How to argue – guidance from couples counselling and relationships
Arguments between couples are normal. They can be a healthy and constructive way of moving forward. Arguments do not have to descend into all out confrontation, or fuel destructive impulses. Arguments can be appropriate and helpful, especially when couples have not communicated their ideas and needs effectively. One person may feel taken for granted or unappreciated in the relationship, but may be afraid to voice this.
Arguments can be a way of reinvigorating your relationship and expressing strong emotions. This allows the other person to know what is going on for you, especially in a crisis - after all, they are not mind-readers. Arguments can clear the air when couples have come to a crossroads, or they can be a way of breaking the deadlock and creating new opportunities for growth and change. Many people do not like confrontation and avoid it at all costs, but this often leads to festering resentment and frustration, where one person’s fears and disappointments have not been articulated. Bottling up your emotions and withholding how you feel from your partner will not help you understand each other; however, if you are able to take ownership for your feelings and express them openly and directly, this may lead to greater trust in a relationship.
You may also need to stand up for yourself, so long as you do not seek to humiliate your partner or win the argument. By seeking to win, someone always has to lose; this can only create further anger and fuel resentment. Arguing when you need to get your point across or negotiate a new set of boundaries is often a way of creating space so you both to feel heard and appreciated, but you need to follow a workable set of guidelines if you are going to feel safe enough to argue. The aim of the argument should be mutually defined, an agreement based on compromise and acceptance, not fear and coercion.
So, arguments don't have to be angry and hurtful - but they can easily turn that way if you're not careful. With enough self-awareness from both people, there are several techniques you can try which will allow you to get a point across without turning it into conflict. The ability to argue effectively can give you the confidence to stand up for yourself and say what you believe in without seeking to blame the other or relay a list of grievances. Remember to pick your battles though - some things just aren't worth arguing about. Arguments need to be few and far between – they need to be about things that really matter to you. Try to remember these points:
- Do not start on the offensive/defensive: as soon as you do this will set the agenda for outright opposition, and this will lead to winners and losers. When your emotions are so heated and intense you cannot control yourself or feel impulsive, call time out and walk away. Come back after some careful reflection and consideration, not with a list of grievances drawn up in the other person’s absence. Return when the feelings have settled but are still warm (i.e. live). Do not let them go cold or become detached. Calmly focus on the point you are trying to get across and how it benefits both parties and the relationship. Be convincing and direct, but not persuasive or coercive.
- Remember, you are trying to repair your relationship not destroy it: Try to work out an agreement even if there are differences between you (such as your values, beliefs and matters of principle). Not everyone can be expected to hold the same point of view as you. They can be asked to respect it and even empathise with your viewpoint, but you cannot demand that someone agree with you without removing their sense of free will. There may be a satisfactory compromise which suits some but not all of your needs – i.e. the most important and meaningful to you. Be prepared to make some sacrifices, but not those which would compromise your well-being, core values or freedom.
- Try to be tolerant, even where there is disagreement: Being tolerant does not mean putting up with something you find unacceptable; it comes from a place of genuine acceptance and a willingness to live with something you may find difficult. Nevertheless, you may be able acknowledge the validity of someone else’s position, because their gain matters more to them than you loss matters to you.
- Always seek to play fair: Odds are you know exactly how to push the other person's buttons, but it's important to resist if you want to have a constructive argument by mutual consent. Resolve that no matter how upset you partner appears to make you, you will not say the one thing you know would push the argument over the edge. Name-calling and using one’s status, experience or knowledge to outwit someone will not win you any favours.
- Respect the other person’s point of view even when you don’t agree: Mutual respect is vital if you want co-operation and agreement in the end. An argument has to be two-sided; if you fail to hear the other side out, they will return the gesture and fail to listen to you. Refuting a person's opinion is also fine, but refusing to hear it makes a debate pointless as you leave one party feeling aggrieved.
- Try to be empathic: try to see the other person’s point of view as if it were your own when arguing with another person. Remember, that's what they are: another person with their own feelings, thoughts and beliefs just like you. There is no such thing as final truth. There are many truths depending where you stand. If you empathise, you are more likely to win the other person’s trust even when you disagree. At least the other person knows you are not trying to spite them, ridicule or humiliate them. Treat others the way that you would want to be treated. Don't immediately dismiss their ideas just because they don't agree with you. Listen to them attentively and try to see the reasonableness in their words and actions. After all, if you love the other person, winning is not important...but resolving your differences is.
- Challenge the person’s ideas, not the person they're attached to. When you argue with someone, you should remember to challenge that person's ideas or actions, not the person themselves. That means you shouldn't judge the person for thinking what they think or doing what they do, and you shouldn't devolve to attacks on past misdemeanours too either.
- Do not recall the past as your defence - stick to the here-and-now: Using a list of previous misdemeanours to beat you partner into submission will not curry favour. You cannot revisit the past and fix it. So stick to the problems in the here-and-now. Recall the facts and outline what you would like your partner to change, rather than using emotive language that is designed to elicit guilt, hate or anxiety. Make the desired changes achievable and consistent. Do not nag, but reaffirm the original agreement that was reached.
- Admit and apologise when you are wrong, not go into denial or defensiveness: When you make a mistake, admit it. Your partner is more likely to respect you and trust you if you can own up to mistakes and apologise (if appropriate). It shows that you can be vulnerable and are willing to take risks in opening up. Admit that you misunderstood or were misinformed. Being wrong doesn't make you a loser, but admitting you're wrong does earn you a certain degree of integrity and dignity. It also shows you are willing to take responsibility and put things right. If you hurt someone or your argument caused problems, you can apologise without losing ground. Be the adult in the situation and do not be frightened - to be accountable.
- Try to remain positive and open to new ideas - they may be helpful: When you argue, try to be open to new ideas and feedback – they may be an opportunity for change and growth, even for yourself. You don't want to be wrong in an argument again because you remained stubborn and closed-minded. Open yourself to the possibility of a better way of thinking or adapting to a situation which may suit you better. Remaining open to feedback shows you are willing to look at new ideas and respond. It shows a willingness to change where it is appropriate. Do not assume the other person wants to attack or criticise you when they are trying to reflect another viewpoint.