Most couples are familiar with that harmonious honeymoon phase of the relationship. The time at the beginning when you’re buzzing with new relationship energy. But even the healthiest couples will eventually experience their first disagreement.
And their second. And so on, and so forth…
Maybe you and your main squeeze are pretty mellow, only arguing every so often. Or maybe you both have strong personalities, and you find yourself butting heads more than occasionally.
Both are okay, as long as you know how to fight fair.
I’ve been in a terrible marriage that crashed and burned within four years, ending in a messy separation and painful divorce. I’ve also been fortunate enough to marry a man I've been happy with for ten years now.
One key difference between my ex-husband and my partner now is the way they engage in arguments with me. My ex's style was incredibly unhealthy, manipulative, and harmful to my sanity — while my second husband remains patient, considerate, and honest whenever we have to work through an issue.
Whether it’s something as small as taking out the trash or as big as deciding to have kids, a healthy couple puts on the metaphorical boxing gloves and plays by the rules, avoiding these firestarters during a debate.
1. Don’t hit below the belt
We all have a boundary that, when crossed, hurts us so deeply or makes us so angry that the damage is irreversible.
It’s different for everyone. And sure, maybe once the damage is done, you and your partner can get past it. But it’s definitely not forgotten, and it can contribute to future arguments that might eventually kill your relationship.
A thousand tiny cuts that build up over time can be just as deadly as one horrendous blow.
For my ex-husband, it was comparing him to his father. My ex’s relationship with his dad was troubling. He despised his pops and wanted to be nothing like him. So sometimes, when things got nasty during our arguments, he’d hit me below the belt and I’d swing right back with that comparison. It only ever served to make the fight all the more damaging. Why pour fuel on the fire when you’re trying to escape the burning building? It was better to stick with the issues I had with him and not bring someone else into it.
From slinging pointed insults, to name-calling, to just using something you know is a personal dig that’ll cause pain, your hurtful words can play like a broken record in your partner’s head for years to come.
2. Avoid extreme exaggerations
As a writer, I’ve found myself doing this one just to try to drive a point home — and the results are rarely good. If you find yourself wanting to use words like never or always in a heated debate, chances are you’re about to use the power of exaggeration to try to make your partner see your side of things.
Take for example: “You literally never consider my feelings when we’re making a decision” or “We always talk about your work at dinner and I’m sick of it.”
Doing this puts your partner in the mind frame to prove you wrong, and then you’re both talking about past instances in your relationship that have nothing to do with the present issue.
Instead, try a different approach and use “sometimes” or “often” type language to tell your partner how you feel, and propose a solution if you have one. “We’ve been talking about your work a lot lately — how about I share my day with you first?”
Just a few small edits to your dialogue can help make the communication clearer.
3. Be wary of second-person (“you”) accusations
When emotions are high and the anger is palpable, it’s probably the worst time to start “you-ing” your partner.
You aren’t doing enough around the house.
You aren’t being attentive to my needs in bed.
You’re driving me absolutely crazy right now.
If you find yourself going you, you, you all the way home during a heated domestic debate, it can immediately put your partner on the defensive, hurt their feelings, and make them want to lash out. Try instead explaining how you feel with an “I” statement.
“I think things are starting to get a little one-sided when it comes to the housework. I really need some help.”
4. Don’t withhold intimacy or use it as a bribe
Time for honesty: I’ve broken this one before. Plenty of times. But after experiencing a disastrous marriage, I've learned that withholding intimacy or awarding a partner with it eventually made our issues worse.
Doing so makes your physical relationship a bargaining chip. Intimacy should be about pure pleasure for all involved — a way to connect and enhance your bond.
If you find yourself often promising rewards or withholding them as punishment so that your partner will do something you want, then it’s time to look at the bigger, underlying issues simmering below the surface.
5. Avoid bringing up past relationship crimes
Though I think this has its place if the same problem keeps popping up again and again, bringing up past hurts shouldn’t be used as a weapon.
Maybe your partner cheated once before. You went to therapy, worked it out, and now they’re cheating again. In this case, that partner’s reputation for past indiscretion is going to be a factor of discussion — and that makes perfect sense.
But, if you bring up your partner’s cheating and how much it hurt you just because you want to deliver an underhanded jab during an argument that is completely unrelated, then you’re just using it as ammo to cause more pain.
Stay focused on the issue at hand, and, if it has nothing to do with the topic you’re fighting about, leave the past in the past so that you and your partner can concentrate on resolving the new conflict.
6. Beware that tired rule about “not going to bed angry”
I never, ever got on board with this one. Some of the most torturous moments of my marriage involved long, knock-down-drag-out fights with my husband when all we needed was to rest and recharge and approach the problem between us with a clear head.
Sometimes, things will be off, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to pow-wow about it for four hours when you both desperately need sleep before work the next day. Sleep deprivation makes us more on-edge and more likely to snap at our partners with hurtful remarks or actions.
Sure — sometimes you have to finish an argument or at least come to a neutral stopping point to even be able to calm down enough to sleep. But often, the need for shut-eye is only going to be counter-productive. Recognize when it’s time to take a break and call it quits for the evening. If you’ll sleep better on the couch because tension is too high, don’t be afraid to do that — and don’t be offended if your partner chooses that route. It’s all about respecting boundaries and finding a balance that works for your relationship.
7. Don’t avoid arguments altogether
A couple who cares enough to engage in an argument when there is disagreement cares enough to fight for happiness together.
While there’s something to be said for picking and choosing the important battles so you aren’t in a constant state of bickering, if you’re constantly shoving your feelings down to avoid any unpleasantness, they’re going to eventually bubble over.
Yes, you should acknowledge and consider your partner’s point of view, but you should also offer your own and be honest if it’s completely different. Open communication, even if you don’t like confrontation, is truly at the heart of every healthy relationship.
And yes, if you have kids, you should let them see that it’s okay to disagree. Unless the subject matter of the argument is totally inappropriate, teach your kids by talking out your issues in front of them sometimes. Show them how to do it fairly and with respect. When they have relationships of their own, their communication skills will be all the better because they saw their parents handle relationship conflict the right way.
8. Never use cut-throat communication tactics
These refer to the big bad behaviors that are NEVER okay. The serious relationship blips that inflict abuse, pain, and/or result in jail time.
At its best, this is cutting your partner off when it’s their turn to talk. Silencing them by telling them to shut up. Talking down to them. Lying to manipulate or gaslight them.
At its worst, it’s physical or mental abuse. It’s using force or threatening harm.
Ending the relationship or going to couple’s therapy is the way to go if you constantly find yourself in cut-throat arguments.
Fights happen in every relationship. They aren’t exactly a good time, but they can be valuable when we use them as an opportunity to learn about each other and get closer to one another.
Don’t be afraid to honestly and openly work through a disagreement — just don’t let your temper drive you to hurt your significant other.