No relationship is perfect; even the most solid of soulmates spar from time to time. But arguments don’t have to end in tears, silent treatment, or slammed doors. In fact, chances are that an everyday altercation could actually be channeled into something productive.
We asked three couples counselors from our network to share what tips they follow to keep their own relationships running smoothly when the going gets tough. Below are their tips for fighting with your significant other in a way that fosters communication, compromise, and respect.
1. Avoid saying “always” and “never”
You might have heard this advice before, but couples counselors agree that it really is a golden rule. The trouble with using blanket terms like “always” and “never” when you’re arguing with a partner is that doing so put unnecessary limitations on your conversation, and even on your relationship.
“Absolutes leave us stuck,” says Dr. Tara Dewitt, a Clinical Psychologist in NYC who works with couples. “When we use ‘never’ or ‘always,’ the other person naturally wants to defend that this is not the case. It leaves us wrestling with each other, rather than addressing the larger concern.”
Not to mention, “never” and “always” statements are rarely literally true. Consider the following examples:
- “You never ask how my day went!” (Not even once in a while?)
- “I’m always the one who takes the trash out!” (Your partner has never taken it out?)
- “I never feel comfortable around your family!” (There hasn’t been even one time when you did feel comfortable?)
What’s worse, by exaggerating the reality of what you’re experiencing in your relationship, you close off discussions of what really is happening. In every one of the above examples, there’s likely a legitimate concern beneath the surface. But using words like “always” or “never” makes it harder to figure out what those concerns are, and how you can work together to address them.
Consider how different these statements look with less definite language:
- “It feels to me like you’re not interested in how my days are going.”
- “I’ve noticed that I tend to take the trash out more often than you do.”
- “I’m wondering if we can talk about ways that we could make spending time with your family more comfortable for me.”
By remembering to phrase your statements as precisely as you can, you’ll likely get much closer to the root of what’s really bothering you—and you’ll open the door for your partner to work with you toward positive change.
2. Describe your feelings and needs, rather than blaming your partner
It can be tempting to push your perspective on your partner to ensure they really understand your side of the argument. But doing so can come across as accusatory blaming, and inevitably put your partner on the defense. Instead, do your best to communicate how you feel without using self-victimizing language.
For example, rather than saying:
- It ruined my whole night when you forgot to call me.
- I was worried when I didn’t hear from you. I’ve noticed that I often feel [anxious/insecure/bad about myself] in situations like that, so I’d love if we could both figure out a way to communicate better when we’re apart.
As mentioned above, sticking with "I feel" or “I need” statements removes the accusation of blame, and steers the focus to yourself and your own needs. This also helps stem the growth of contempt, which can be largely harmful to a relationship.
3. Know that it is okay to go to sleep angry
If you’ve been to a wedding or two, you’ve probably heard some relative toast the happy couple with a classic piece of advice: Love means never going to sleep angry. But our couples counselors are here to tell you that’s not true!
Fighting when you’re exhausted is unlikely to be productive, and it could even make things worse. You might even be fighting because you’re tired—we all know that little issues sometimes seem enormous when you haven’t had enough sleep!
Kira Keenan, a therapist who works with couples in North Providence, RI, knows the drive to resolve issues on the spot – an urge she refers to as the “processing hole” – can be strong. But according to couples counselor and researcher John Gottman, the majority (approximately 69%) of recurring conflicts in relationships are never actually resolved anyway. What’s more important, then, is how you talk to each other about your perspectives – rather than focusing on getting to the bottom of the argument.
The next time you feel like you've fallen into "the processing hole,” Keenan suggests turning to your partner and saying:
- “This feels like we aren't getting anywhere. I want our conflict to be productive. Can we take a break and find a time in the next few days when we could come back to this, when we're both feeling a little more resourced?"
According to Anna Macgregor Robin, a therapist in Providence, RI, prioritizing rest is crucial in a relationship. After all, she says, “To thrive and grow, a relationship, like a child, needs nurturing, education, and play – and, always, enough sleep!”
4. Try to fight face-to-face when possible, rather than digitally
Text messaging may be quick and convenient, but it’s rarely a proper substitute for the weightier conversations that inevitably arise in relationships. It’s far too easy for tone and intention to be misunderstood when you’re communicating via rapid written notes.
Instead, aim for face-to-face communication. If an argument is forming but you can’t be in the same place to talk it out, try to table the conversation – or at least substitute with a video call.
And if you’re really feeling the intensity of the moment, remember to ask yourself before sending a text: Would I want to be spoken to in this way? If the answer is no, then it might be best to hold off on texting altogether until you’ve had a chance to cool off.
5. Immediately address an issue that's bothering you
It can be tempting to let little things slide in romantic relationships; and of course, sometimes that makes sense. If your partner eats the last cookie without asking you, maybe you’ll feel a twinge of annoyance but decide it’s not worth fighting over.
But if you notice that your partner often does things that irk you, it definitely is worthwhile to bring them up—even if the things you’re upset about seem small! That is, if your partner eats the last cookie once or twice, maybe it’s not a problem. But if it happens over and over, you’re likely to start experiencing emotions that go far beyond the situation at hand. Maybe you’ll feel disrespected, unseen, or as if your desires don’t matter.
Keenan says that, in her own relationship, she and her partner have made a deal to work towards having clear, concise, communication in their relationship – and “part of that includes talking about things as soon as we have any information about it.” She adds, “I was surprised at how hard this has been for me. Turns out I prefer to have worked through things and have a clean understanding before talking about things. Vulnerability isn't easy, even for therapists!”
So the next time you have a gut feeling about something, consider raising the issue as soon as it arises. That might mean saying things like, "I'm not really sure why, but [XYZ] really didn't feel good!" As a bonus, this can also help you learn to trust your senses, points out Keenan, who says doing so also helps her listen to her body and trust the information that comes from her internal world.
6. Understand that some degree of conflict is inevitable – and have defusing tactics at the ready
You and your partner can be each other's biggest cheerleader, but at the end of the day, you’re still two unique individuals with varied histories and experiences. Some degree of conflict is inevitable in every relationship, and embracing that fact is crucial for yours to thrive.
“Without healthy expectations about the inevitability of disagreement, ugly arguments can unleash sickening anxiety about the relationship,” says Robin. All of that can lead to destructive ego-defense strategies, like blaming and shaming each other.
The next time you find yourself in a heated argument with your partner, focus less on resolving the issue immediately, and more on cooling off. Robin recommends these useful strategies:
- A reality check spiced with compassion for both of you: “We are both exhausted…and we both deserve time and space to discuss this constructively.”
- Constructive ‘I’ statements: “I know you are telling me something important, and I want to listen attentively which I can do when I am not so tired.”
- Gentle humor! If there’s real love there, you and your partner share references that only you find. See if you can defuse anger with some of your secret laugh language.
7. Consider couples counseling to learn healthy fighting
If you’re having recurring fights, trouble getting through to each other, or you’re experiencing difficulty recovering in the wake of a particularly bad argument, you might want to consider seeing a therapist together. A couples counselor can help you understand where your partner is coming from, and create a space for you to air your concerns and reconnect.
However, Dr. Dewitt notes that you don’t have to wait until things have already escalated. “It’s preferable to see couples therapy as a preventive strategy,” she says, since it’s “a way to continue to keep your relationship healthy and connect with someone if possible, prior to your relationship reaching a hard place.”