..." Doesn't mean he will do what I want, instead he will just shut-down, leave or otherwise disconnect. Not exactly a very useful mode of a having a heart to heart conversation. I learned to be very calm and understated with lots of positive, loving messages folded in. I have also learned to be patient - I can recognize when he is shutting down (actually, he has gotten much better at just telling when he's had enough and my job is not to get offended) and know that it will often take several different abbreviated conversations to make real progress. I think this is similar to some of Gottman's stuff about soft starts and emotional regulation.

At the same time, I suspect that he has also learned to manage me better over time. Some of that is just being clearer when he has had enough. Other things, I probably don't even realize he does. Just to say, the accommodation isn't all one sided - it is important to respect your partners style and if you can accommodate his style better, it will help you both do better at problem solving.
posted by metahawk at 3:44 PM on July 3, 2016

Avoid Pyrrhic victories. Passive-aggressive behavior never helps. Active listening is good. If you get frustrated, say so and maybe take a break to resume later.

You might try one on one therapy if you haven't already and get a therapist's perspective.
posted by ostranenie at 8:11 PM on July 3, 2016

Here to second having a regular, scheduled talk about things, rather than one big discussion/argument. Tips on doing this without it becoming a chore or confrontational:

- Make it non-optional, commit yourself to doing it on the same date each month, or the day before or after if you can't do that for some reason. Agree between you that it's important to you both, as it won't work if only one of you is up for it.
- Ask each other similar questions each time to get things started (can suggest them if you like, memail me!) and make sure you talk about positive things as well as potential negatives
- Monthly is enough time to not become a hassle but not so much as to allow things to fester if they need to be brought up, but whatever works for you
- Try and approach each thing that gets brought up as an opportunity to make a good thing (your relationship) even better, rather than as an attack.
posted by greenish at 6:07 AM on July 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As a follow-up post, my pattern would be to avoid conflict, which means no discussion. Since at root there's a disagreement on what's the best thing to do in some situation, I kind of forced an issue that I thought of as being problematic in that my partner was following a path that seemed designed to fail based on fallacious reasoning and not actually looking at the result. The discussion was somewhat uncomfortable and I acknowledged I was getting into flight or fight mode in the process of simply explaining what I thought. It worked, we changed course. I don't think that pattern is tremendously effective but sometimes you simply have to take the plunge and try to manage your awareness in a way that doesn't create a problem for the other person. It helps to not to try to be 'right' but to simply increase awareness of the best outcome.
posted by diode at 10:51 AM on July 4, 2016

Some might perceive a lack of engagement of issues to be bailing on emotional labor and whatnot, but I've very often found that difficulties that seem to be "on the surface" can often have their roots in past trauma events, even though it seems like a simple "do this/don't do this" scenario. For example, my wife and I are both confrontation adverse, and the idea of sitting down to talk honestly about feelings, especially in a more formal setting, picks up our pulse pretty quickly. We both came from families that felt emotionally risky when we tried to do that in our childhood, and the safest response was often to "live and let live" until things blew over. I had a bit more of "let's do this thing and get it over," as I didn't enjoy that kind of tension growing up, so I tried to resolve it more. It wasn't very successful, as I'd treat emotional discussions like trying to rip off a bandaid to get it done. It didn't always come across as very sincere.

That being said, people do some very basic things because they are sometimes attached to trauma, and it's hard to let go. They respond to hard conversations in certain unhealthy ways because of trauma. I do too much computer stuff because it feels like a safer place than being honest with those around me. I read a lot for the same reasons. My wife likes to go shopping because of these issues. They all require healthier conversations at times, but we'd both rather do all of these things than having hard, honest conversations with the other about their effects, or even sometimes doing other household things that need to get done (but don't) because they don't let us soothe those same areas over time. Picking at the issues in the wrong way makes them feel worse, leading to unhealthy cycles of tension.

All unhealthy, all things that we've talked through with each other and with counselors seperately and with each other, and all things we're grateful that we've been able to see in a self-reflective way beyond the surface behaviors themselves that have been difficult to change on our own. The reason that I bring this up is that (like my other comment) it has been invaluable for us to discover for its own sake. But it has also been excellent in allowing us to have empathy for each other. Instead of a fight being about what someone is doing/etc., and why they aren't pulling their weight for a particular action or emotional connection, it creates a new starting point that allows us to 1) understand why an action is difficult, 2) frame the discussion in our own mind such that it's not tinged with a low-level and uninformed irritation, and 3) figure out how we can be a support to each other. For #3, I think the biggest thing for us is to have honest talks about our histories with each other. A counselor friend of mine said that the best thing we can do is try to get a PhD in the history of the other person. Once we get it, and we get our partner, there can be a whole lot of empathy that can drive one side of a relationship that is immensely more helpful than irritation.

One more thing. A GREAT piece of advice that the same counselor friend gave me was that a really good internal disposition is to not go into every discussion about hard things thinking it has to be about finding a solution right now. Sometimes you can go in with the objective of simply saying how you are feeling (using I vs You statements is very helpful here.) My wife has been mastering this technique, I think. I've forgotten things at times, and she'll just say that she's disappointed it didn't get done. Yesterday, she said that she was disappointed that I forgot to pay the pool man. She didn't want to try and solve the problem, just tell me how she felt. I felt initially a little bit defensive, but WAY less defensive than if we had gone round and round regarding why, and if I felt compelled to justify my worthiness to her despite my imperfections (which tends to be my issue). Of course, because I love her, I took it to heart, and I'm filling out the check right now this morning, and I'll avoid being late again. Here's the thing: If minimally you believe that the other person loves you and they are a safe person to hold onto your feelings, you can often share how you are feeling, and trust that the other person, on some level, cares about those feelings and doesn't want you to continue feeling like that. Sometimes this leads to very good things on its own, and it takes the pressure off of the conversation being about problem solving and more about sharing something that you can trust the other person will take seriously. Of course, not every relationship leads in a good direction like this, but if it does (and I'm hoping this is true for you), it shortcuts a lot of things that can derail hard conversations or lead to a crazy cycle of back and forth insecurity.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:26 AM on July 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

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