Growing up, many of us dreamed about finding our happily ever after, but, as adults, discovered that reality is far from a fairytale. While everything often seems so simple and easy in movies, being in love is a tricky thing – even when it’s with the right person.
Over the years in my work in crisis intervention and as a psychology, sociology, and anthropology professor, I have seen the pain and frustration couples feel when they argue. The truth is that disagreements will happen and are normal. In fact, if you learn how to “fight fair,” these challenging moments can actually strengthen your bond.
The reality is that each of us bring our own issues, attitudes, and opinions to a relationship. Those parts of who we are didn’t arise overnight but, instead, are the result of years of conditioning and experience. The same is true of your partner. The goal is to find a middle ground while honoring the separate and unique journeys that brought you together.
“Whatever” and “nothing”
Maybe you’re in a bad mood or maybe you are annoyed that your partner left the milk out for the 17th time this week. Whatever the situation, they probably sense that something is wrong and, while it might be tempting to avoid conflict by saying something like “nothing” or “whatever,” it’s actually counterproductive.
While you should avoid nitpicking and complaining about every little thing, you shouldn’t back away from letting your partner know that you are upset or disappointed. A relationship will not always be warm and fuzzy and, sometimes, you just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to work through your issues. Speak up!
“You’re being silly”
We’ve all been there. Our partner is freaking out about something that we think is trivial. In those moments, it’s especially important to dig deep and avoid saying something like “it’s no big deal” or “you’re being ridiculous.” There are several reasons for this.
First, and most important reason: you want your partner to feel heard. There’s nothing worse than letting your guard down only to have someone say you are overreacting. You want your partner to feel safe opening up to you, and telling them to calm down won’t help. Instead, try to find something you can agree with and build from there.
Second, you might realize that what they are saying isn’t a minor issue. Perhaps, something from their past makes their current issue more significant. You don’t know everything about your partner, so be sensitive to their triggers.
Third, shouldn’t we all strive to feel empathy for others? We may not understand someone else’s pain or frustration, but, instead of judging it, we can choose to be compassionate. It will go a lot further towards being happy.
“Never” and “always”
At some point, you can probably remember saying something like “you never remember to buy toilet paper!” or “you always criticize me!” In the heat of the moment, you may have felt justified in your assessment, but using those terms rarely helps a situation.
Think of a time when your partner said sometime similar to you. Did it feel fair and rational, or did it just discourage you from trying in the future? You probably felt defensive because, really, how are you supposed to argue with “never” and “always?” It leaves little room for discussion.
“I told you so”
You’ve warned your partner dozens of times that if they don’t make a habit of doing their laundry on Sundays, they won’t have anything to wear for work. Then it happens. They’ve run out of professional attire, it’s Monday morning, and now they are running around scrambling to find something to wear.
You could stand there and say “I told you so,” but that would be both mean-spirited and unnecessary. Chances are, they are well aware of how they could have prevented their misery and the last thing they want (or need) is to have their partner standing there gloating. Instead, say something encouraging and offer to help them come up with a strategy for success in the future.
“I’m sorry, but…”
When things go wrong, sometimes all we want is an apology. Nothing more, nothing less. Just those two little words. It can be absolutely destructive to a relationship, therefore, when our partner apologizes but takes away from it by adding an excuse for their behavior.
You almost always have a choice when it comes to how you’ve treated your partner. Be proactive about diffusing tension before things blow up. It can be tempting to want to avoid having the weight of an apology on our shoulders by coming up with excuses, but you’ve got to ask yourself — do you want to always be right, or do you want to be happy? If you choose happiness, you may have to learn to graciously apologize from time to time.
You’re in the heat of a battle of epic proportions and you’ve run out of things to say, just as your partner hits you with a real zinger. You may want to hurl the biggest insult in their direction, but in that moment, you will make a decision that could truly affect your entire relationship.
Rather than give in to your temporary impulse, remember that your partner is a human being and will be hurt by being called a name. Also, be mindful that, on top of having to resolve the original cause of your argument, you will also have to work through the hurt feelings associated with name-calling.
It’s a waste of time. They will be hurt and you will feel guilty. Avoid this at all costs. Find a better way to express your anger and frustration.
Bringing up your ex
Chances are, your partner doesn’t love the fact that your affections once belonged to someone else. Don’t hurt them by bringing up your ex without a very good reason. This is particularly true if your partner feels insecure or threatened by your past relationships. Leave your past in the past and focus on the person who is currently in your life.
“I’m leaving you”
Unless you really, truly mean it, do not tell your partner that you leaving them. Most of us, on some level, fear abandonment — so nothing shakes a person’s trust in their relationship like having their partner threaten to walk out the door during an argument.
Not only does this bring your level of commitment into question, but it may also leave your partner feeling afraid to discuss problems in the future. If every time they raise an issue, you pack your bags, you send the message that you are unwilling to compromise or work things out. And that’s extremely discouraging.
There’s a saying that “silence is golden,” but that’s not true when it comes to relationships. In fact, silent treatment can be extremely toxic and is the ultimate sign of a breakdown in communication. This is particularly true when silence is used as a punishment.
It’s reasonable to take a few minutes to compose ourselves when we are upset or need a break from an argument. It’s not okay to refuse to speak to our partner for extended periods of time. If one person refuses to even talk to the other, how can anything ever be resolved, right?
Treat your partners as you would like to be treated
Navigating communication in relationships can be really tricky, but, at the end of the day, we should treat our partners as we would like to be treated. In moments of frustration, we should all remember that, with time and effort, it will get easier to talk through issues if we focus on being positive, respectful, and mutually supportive.