Arguing more because you’re both under more stress? Join the club: research suggests more than half of all couples are feeing the strain of lockdown.
The first step to surviving a fight is to remember that every couple argues.
Arguments are healthy: they show you’re secure enough to question each other’s beliefs and behaviour.
So long as they’re balanced with good times (relationships guru John Gottman’s theory on a healthy relationship is five good times to every bad one), you’re doing just fine.
On the other hand, arguments aren’t up there on anyone’s ‘how I’d like to spend next Saturday night’ list, so here’s how to have an argument where both of you win.
STEP ONE: Make sure you know what you’re arguing about
Ask, ‘Why is that important to you?’ and, ‘Why do you want that?’ and the argument could be over before it’s started.
Rate how important the argument is. Each of you give the issue a mark out of ten for importance. Whoever gives it the highest score should get the lion’s share of talking time.
Be specific. Make sure your complaint includes three elements: a) what it was your partner did or didn’t do; b) what situation(s) it happened in; and c) how it made you feel.
Word it so you’re giving the reaction you would have liked, rather than what you didn’t like. ‘I’d really appreciate it if we could spend more time together,’ rather than, ‘We don’t spend enough time together.’
Don’t lash out if your partner says something unkind or tactless. Force yourself to wait five minutes before responding. Research by American psychologists Nancy Yovetich and Caryl Rusbult found when men and women are asked to say what they’d do if a partner behaved badly, they’re more likely to respond destructively if asked to give a fast response. A pause of as little as six seconds was enough to make them think more constructively, calm down and weigh up the consequences of what they were about to say.
STEP TWO: Take turns to talk
One of you gets centre stage for a full five minutes (time it). They talk, you listen (and no interrupting). It’s cheating to spend that time mentally planning how you’re going to word your bit. You’ll have your chance, uninterrupted, at the end. When their five minutes is up, repeat back to them what they’ve just explained to you. If they’re happy you understand, it’s your turn. If you’ve got it wrong, keep on asking questions until you get it right. Then it’s your turn.
Stop pushing your point, listen to theirs. If each of you shifts the emphasis from talking about how you feel to listening when the other speaks and asking questions, you’ll get a lot further.
Stick to the issue. If you find yourself saying, ‘And another thing . . .’, stop right there. One problem per argument.
Criticise the behaviour not the person. Keep your criticisms focused on what your partner did (or didn’t) do, not on what sort of person they are. ‘I felt upset when you . . .’ not, ‘You’re so self-centred, you didn’t even notice when . . .’
Don’t use threatening statements. ‘Well, I don’t know why we’re even bothering going out if we can’t agree on this.’ It instantly makes the argument seem much more serious and hackles rise. It’s very easy in the heat of the moment to come back with, ‘Fine! Bloody well leave then!’ if someone threatens to.
Check you mean what you say and say what you mean. Most of us pull words out of the air, particularly when we’re angry, that sort of express what we mean but not accurately. We’ll call someone ‘stubborn’ when we really mean ‘You’re not acknowledging that I have a point even if you don’t agree with it.’
Don’t mind-read. If you’re not sure what your partner’s trying to say, ask them to put it in another way. Don’t assume you know what it is.
If you’re feeling really angry, take a 20-minute break. Discussions fall apart when heart rates soar: you’re too angry to listen. It takes at least 20 minutes for our body to return to normal: spend it doing something that soothes you.
STEP THREE: Look for solutions
Make them feel heard. ‘I see your point even if I don’t agree with you,’ will get you a lot further than, ‘I don’t agree with you’.
If you now think you’re in the wrong, admit it. It’s natural to want to defend yourself but if you really have stuffed up, your partner will be much more inclined to listen to your reasons if you apologise first, justify later.
Ask each other: ‘How do you think we can avoid this happening in the future?’ Listen to their side. If you’re confident you can do what they’re suggesting and are happy to, simply agree. If not, put your solution forward. You might well combine both ideas or ditch both and come up with another or decide to think about it over the next few days.
Stop talking about it once you both feel understood and have found a solution. Sometimes you’ll agree not to agree on something: you understand each other’s viewpoint, have worked out how to deal with it but it’s clear you have differing opinions. It’s OK not to agree on everything. Call a truce and resume the conversation later if you’ve been talking for more than an hour and it’s not completely sorted.
Don’t expect to kiss and make up immediately afterward. Accept you’ll both feel vulnerable, don’t get paranoid about it.
If you’re fighting about the same thing, over and over, try recording your arguments. This is incredibly effective for two reasons. First, if you know every word that comes out of your mouth is being taped, you’ll think before you open it. Secondly, playing back the argument gives both of you a chance to hear what you really said rather than what you thought you did.
Do something nice for each other the day after an argument. Smile and say, ‘We survived. We’re stronger than ever before. Isn’t it great!’