How to argue effectively
Many people in relationships find it quite challenging to deal with conflict – whether it’s because of the continual arguments between them, the oppressive silences, or in some cases domestic abuse. Most people will avoid confrontation whenever they can and only allow the problems to gnaw away at them with fear and resentment. Some couples may hide behind the veneer of cordial behaviour, and wait until the last minute before a sudden outburst of grievances are unleashed.
But this is when conflict is likely to do the most damage. Too much has happened. Too many grievances have been left unaddressed and once the rot sets in, it’s very difficult to break out of a cycle, without a great deal of emotional effort and commitment.
Usually the trust has broken down, because mutual support, communication and empathy has flown out the window. Complacency and denial has set in. You may both choose to avoid confronting one another with these very difficult and testy issues. You may delude yourself that opting for the easy way out, means staying silent and keeping the status quo, because you fear the consequences. Perhaps you believe your partner will judge you unfairly, if you air your point view and find it difficult to accept who you really are. Perhaps you fear abandonment, or being shamed and feeling helpless when your partner refuses to acknowledge the problem.
However, it’s essential to recognise that disagreements are a natural consequence of even the healthiest relationships. They occur because two adults, however much they love each other, have naturally competing interests, diverging values and expectations about what a relationship should be. Arguments are a means of addressing these differences, directly and openly, by airing your point of view and renegotiating the boundaries and expectations. Even agreeing to disagree can be a helpful way of clearing the air.
When you have arguments it can be a constructive way of disrupting the old patterns of behaviour and relating that have become too stale and inhibiting. Through healthy conflict you can actually change the current situation, as you renegotiate your boundaries and move forward in relationships. Healthy arguments don’t have to descend into destructive patterns of conflict or abuse.
Sometimes risking an argument may be appropriate if you have become complacent or codependent, and your relationship feels stifling. It may be a way of reinvigorating yourselves, by standing up for what you believe in, being more assertive and expressing genuine emotion.
There may also be feelings that aren’t being voiced by you or your partner. You may crave more emotional contact, or need to push back a little and stand up for yourself. Arguments can even be a helpful way of communicating your ideas and emotional needs more effectively. If one of you feels misunderstood or unappreciated, but has been afraid to voice this, arguments can be a way of initiating a more honest and open communication, allowing you to acknowledge and let go of limited and unwanted ways of behaving.
Of course conflict can be risky and dangerous if emotions are too highly aroused or expressing anger becomes abusive, especially when you’re at a crisis point. You need to pay attention to the early warning signs of rising tension and address the situation before it gets out of hand. You need to listen to each other deeply and non-defensively, allowing that person to express themselves fully, without interruption, before you respond. If you’re already preparing your answer and counter-argument, before the other person has finished you’re not listening, you’re just defending. Arguing in a hyper-aroused state is not good for your relationship and often leads to emotional outbursts and behaviours you might regret. Vicious cycles of communicating and relating are much more difficult when they have become embedded.
So learn to express yourself early on and let your partner know where you stand in terms of your values and expectations. Make sure you’re not sitting in judgement or setting the bar too high with your expectations. But acknowledge your own flaws and failings, when you point out your partner’s unwanted behaviours. Let them know how they can change things, rather than tell them what they’re doing wrong, or using judgemental accusations that make them feel more vulnerable and disrespected.
Letting people know what’s in your head is vital, and you need to communicate it in a way that invites empathy and understanding, rather than pity or anger. People are not mind-readers and your partner may need to challenge you to communicate more openly if you’re not expressing yourself. Having an argument can clear the air when you’ve both come to a stalemate. It’s a way of breaking the old cycle and creating new opportunities for growth, healing and progress in your relationship.
The more you sit on your unspoken frustrations, the more likely you will feel frustrated and disappointed. This is often the case when your feelings haven’t been articulated and you deal with conflict by shutting down or bottling up your emotions.
Constantly anticipating your partner’s next move and shutting down, without giving them a genuine opportunity to respond, is stifling. If you can take responsibility for your feelings and express yourself more honestly, you will not be accused of withholding the truth. You will build trust and empathy, making room for acceptance to flourish, especially about the things that you feel ashamed and vulnerable about.
If you need to assert yourself and express how you feel, communicate it in a way that doesn’t seek to humiliate your partner or win the argument. The need to win, or to assert the logic of your argument over and above your partner’s version of events, will not heal the relationship or engender trust. Where there’s a winner in an argument, someone always has to lose. So don’t attack your partner’s position with the power of your own internal logic, because that’s all it is. Your version of the truth.
This can only fuel further resentment, anger and humiliation. You are both equals in your relationship, unless someone is using emotional control and abuse. You need to concede that you both bring problems to the relationship and you’re equally responsible for changing your own patterns of behaviour. All you can change is you and no one is above reproach. If you can acknowledge your own flaws and behaviour you can win respect.
When you learn to negotiate in an argument with a degree of empathy and mutual respect, you both get to feel heard and appreciated by your partner. Try to agree on a healthy way of arguing. Giving each other space and timeout where it’s necessary, so you feel safe enough to engage in conflict without fear. The purpose of arguing needs to be defined and communicated with an attitude of compromise and acceptance. Do not argue expecting compliance and coercion to work.
You don't have to do arguments at the height of your pain and anger to be heard. In fact, you’re more likely to be heard and received if you don’t shout over your partner. It’s too easy to descend into tit-for-tat accusation and counter-accusation. Pause, step back and practice self-awareness. Then listen before you speak. Take turns to listen and speak. Focus on seeking understanding not the power of persuasion. Convey your passion by all means, but in a way that is tolerable and not overwhelming for your partner.
By learning to argue more assertively, you gain the confidence of your partner. You can assert your needs first, but with your partner in mind. Argue on behalf of the relationship, not always your own selfish desires. This is a win-win. Arguing against your partner means you both lose in the end.
And try to remember: pick the battles that are worth fighting for. Some problems or grievances, just aren't worth the effort. If you bicker about almost everything, but hide the real problems under layers of denial, you won’t achieve anything. Let arguments be few-and-far between, so you’re not overcome with combat fatigue. And choose the things that really matter to you.
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