The inevitable arguments you have with your guy don’t have to cause turbulence in the relationship. In fact, when handled correctly, conflict can help you better understand and appreciate each other. Yes, we’re serious! Read on.
Disputes with your man are no fun, but they’re bound to occur. And when they do, you may worry that the loving bonds you’ve established in your relationship will somehow begin to erode. Not so, says psychologist Xavier Amador, Ph.D., author of “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Now What?,” who maintains that “fighting is a necessary ingredient for intimacy. It shows that you’re invested enough to want to hash something out instead of just writing each other off.”
So as warped as it sounds, disagreements can actually provide an opportunity for you and your guy to grow closer — if you deal with them constructively instead of letting them devolve into huge, ugly blowouts. “It takes emotional intelligence to take the anger out of an issue and talk about it productively, and many people don’t learn those skills growing up,” says Amador. So we talked to top communication, relationship, and conflict-resolution experts to get their best advice. Below, how to avoid common quarreling pitfalls, plus crucial strategies for fighting right at every stage of a love spat.
Starting the fight
Dividing moves E-mailing your issue. If you’ve been stewing over something your guy said or did, it’s tempting to fire off a bitchy e-mail or IM detailing your grievances. But by doing that, you run the risk of blindsiding your guy — remember, he may be clueless to the fact that you’re upset, says Amador.
Ambushing him. It’s important to pick a good time to air your gripe. So if your boyfriend thinks he’s coming home to spend the night vegging on the couch and instead you rip into him the second he walks in the door about how badly he behaved in front of your friends last Friday, you’re setting him — and yourself — up. At best, he’ll offer a stunned, knee-jerk response that will likely upset you more. Says Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., author of “Disagreements, Disputes, and All-Out War”: “If you’re not both in a frame of mind to discuss the issue, nothing will get solved.”
Uniting moves ID the real issue. Say you’re seething because he didn’t RSVP to his friend’s party on your behalf. Before you read him the riot act, spend time reflecting — maybe you feel left out of his social circle or you have concerns about his lack of responsibility or etiquette. “Fighting is often about something much deeper than the surface issue,” says Scott. Freaking out about a specific instance (the RSVP debacle) won’t improve communication. But if you can identify what’s really bothering you, he can work on that bigger issue.
Stay calm. Guys are biologically engineered to avoid screechy female tones … or so you’d think.
Meaning, if you want him to stay in the room long enough to hear you out, you have to calm your butt down. “What I suggest is taking two breaths into your belly and thinking of something good in your life so your nervous system relaxes,” says Fred Luskin, Ph.D., author of “Forgive for Love.” Taking that moment will help you remain kind, which in turn will get him to see how committed you are to finding a sane solution.
During the debate
Dividing moves Kitchen-sinking your criticism. The tiff started when he came home late, but since you’re riled up, you also bring up how sexist his friends are and how selfish he is to watch TV when you’re having a bad day. “Confine your discussion to one incident,” says Luskin. “Snowballing your complaints confuses both of you about what the real issue is.” Keeping focused lets you resolve the argument at hand instead of creating new ones.
Repeating yourself. If he doesn’t seem to get why you’re so peeved through his thick skull, keep hammering it home, right? Wrong. “Anytime one of you repeats yourself, it means the other person has stopped listening and put on their mental mute button,” says Amador. At this point, productivity is at a standstill.
Fighting dirty. “Sarcasm and name-calling are cheap shots,” says Patricia Covalt, Ph.D., author of “What Smart Couples Know.” “It takes maturity to stay even-keeled.”
Uniting moves Saying I instead of you. “It sounds psychobabbly, but it really works and makes people less defensive,” says Amador. Try it: “You don’t do any chores, so I did the dishes again!” sounds blamey, while “I feel like I’m left with an unfair share of housework, such as the dishes. What do you think about that?” suddenly opens things up for a legit discussion.
Asking questions. As your guy spells out his side, get details: “When did you first notice this?” or “What would you like me to do next time?” “This shows him that you’re listening, and guys respond well when they feel respected,” says Covalt.
Taking breaks. If things get ugly, say “I’m too upset to talk rationally. Can we revisit this tomorrow/after I work out/in an hour or so?” Says Covalt: “When you think of a fight as a talk, not a blowout, it takes the fear out of it. You both become more optimistic about handling it.”
Wrapping it up
Dividing moves Insisting on hashing it out. Not all arguments can be resolved in one sitting. So while you might want to slog out the details right away, your guy may be over it — at least for the night. “People in conflict have different styles of settling things and need different amounts of time to process what’s been said, and all of them are valid,” says Scott. As long as you’ve said your piece and feel heard, be willing to compromise with how your partner wants to handle the situation.
Demanding a perfect apology. “When we’re mad, our reptilian brain kicks in and wants our opponent to grovel and admit defeat,” says Amador. “It’s crucial to let your frontal lobe take control and remind you that it’s the big picture — harmony — that’s important.” So if he said he was sorry, take it at face value instead of holding out for him to say it the “right” way.
Uniting moves Moving on. Once you’ve heard the outcome you were after (an apology, a promise to try harder, an explanation of why he feels that way, etc.), any further fighting is self-indulgent. “Be willing to stop when you reach your goal,” says Amador.
Saying it out loud. When you come to an agreement on something that needs to change, verbalize the specifics so you both know what to expect. For example, “In the future, if I’m going to be working past 8, I’ll call you.” That way, you don’t misunderstand and wind up bickering again about the same thing, advises Covalt.
Checking in before you check out. “Before you walk away, say that as far as you’re concerned, the issue is resolved, then ask him if he feels the same,” says Amador. It conveys concern for your mate’s point of view.
Dealing with the aftermath
Dividing moves Harboring a grudge. Some people blow the memory of a dispute way out of proportion. But by nurturing a grudge and holding on to your anger, you hurt for far longer than you need to, says Luskin.
Making cracks about the fight. Referencing your fight-night drama in front of other people — even as a joke — erodes trust. “It escalates his defensiveness, both on that topic and the next one you have an argument about,” says Amador. Just the mention of a sore subject in front of a third party can make him feel like he’s being attacked or belittled.
Insisting on getting in the last word. Say you let things go at the time, but you just thought of a great point to make or something clever you should have said. So you toss a pointed comment over dinner or send an e-mail “clarifying” your point of view. These actions only re-engage the entire tussle and leave him wondering if he can trust that you’re telling the truth the next time you say you’ve made peace with the matter.
Uniting moves Focusing on his best qualities. After a draining debate, spend some time dwelling on what you love about your guy — even the smallest, stupidest things, like how he always restocks the cookies when they’re running low. “Contemplating your partner’s good points puts him in a more positive light in your mind, and it helps balance the stuff that’s irritating about him,” says Luskin.
Sending a nice e-mail. No need to rehash the events, but bouncing him a “Thanks for talking that over” or “Again, I’m sorry, and I love you” can go a long way toward rebuilding goodwill. “When you give these interpersonal gifts, the natural instinct on his part is to give you one in return at some point,” says Amador. “It’s a gesture that only benefits the relationship.”
Touching him. A reassuring hug or back scratch can be all it takes to transmit to your guy (who’s naturally less verbal) that you’re still a tight couple. “These touches are all about reassuring him and expressing your love — directly and indirectly,” says Amador. “They say, ‘Yes, I can be angry and still love you.’” And, hey, if it leads to make-up sex, so be it. There’s a reason that variety of nooky has such a hot reputation.
What you’re really arguing about
The complaint: “He gets super annoyed when I keep things at his place.”
The underlying issue: Freak-outs about space are a commitment phobia symptom. “He likely worries that if he gives you one drawer, how much more will he need to give you … or give up?” says Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., author of “Financial Infidelity.”
The complaint: “I always have to initiate sex.”
The underlying issue: There’s a chance you feel overlooked outside the bedroom, says Weil. “You may pursue sex as a substitute for the emotional connection you crave.”
The complaint: “He blows money on stupid stuff.”
The underlying issue: You could be questioning his impulse control, trustworthiness, or values, warns Weil — especially if he’s previously promised to save but hasn’t.
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