Many believe an ideal relationship will always be happy and conflict free. But we know all relationships — whether romantic, parent-child, extended family, friendships or co-workers — will have disagreements. The key to healthy, secure relationships is to learn to disagree and argue fairly and honestly. Healthy arguments make relationships stronger. A lack of any conflict may mean the partners are not invested enough in the relationship to want to make it better or that one isn’t feeling safe in the relationship.
The first step to a healthy argument is to identify what the disagreement is really about. All too often, the real issue is never resolved. A fight about not liking your partner’s friend may really be about not feeling like you’re getting enough quality time with your partner.
When you figure out what the disagreement is, set aside time when you’re both rested and have few distractions so you can focus on figuring out a solution. Here are some tips for having healthy, useful disagreements — collected from relationship specialists and professor John Gottman.
1) Bring up the conflict before resentment and anger build up. Ignoring an issue won’t make it go away. Your partner may have no idea anything’s wrong until one day you suddenly yell at her about never doing the dishes.
2) Stick to the topic. For example, when discussing dishes, don’t bring up unrelated issues or rehash old arguments. If another topic comes up, agree to talk about it later.
3) Always be respectful and relatively calm. Do not verbally attack, yell, swear or roll your eyes. If you are too angry or are feeling attacked, set up a time to talk later. Personal attacks will only sidetrack being able to resolve the conflict and the focus will shift to defending the personal attacks.
4) Listen. Both sides need to be willing to hear what the other person is saying. The argument can’t end if you just want to get your own point across without calmly listening to your partner. Each of you should have equal time to talk and the other should listen without interrupting, not just wait for the other to stop talking.
5) Don’t blame or get defensive. Explain why you are angry without making assumptions about what your partner wants or feels. Start sentences with “I” rather than “you.”
6) Don’t threaten to break up during the heat of an argument. You may need to consider ending the relationship, but not in the middle of an argument.
7) Stay engaged. Don’t stonewall or ignore. If you need to walk away temporarily because emotions are too high in the moment, let your partner know how much time you need and how you will restart the conversation.
8) Compromise. The goal should not be for one partner to be declared “right” and the other “wrong.” You can respectfully agree to disagree or acknowledge that your partner’s view is valid and that you are arguing because you care about the other person and the relationship.
9) Repair. Let go of the anger and reconnect with your partner when you feel ready. Don’t hold on to the anger after the discussion.
All relationships have conflict. Having healthy disagreements is a lot of work, especially at the beginning, but it will strengthen your relationship. If your relationship involves coercive control, physical violence or verbal abuse, please contact Community Against Violence for support and assistance.
Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence (CAV). To talk with someone or get information on services available, call CAV’s 24-hour hotline at (575) 758-9888 or access taoscav.org.