How to Handle an Argument with Your Partner

Couple arguing in kitchenDo you and your partner have arguments that go round and round and seem like they recycle the same information over and over?

Max: Didn’t I tell you the reason I told your mother …

Melinda: No, that is not the reason you said at the time. If you had said what you’re saying now, I would have handled it differently. I don’t understand how you could change things so much.

Max: Why do you keep insisting I said something I never said? What I said was …

And so on. Some of these back-and-forths can take weeks to stop recycling themselves.

Why does this happen? And more to the point, what can be done about it?

What’s Behind the Arguing?

Human beings were built to connect with one another. In being connected, we chase away a sense of being alone. Connection, of course, requires us to understand one another. Ironically and unfortunately, we can feel most alone when we are with someone who does not understand us.

Arguments such as the one Max and Melinda are having are attempts—however unsuccessful—to repair damage and connect, finally. The arguments are doomed to fail because of the way the participants go about it, but that is not what’s important to consider right now. What is important, I think, is these people desperately want to connect, as evidenced by the amount of energy they put into their conflict.

Another important piece here is that Max and Melinda want to connect on their own terms. This is not because they are selfish or controlling, but because they don’t know another way.

What Are They Doing Wrong?

Do you ever notice how, in a heated argument, no one involved is really listening? Each person is desperately trying to get a point across at the same time the other person is doing the exact same thing.

How can they possibly expect to meet somewhere in the middle? They don’t know what the other person is talking about, let alone how to reconnect and resolve the issue.

Why does it seem as if what they really want is to win? And where does winning get them, exactly?

People who have learned to argue like this have, like most of us, at one point or another been made to feel small or ashamed. As much as they want to connect, they don’t want to lower themselves—by “losing” the argument, by being “wrong”—in the process.

What Can They Do About It?

A necessary ingredient for a successful exchange in which two people may see things differently is to make sure the other person feels emotionally safe.

Think about it: if Max and Melinda are quite certain they will get bashed, blamed, or somehow made to feel small or stupid, they likely will continue in attack/defense mode. But if each makes clear, repeatedly, that no matter how difficult it becomes they will avoid hurting the other in any way, then the chances of a round-and-round thing decrease dramatically.

Here are some things they need to be careful of:

  • Don’t try to psychoanalyze the other’s reasons for their behavior
  • Don’t bring up old mistakes or errors in judgment; stick to the current issue
  • Don’t talk about parents, siblings, or irrelevant others
  • Avoid using “but” statements
  • Never, ever be verbally abusive—including name-calling, put-downs, yelling, threats, or disrespectful gestures

Instead, it’s a good idea to:

  • Inject compliments or gestures of respect into the conversation where possible
  • Listen carefully and actively, acknowledging the validity of the other person’s perspective even as you disagree
  • Ask clarifying questions about what the other person means
  • Take a break or go for a walk, if needed, to let things cool off
  • Accept responsibility for mistakes, and accept differences of opinion as natural and okay

Case Example

One couple I worked with argued about food. They both worked long hours. The wife, who took pride in her cooking skills, would make delicious meals and be insulted when her husband would snatch a cookie from the cupboard. She got angry at him and they argued.

What was going on?

First, the wife took her husband’s culinary preferences personally. Looking at the issue from another angle could help her relax. If she liked the food she cooked, great. If her husband enjoyed it, so much the better. If he wanted other food too, it wasn’t necessarily a rejection of her cooking, let alone her, and it wasn’t helpful to interpret it as such.

Why does it seem as if what they really want is to win? And where does winning get them, exactly?

Second, it was perfectly reasonable for her to be disappointed. Disappointments are a part of life—rain on a beach day, the movie was a bore, the new gadget didn’t meet expectations. We can acknowledge the feeling of disappointment, surmise that on a 1-to-10 scale it’s about a 3, and move on.

Third, it wouldn’t hurt to express her feelings to her husband provided she does it as a statement of her feelings and not an accusation. He, in turn, might acknowledge her feelings and be gentle but honest about his own. If he didn’t love the meal but wants to soothe her, he can mention that although it was good and he appreciated it, he prefers foods that are less salty (or whatever). He can also offer to do the cooking the next night (and she, of course, can feel free to not like it).

If you need help resolving communication problems in your relationship, seeking the help of a trained couples counselor can be greatly beneficial. A good relationship always has differences. Making an effort to truly understand each other, rather than reacting emotionally in the moment, is key. The goal isn’t to win or even to agree; it’s for both parties to feel heard, to feel like what they think matters. That’s what fosters intimacy and draws two people closer together.

References:

  1. Gau, J. (2011). Successful marriage. Pastoral Psychology, 60, 651-658.
  2. Schnarch, D. (2009). Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship. New York: Beaufort Books.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, therapist in Far Rockaway, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • Maghan

    Maghan

    April 28th, 2016 at 6:41 AM

    I used to think that getting into an argument was my chance to prove that I was right about everything. Boy was I wrong! I think that I have become such a better person now that I have come to understand that this is not my time to “win” but should actually be used as a time to learn something from the person that I love. I think that when both of us made the conscious decision to start arguing with this as the intent the two of us have come so far together as a result.

  • mathilde

    mathilde

    April 28th, 2016 at 10:39 AM

    Try not to let it escalate to the point of no return. There have been those times when my husband and I argue and immediately I say something that I know that I shouldn’t have but it is already out of my mouth so what do you do? I always try to acknowledge that I said something way dumb and apologize before trying to move on past it. I might not feel bad about it but how can I predict what he will continue to think of that nasty thing that I said?

  • Julian

    Julian

    April 28th, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    Let us both try to remember that we are partners and not adversaries

  • Nik

    Nik

    April 29th, 2016 at 7:09 AM

    So many of the arguments that we have might on the surface look like it is one thing but scratch away the layers and you will probably see that the argument is actually about something else. It is important to know what you are actually fighting about before the two of you can begin to work on a peaceful resolution with one another.

  • florence

    florence

    April 29th, 2016 at 2:00 PM

    Not the best solution but I try to walk away until the situation is a little bit diffused.

  • melissa

    melissa

    April 30th, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    Oh boy the ones I love the most are when he constantly throws something back up in my face that happened weeks or even months ago, but somehow they always seem to worm their way back into any disagreement that we have.

  • Melody

    Melody

    April 30th, 2016 at 1:38 PM

    Why is it that when I try to ask those clarifying questions that you recommend does he make me feel like I am questioning the reason for being mad?
    I try to make him see that I am just trying to get all the facts straight, to see if I can see where he is coming from a little more easily but he just seems to get angrier and more offended if i do that!
    Could it be the way I am asking or what I am asking is is he really so threatened by me trying to understand that he is just not willing to listen to me?

  • Johnson

    Johnson

    May 2nd, 2016 at 9:36 AM

    Whats going on with someone who has to be “right” to interact. My wife of 34 years has had this tendency to be focused on making her point regardlests to whether its degrading or shaming. This constant berauge of demeaning interaction is not understood even when I attempt to address the issue as to how I “feel” about the way she speaks to me. We have both hurt each other emotionally over the years. Even after a few years of counseling, we tend to go back to addressing the issue and not the emotions associated. A decision will have been made and acted upon and even after the fact, the demeaning behavior continues. I continue to address it as it arises but to no avail. Suggestions?

  • dave

    dave

    May 2nd, 2016 at 9:41 AM

    My wife always makes me feel like it is all my fault, and you know, that gets pretty old after it happens all the time

  • Caroline

    Caroline

    May 4th, 2016 at 2:23 PM

    I often in the heat of an argument get this feeling that I need to step away from the mometn, collect my thoughts before continuing. I think that my boyfriend knows this about me but I think that there are times when he wants to goad me, make me say something that I will not mean later on. I would rather step out of that moment and be articulate and rational instead of saying something that can’t be taken back.

  • Diva

    Diva

    September 19th, 2017 at 8:48 AM

    why does my hunny get defensive after he says something to deliberately to hurt me and I react… He such a macho man and Im really passive aggressive. If im pushed into a corner and feel like im being chastised I can spew venom. he always starts by being mean and I end it by being brash. How do we handle these things?

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