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The right way to fight with your partner, according to mental health experts

Disagreements are a healthy part of every relationship, but our default fighting tactics are not. Here's how to rationally and constructively clear the air.
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Anyone in a long-term relationship knows that sometimes a seemingly small misstep can open the door to an all-out verbal brawl. Maybe she forgot to take the trash out again, or maybe he said something unkind about a friend. Suddenly — without even realizing what’s happening — you’ve suited up in your heavy armor ready to defend a wounded ego. And being stuck in a house with your significant other during quarantine (forced to juggle work, kids and endless household chores) provides even more opportunity for snippy comments or dishes left on the counter to quickly incite a spat.

While disagreements are a healthy part of every relationship, our human default-mode of engaging in a pride-shielding, fiery back-and-forth is just going to leave both parties utterly exhausted at best, and hurt or angry to the point of no repair at worst.

“There is a big difference between arguing and being abusive and de-constructive,” said Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. “When you need to ‘argue’ a point with someone, what you are trying to do is express how you feel and make the other person understand how it impacts you. Often, people are not aware that specific actions or lack of actions are having the consequences that can lead to anger, hurt or confusion. This is why rationally clearing the air is so vital.”

In that sense, it’s not about putting a pin in the fight (which is likely to lead to an explosion down the road) or shouting until one person gives up and slams the door. Instead, the goal is to effectively, rationally communicate why you feel the way you do and hear the other person’s perspective. This is far more productive than a haphazard yelling match and will help your relationship grow.

Fighting “well” is not an easy skill to develop — and it requires an enormous amount of practice and restraint — but it can be done. These expert-backed strategies will help you get there.

Pick your battles wisely

Not everything is worth hashing out. Sure, it might drive you batty that the toilet seat is always left up or the toothpaste cap seldom makes its way back to the tube. Say something, but if it’s a habit the other can’t break then determine if it’s ultimately worth the energy to argue about it. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if the issue at hand genuinely affects your emotional or mental health.

“When speaking to couples, I counsel them not to focus on the petty things but to stick to the issues that really have an impact on their life such as trust, emotional security, finances and cohesive child-rearing,” said Hafeez. “Even in a friendship, nobody is perfect. If a friend’s good qualities far outweigh the ‘bad,’ sometimes we need to accept people as they are, not as we want them to be. (Unless of course, they are behaving in a way that is toxic or detrimental to our own emotional health.)”

Don’t bring the kitchen sink

Focusing on the topic at hand is going to help you get through an argument far more quickly and effectively. In other words: avoid the temptation to bring up past issues.

“Kitchen sinking is an ineffective method of communication which involves bringing up issues and grievances from the past and lumping them all together with the current topic,” said Dr. Renee Exelbert, a New York City-based psychologist and adjunct professor at the New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. “For example, [you might want to say something like] ‘you weren’t nice to me last night,’ or ‘you did this same thing last year when we were at the holiday party.’ Stick to one problem at a time, and only focus on the current issue.”

Prioritize empathy

The point of arguing should only be to communicate why you feel the way you do. It is never conducive to debase, defame or affect someone’s self-esteem negatively. If you’re feeling extremely heated, take a 15-minute breather or even a few hours to gain composure, advised Exelbert. This will prevent you from saying something hurtful in the heat of the moment.

Instead of slinging hurtful words, practice empathy.

“A verbal statement such as ‘it makes sense to me that you feel that way,’ [can be very helpful],” said Exelbert. “You can even show that you empathize with your partner and understand what they are feeling through a non-verbal facial expression or physical gesture such as holding their hand.”

Studies from The Gottman Institute show that it takes five positive interactions to overcome any one negative interaction. In other words, if you say something that is extremely hurtful, on average it will take five positive gestures to try to compensate for that. If you do make a mistake or say something hurtful, apologize with sincerity in the moment.

Shift your goal from winning to finding common ground

In the midst of an argument it can feel like nothing is more important than proving you’re right and that you’ve been wounded or offended in some way. It’s perfectly OK to express that you feel that way, but do steer clear of trying to emerge as the “winner.”

“Try to ask yourself if it more important to be ‘right’ or to be kind to one another and hear each other’s perspective,” advised Exelbert. “[It can help to] look for opportunities where there is agreement instead of only focusing on the negative. You will demonstrate that you see your partner’s viewpoint and that you care. Even a small alliance during conflict can fundamentally shift how partners fight.”

Acknowledging that both of your perspectives have validity — even if you are opposed to each other on the topic — demonstrates mutual respect. This humanizes you both in the heat of conflict and allows you to work through the discussion more easily.