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I'm a couples' therapist. 4 things I never do when arguing with my partner

Couples' therapists offer advice to recognize if the way you and your partner fight is unhealthy and how to prepare for the next argument.
/ Source: TODAY

Every couple fights or disagrees sometimes. Whether it’s something benign, like where to eat out or who gets to hold the remote, or more serious matters, such as political differences, hurt feelings or money management. In either case, there’s no way to escape conflicts that arise in every relationship.

But experts say that the success of your relationship depends on how such conflicts are resolved. “Fighting or conflict is a natural part of relationships,” Nicole LePera, Ph.D., founder of The Holistic Psychologist and bestselling self-help author, tells  “However, how we argue or engage in conflict can be productive or dysfunctional.”

Donald Cole, the clinical director of the Gottman Institute, which provides couples’ counseling and educates mental health care providers, agrees. “Decline in relationship satisfaction is clearly predicted when conflicts are not managed well," he tells 

The experts break down how healthy couples fight versus unhealthy ones.

How couples in a healthy relationship resolve conflicts

Couples in a healthy relationship validate feelings, affirm love, listen intently and know when to let a matter go, LePera says. “And they don’t view disagreements as a personal threat,” she adds.

Cole says that healthy couples also focus on talking about what they feel and need in a situation rather than how their partner is the problem or at fault. ("I" statements versus "you" statements.)

Healthy couples have also learned to approach disagreements respectfully from the get-go. “Research shows that when the first three minutes of a conflict conversation are harsh or negative, that conversation will remain negative 96% of the time,” says Cole.

Healthy couples also work on seeing things “from the other person’s perspective” and “assume positive intent” from their partner, says Silvy Khoucasian, a relationship coach who specializes in helping couples set healthy boundaries.

“It’s equally important to them to make space for imperfection and to develop an ability to make repairs quickly when something happens that hurts someone,” she tells 

For couples who communicate in a healthy manner, “the goal is to manage conflict without undermining the sense of safety and security in the relationship,” Lauren Fogel Mersy, a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, tells “Healthy conflict involves making requests versus demands, focusing on sharing our own vulnerable feelings and needs rather than describing our partner’s flaws or behavior, and offering the benefit of the doubt,” she says.

How couples in an unhealthy relationship fight

On the other hand, couples in an unhealthy relationship engage in character attacks, shame their partner and are always “keeping score,” says LePera. She adds that such couples “rehash the past rather than focusing on solutions.” Mersy agrees and says that such couples also frequently “make threats to the relationship.” 

Khoucasian says that the most worrisome form of communication she sees in couples is when one partner shows signs of contempt or disgust such as eye rolling, cutting sarcasm, or mocking their significant other. 

“When you do those things, you’re essentially looking down at your partner and feeling better than them,” she says. “It is a pattern of deep righteousness and a huge relationship killer.” 

Indeed, contempt is among “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” as the Gottman Institute has defined them. In addition to contempt, the other four horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. “The negativity in these conversations can feel so overwhelming that sometimes people just feel like giving up,” says Cole. 

How to improve from where you are

The good news is that, unless you’re in an abusive or loveless relationship, couples can learn to resolve conflict in a healthy manner. 

“My best advice is to slow things down,” Mersy suggests. “When we get upset, things can escalate very quickly.” In such a state, she says it’s common to say something we’ll regret. “If slowing down is too challenging, then it may be best to take a break and try the conversation again in 20 to 30 minutes when our nervous system has had a chance to calm down,” she adds. 

Cole also recommends taking time to choose words carefully and to approach disagreements positively. “It only takes a few minutes to plan a positive start up,” he says. And if an argument takes a turn, “I would encourage people to be willing to recognize escalating negative feelings and be willing to ask for a brief timeout in order to re-approach the subject in a more positive way,” he advises. 

LePera advises having a conversation about how you and your partner want to deal with disagreements before they arise so "you’re not in an active conflict (and) in a relaxed state,” she says. 

Khoucasian suggests being mindful of the fact that your partner probably isn’t trying to upset you on purpose and to remember that you are both on the same side of wanting to keep your relationship intact. “Try to think of you and your partner as a team and explore ways you can create solutions for the challenges that arise rather than getting stuck in a you versus them mentality,” she advises.  

Perhaps most important of all is finding ways to nurture and care for the relationship with kind words and deeds and activities you both enjoy doing together. “Spend time enhancing positive moments with each other,” advises Cole. “We know that when couples have a higher sense of positive connection, their disagreements are managed more successfully.”