Bickering, arguing, disputing – call it what you want, but all couples get into spats every now and then.
And while quarrels between partners can be considered a normal part of the relationship, experts say it’s how couples handle these squabbles that will determine the overall health of the relationship over time.
“Clearing the air and coming back to love and compassion after each disagreement means those are the emotions left hanging in the air between us, and what could possibly feel better than that day-to-day?” relationship expert Chantal Heide says. “It’s these feelings that lend to greater love and connectivity, and if that’s not the goal in your relationship then you’re missing an opportunity to teach the next generation how to have loving and functional unions that they themselves will pass on.”
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Typically, Heide says, couples will fight over topics that cause emotional stress and insecurity, like frequency of sex, how much time they spend together (and how they spend that time together), how money should be managed, how to raise kids and deal with each other’s extended family.
“When you boil it down, all arguments stem from a difference in values with an inability to find common ground,” Heide explains. “Couples where at least one partner has high expectations and a low willingness to accommodate will be most prone to frequent fights.”
And more often than not, couples will argue using one style Heide has coined the “Megaphone on an island” style.
“It’s where each person stands firmly on their position blasting their values without consideration for how they can bridge the distance, yet each one is angry at their partner’s unwillingness to build a bridge and come to the other side,” Heide says. “And because they’re both busy yelling their position, nobody is hearing what the other is saying.”
As a result, two of the biggest mistakes couples can make arise.
First, one or each side is not giving their partner a chance to air out what’s on their mind, leaving things to go unresolved. Second, is the unwillingness to apologize without defending one’s position, Heide says.
But there’s a difference in how men and women approach conflict, Heide points out, and it can cause confusion and pent-up tension in the relationship that couples should be aware of.
“I find the biggest difference between men and women is how quickly men will resort to choosing silence over fighting,” she says. “Unfortunately this tends to give women a false sense that the fight has been conceded when in fact men are still stewing, a fact women will realize when that particular topic is thrown out again at the next fight opportunity.”
So if couples want to settle arguments in a healthy way, Heide lays out seven things that partners can do to help them resolve their issues and move on.
“Harvard conducted a study on meditation and found that after only eight weeks of mindfulness exercises, participants shrank their Amygdala – their brains fight or flight system,” Heide says. “In essence, their capacity to feel stress, anxiety, fear, and anger actually reduced. When you reduce those emotions it’s harder to fall into fight mode, and as a result you can remain calmer even when your partner’s emotions flare up.”
And remember, it takes two people to fight, Heide points out.
“So when one person diminishes their willingness to fight, the other one will readily follow suit because, fundamentally, most people don’t actually want to fight with their partners.”
2. Choose silence first
“When you feel yourself flare up in anger, choose silence until you feel calmer and have thought about your situation thoroughly,” she says. “This gives you an opportunity to weigh your partner’s position before defending yours, giving you a greater opportunity to find common ground without creating hurt feelings and anger, which only perpetuate fights.”
3. Find a solution before presenting a problem
Reach out to friends you find helpful, do some research and/or talk to a therapist, Heide suggests. These avenues may help you put a solution on the table when you address an issue.
“Too often we go to our partners angry and hurt, demanding they soothe our issues without knowing how they can,” she says. “This just causes more hurt feelings, confusion, and extends feelings of helplessness between couples.”
4. Don’t ask for anything you’re not willing to do first
“If you’re asking for something from your partner, whether it’s broad like ‘I need you to be calmer’ or specific like ‘I need you to start saving money for a house,’ be sure you’re able to point to your own behaviour as an example,” Heide says.
According to Heide, many fights will be resolved in your mind if you do one simple exercise.
First, ask yourself why you’re angry – are you upset that the garbage didn’t get taken out? Second, compare it to something similar that you’ve done in the past.
“Too often we nit-pick what our partners aren’t doing while disregarding all the things they are, and ignoring our own faults to boot,” Heide says. “This causes a sense of imbalance in both parties’ minds, and way too many fights erupt from a subconscious habit of wearing blinders.”
With understanding comes compassion, Heide says, so when couples give allowances for human behaviour, they can leave the last fight in the past.
“Not carrying forward unresolved hurt and anger that only serves to add more heat to the next fight means the following disagreement can be minimized, because it’s only revolving around that particular issue and the feelings stemming from it,” Heide says.
7. Apologize properly
“Never take your eye off the ball when it comes to giving an apology,” Heide says. “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ should be a tactic for clearing all the emotional toxicity from your relationship, so be sure you’re getting it right.”
Also, eliminate the word “but” when apologizing, Heide advises, because it negates any words that precede it. Instead, clearly tell the other person what you’re sorry for, include a solution for how you’ll avoid that behaviour in the future and release any expectations that your partner reciprocate.
“They might not in that moment, but they’ll learn from your example and over time become a pro like you when it comes to quickly clearing the air,” she says.